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John Urschel and Louisa Thomas: a story of writing, football and Buffalo

Erik Brady

WASHINGTON — John Urschel was among the best stories in sports when Grantland sports writer Louisa Thomas began working on a profile of the math savant from Buffalo.

Thomas met with Urschel, then an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, several times, but she did not write that profile. Instead, she told her editors she’d have to bow out, for reasons personal and professional.

“I prefer the story as it turned out,” she says, “rather than the story I was planning to write.”

Today Urschel and Thomas are married with a 18-month-old daughter and a 6-week-old book. "Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football" is the remarkable story of Urschel’s parallel journeys to the disparate destinations of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the National Football League.

Getting to either place is a long shot in life. Blocking behemoths for the Ravens while pursuing a Ph.D. at MIT at the same time, well, the odds against that are astronomical. You’d need mad math skills — Urschel-level math skills — to calculate a proposition as outlandish as that.

Urschel and Thomas are seated on a bench sipping coffee outside a Starbucks in Washington, D.C., talking about the book they wrote together. It is one day before they will sign books at Politics and Prose, a top-shelf Washington bookstore.

“It was easy for us to work closely together because we live closely together,” Thomas says. “It was organic. We didn’t have to schedule time, we could just talk all the time.”

Urschel’s story is well-known in Buffalo, so I’m asking more questions of Thomas — who, as it turns out, has Buffalo roots of her own — and that pleases Urschel, who gets most of the questions on their book tour.

“I have to say I’m enjoying this, just hanging out playing chess,” he says with his cellphone open to a chess app. “Call on me when I’m needed.”

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So what about their meet cute, as it’s known in rom-coms?

“Oh, yeah, I was feeling her early on,” Urschel says.

Thomas audibled out of the profile, she says, “when it became clear we might have a more personal story to explore.”

Grantland, the eminent ESPN website where she worked at the time, closed later that year, but by then Thomas had established herself as a sports writer of the top rank. Today she is a regular contributor to the New Yorker.

The former NFL lineman and the literary sports writer — the pro and the prose — seem, in some respects, like natural opposites. He is big (6 feet, 3 inches, listed at 300 pounds when he played). She is petite. He is a man of numbers. She is a woman of words.

So, opposites attract? They dismiss this cliched notion at first, but on second thought Urschel thinks maybe there’s something to it.

“I’m much more intense,” he says.

“That’s true,” she says.

“I’m much more assertive,” he says.

“And much more competitive,” she says.

“Oh, much more competitive,” he says.

Louisa Thomas and John Urschel signing books at Politics and Prose, a bookstore in Washington, D.C. (Erik Brady/Buffalo News)

The smiles of recognition and equanimity that come with this exchange suggest their differences are of the complementary kind — and in some cases not really differences at all.

“The way he talks about math is creative and imaginative,” Thomas says. “He feels deeply about it, and I feel deeply about words and writing. There is a commonality there.”

Urschel played three seasons for the Ravens. He retired two years ago amid much public focus on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the degenerative brain disease linked to concussions. Thomas says she supported whatever he chose because when he played he understood the risks and accepted them.

But did she accept them?

“Well, I think if you talk to any person who loves someone who plays football, there are always going to be concerns,” she says, “because it is a dangerous game.”

Urschel was at Canisius High School Friday and Saturday for a youth camp designed to demonstrate techniques to take the head out of football. Kansas City Chiefs lineman Ryan Hunter, another Canisius grad, joined him.

Concerns about CTE played into Urschel’s decision to retire, but other factors played in as well. He’d loved football at Canisius, where he played it for the first time, and at Penn State, where he treasured the camaraderie of college, but he’d found at the professional level that football was more of a job. Besides, he already had begun work on that doctorate at MIT and now he could get to the finish line faster.

He expects to have his doctoral degree at this time next year, then plans postdoc research for a year or two before becoming a college professor. Where doesn’t matter to Thomas. “My office is my laptop,” she says.

For now they live in Cambridge, Mass., the home of MIT. It’s also the home of Harvard, where as a student Thomas fell hard for the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Now she “infuses her writing with alliteration, sibilance and rhythm,” literary tactics associated with Stevens, according to an appraisal in Peninsula Press, a project of the Stanford Journalism Program.

“I love language,” Thomas says.

It’s no wonder: She was born with ink in her veins. Her father is Evan Thomas, the author and historian and a former editor at Newsweek. And his father was a noted book editor at HarperCollins and W.W. Norton & Company.

Her father’s mother grew up in Buffalo and always cited it as her hometown, even long after she’d married and moved away. She was the daughter of Thomas Robins Jr., an inventor who ran the Hewitt-Robins Rubber Co. in Buffalo, and Louisa Winslow Robins, a noted Buffalo artist in the mid-20th century. The Albright-Knox holds some of her work in its collection.

Mathematician and retired professional NFL lineman John Urschel autographs his book for guests during the Liberty Science Center Genius Gala 8 at Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. (Getty Images)

A standing-room crowd greets Urschel and Thomas at the book signing. They speak for more than the allotted hour. Urschel tells the audience that the original book proposal was much more about math but that Penguin Press, the publisher, asked for more football and fewer formulae.

Penguin published Thomas’s other two books: 2017’s "Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams," a biography of the wife of John Quincy Adams, and 2011’s "Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family — a Test of Will and Faith in World War I," which focuses in part on Norman Thomas, her great-grandfather and a six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America.

“She’s in the Penguin family,” Urschel says. “We didn’t shop our book anywhere else.”

Family is much in evidence at the book signing. Urschel’s mother is in from Buffalo and Thomas’s mother from a neighborhood not far from the bookstore.

Urschel was "Mr. Canisius" at Canisius High School.

Urschel thinks of himself as a Buffalo guy. He is also “Mr. Canisius,” an honor bestowed on him as a senior for exemplifying school ideals. He calls it one of the great honors of his life.

“Canisius is where I began to figure out what it means to be a man in this world,” he says, “and a man for others.”

He praises his beloved university, too. “I will always be a Penn Stater,” he says. “It’s a place that molded me into who I am today.”

Thomas isn’t surprised that her husband is true to his schools. “He is a very loyal guy,” she says.

They visit Buffalo frequently. “I told him, ‘I don’t like Buffalo wings,’ ” Thomas says. “And then — what is the place where we went?”

Duff’s, where she found out, yes, she did like them. Now she understands why her husband is never satisfied with any wings found outside Western New York.

“He has a love of real Buffalo wings,” she says, “but not of fake Buffalo wings.”

That’s something on which we all can agree, even those of us who aren’t genuine geniuses.

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