The smartest player in the NFL just made the smartest decision of his life.
Baltimore Ravens center and math genius John Urschel announced he is walking away from pro football at 26 years old, with his beautiful mind intact we hope. His decision came two days after the latest damning medical report that found 99% of NFL players’ brains studied tested positive for the degenerative brain injury called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Urschel is too smart to continue ignoring what the rest of us choose not to believe. Urschel is far too sharp to continue to endanger himself playing a game that is clearly dangerous. He is too smart to keep putting his mind and his body at risk simply because of his one-sided love for the game.
“This morning John Urschel informed me of his decision to retire from football,” Ravens head coach Harbaugh said in a statement. “We respect John and respect his decision. We appreciate his efforts over the past three years and wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”
Urschel is too smart to keep playing and, as one of the brightest minds in the country, has the option to quit. If the smartest guy in the league decides football is too dangerous, when are the rest of us going to realize the same thing?
Baltimore Ravens guard John Urschel retired from the NFL at just 26 years old.
(Gene J. Puskar/AP)
In some circles, Urschel will be painted as a coward, walking away from a game so many people would give their lives to play. He walks away not in fear, but of sound mind and body, clearly showing that his intelligence isn’t singularly measured by IQ points and advanced degrees and miles-long math equations he has the ability to see and unlock.
Urschel is a PhD candidate in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He’s had nine research papers published. He is the NFL’s version of Good Will Hunting, a gifted mathematician who plans to work with data compression long after his playing days are over, who keeps a blackboard in his bedroom like some people leave a notebook on their bedside table for middle-of-the-night brainstorms.
“He is the best master’s student that I have ever had,” Penn State professor Ludmil Zikatanov told the MIT Technology Review earlier this year for a profile on the school’s prized pupil. “He works hard, all the time.”
HBO Real Sports profiled Urschel earlier this year and marveled about how someone with such a valuable head on his shoulders continued to put his mind at risk playing such a violent game.
John Urschel (r.) plays chess against U.S. National Chess Champion Fabiano Caruana (l.) onstage at the Liberty Science Center’s Genius Gala 5.0 on May 20, 2016.
(Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Liberty Science)
“I recognize that this is somewhat irrational, but I am doing it,” Urschel said. “It’s more important to me that I’m able to do the two things I love. I don’t know if people have really done things that I’ve done before. I don’t know if they’ll do it after me. But I enjoy carving out my own path and not listening to what people say I can and I can’t do.”
On Thursday, Urschel made the best, smartest decision of his life. It was clearly a decision he has been thinking about for some time.
Two years ago, Urschel wrote a story for the Players Tribune titled “Why I Still Play Football.” The column opens with the line, “I envy Chris Borland.”
Borland was a ferocious linebacker for the 49ers who decided to retire in 2015 as a 24-year-old because he was concerned about the long-term effects playing football would have on his brain. In the two years since Borland’s decision, more evidence has been published by brain doctors, including when Jeff Miller, the NFL’s vice president of health and safety, told a congressional hearing “certainly yes,” there is a connection between football collisions and CTE.
John Urschel will no longer be going up against NFL defensive ends such as the Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul.
Despite all the evidence pointing to the health risks associated with playing pro football, Urschel explained why he still played.
“I play because I love the game,” he said. “I love hitting people. There’s a rush you get when you go out on the field, lay everything on the line and physically dominate the player across from you. This is a feeling I’m (for lack of a better word) addicted to, and I’m hard-pressed to find anywhere else. My teammates, friends and family can attest to this: When I go too long without physical contact I’m not a pleasant person to be around. This is why, every offseason, I train in kickboxing and wrestling in addition to my lifting, running and position-specific drill work. I’ve fallen in love with the sport of football and the physical contact associated with it.
“Simply put, right now, not playing football isn’t an option for me,” Urschel wrote. “And for that reason, I truly envy Chris Borland.”
Times have changed. This week, Urschel no longer has to envy Borland or any of the other players who have decided their minds, their health, and their futures are far more important than playing football.
On Thursday, the smartest man in football made the smartest decision of his life.