Urschel, alumnus team up to create scholarship

Note: This story originally appeared in AlumnInsider, the Penn State Alumni Association's monthly member e-newsletter.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Have you ever encountered a math problem that confused you, or came across an equation or algebraic topic that you didn’t quite understand? Sure, everyone has. Everyone except John Urschel, the two-time Penn State graduate and Academic All-American offensive lineman math genius who, during his career as a Nittany Lion, was honored with the James E. Sullivan Award and the William V. Campbell Award, two prestigious honors.

The Sullivan Award goes to the nation’s top amateur athlete — not just in football, but in all sports — while the Campbell Award recognizes a college football player who combines academic and athletic success with outstanding community leadership.

OK, perhaps there was a time when Urschel didn’t surgically dissect mathematical formulas, but if there was, it was early in life. Like in kindergarten. He tutored other students as far back as middle school and high school and continued helping others when he arrived at Penn State, tutoring many teammates as well as student-athletes from other teams.

The word around the University Park campus was that Urschel understood math like an expert and could communicate it in a way that made sense for others. Ever since he can remember, Urschel has helped bridge the gap between complex formulas and people eager to learn.

That trend continues, even as Urschel embarks on his professional football career. He’s now connecting with kids in the Baltimore community, where he plays professionally after the Ravens selected him in last year’s NFL draft.

“Math is something I've always been passionate about,” Urschel said, “and anything I can do to help inspire young people, and also help them understand how important math is, that’s always worth my time.”

Urschel has teamed with the Mathnasium of Roland Park, near the Ravens’ facility in Maryland, on a new scholarship program, which will award six-month scholarships to area high school students. Urschel will choose the inaugural honoree and personally notify the winner; the scholarship winner will also have a one-on-one tutoring session with Urschel.

Urschel-Mathnasium photo

After earning the prestigious James E. Sullivan Award and William V. Campbell Award while at Penn State, John Urschel continues to make a positive impact by creating a scholarship program for high school students in the Baltimore area.  

Image: Gregg Segal for ESPN

Same helping nature, just a different audience; but Urschel doesn’t mind. When asked about the opportunity that students will receive by working with him, he turned the question around and said it was he who had the great opportunity because he could work with the students and benefit from the interaction.

The Mathnasium-Urschel Scholarship will continue in the future, with Jim Trexler, Class of 1982, saying he hopes the program will recognize more than one person per year.

Trexler oversees the mathnasium as a franchise owner, and he didn’t have to go looking for help. Jim Ivler, Class of '90, represents Urschel and is an agent for Sportstars Inc., in New York City; he’s represented dozens of Penn State players over the years. Alex Stolls, Class of ’13, a marketing department associate in Ivler's company, strengthens the Penn State connection.

Stolls has worked with Sportstars for nearly the past year, and Urschel became a main focus of his once the company signed him. It’s unusual for a rookie offensive lineman to command that type of attention, Stolls said, but it made sense with Urschel’s unique blend of genius and athleticism.

Stolls uncovered the mathnasium while looking for ways that Urschel could help and correctly calculated the former Nittany Lion could lend some assistance while generating buzz and excitement for the facility.

Not the typical off-the-field opportunity Stolls and Ivler seek out for a player, but again, they weren’t dealing with just anybody.

“When you have a unique player, you have to get creative,” Stolls said. “It's worked out pretty well for everyone, and we're excited to see where it goes moving forward.”

Urschel and his team took the initiative since he was motivated to help in the community, and while Trexler hadn’t met Urschel before this collaboration, he certainly knew of him. So when Ivler called Trexler to gauge his interest, all he had to do was mention the lineman’s name.

“His agent started talking about this guy named John Urschel,” Trexler said, laughing a little. “I said, ‘You don't have to say anything else. This guy is all gold, and if there’s some way we can work something out, I'd love to.’”

Urschel spoke to students at the mathnasium a few months ago, discussing the significant impact his mother had on him growing up. She stressed the importance of academics and challenged Urschel, buying him math books that were geared toward older students when he was in elementary school.

Trexler said Urschel absolutely made an impact with the students, relaying how his mother, who was discouraged to continue her own education growing up, earned a college degree while making numerous sacrifices. Students and parents asked Urschel questions about his own career path, how math impacted his football career and whom he counts as his mentors (most notably, his mother).

“People were very impressed with how well he spoke, how thoughtful he was and how poised he was,” Trexler said. “Everybody was impressed with all of the aspects of his talk. John came across like a real genuine person. He’s certainly a very smart guy, very genuine and he knows how to relate to anybody.”

Urschel-Mathnasium photo

During one of his visits to the mathnasium, Urschel tutored some students and simply was one of the guys. He and the students also matched wits in a chess match; Urschel went up against five students, who collaborated and decided on every move while Urschel was on his own. A chess tournament that would include local schools is now in discussion.

Image: Mathnasium of Roland Park

During his talk, Urschel said that Trexler is going about teaching math the right way; namely, he makes it a fun learning experience. It’s also an environment in which Urschel feels comfortable. During a previous visit to the mathnasium, Urschel tutored some students and simply was one of the guys. He and the students also matched wits in a chess match; Urschel went up against five students, who collaborated and decided on every move while Urschel was on his own. A chess tournament that would include local schools is now in discussion.

For Trexler, the mathnasium project aligns with his background. He’s always been a teacher. He coached lacrosse and also taught graduate-level statistics and probability classes at Penn State and is a former health and physical education teacher.

“I know that if you don't have fun doing what you're doing, you're not going to keep doing it,” Trexler said. “We make it essential that they have a fun aspect to what they're doing. Our motto is, ‘Work hard, play hard, and get better.’ We live and breathe it every day.”

Trexler didn’t ask Urschel to speak so highly about the program to the students — Urschel did that on his own — but it’s not surprising considering how the math genius examines his craft.

In football terms, it’s not just about winning or making a pancake-block that leads to a touchdown. Urschel places a lot of importance on how he (and others) reach their mathematical conclusions. What steps are needed? What’s the best way to get there? What questions do you ask yourself, and how do you answer them?

The way that Urschel frames his approach has him using an instinctive method that also includes understanding what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

“It’s not just about what the problem is, it’s about the process, it’s about the active thinking — that’s what math boils down to,” Urschel said. “It doesn't really matter if a kid in high school remembers all his trigonometry problems when he's 30 or 40. What is important is they remember the thought processes that they learned and developed when they were learning math, and learning how to think through problems with lots of variables.”

Urschel teaming with the mathnasium is just one example of how busy he’s been in his rookie season. He recently wrote a column for The Players’ Tribune, the player-managed sports website created by Derek Jeter, the long-time New York Yankee shortstop who just retired. Urschel authored an article on advanced stats for the site, which features columns written by athletes on a variety of topics. He also spoke at a national STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) conference last year in Washington, D.C.

And when Ivler stopped by the Hintz Family Alumni Center a few weeks ago to discuss this project, he mentioned that Urschel was (at the same moment) speaking to about 250 students at a local high school in Owings Mill, Maryland, close to the Ravens’ practice facility.

The subject, not surprisingly, was math. Urschel wasn’t paid for the appearance or for his work with the scholarship program, and there are certainly other things he could be doing with his time. But as he said, anytime he can make an impact with students and young people, he wants to seize that opportunity.

“I've always believed that I've been blessed to be in a great situation where I can be a positive role model,” Urschel said. “I'm passionate about math, and I want to share my love of it with other people and help them with it, too.”

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Last Updated January 22, 2015