When Penn State graduate and 2014 NFL prospect John Urschel tried out for his middle school football team, he didn't make it. It wasn't that his skills were lacking, it was just that his head was too big. And no, it wasn't the stereotypical "big head" you might normally associate with a standout athlete. It was just literally too big. No helmet would fit.
If we determined our sports superstars based on a combination of sports skills and academic prowess, John Urschel would be the undisputed #1 pick in this year's NFL draft. In addition to being selected as a first-team All-Big Ten guard, he recently completed both bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics at Penn State, graduating with a 4.0 GPA. As a senior, he won the William V. Campbell Trophy, presented by the National Football Foundation to the nation's top football scholar-athlete, and this month he became the 84th annual Sullivan Award winner for the top amateur athlete in the country, joining past big-name winners Peyton Manning, Tim Tebow, Michael Phelps and Michelle Kwan. If that wasn't impressive enough, during his last year at Penn State he taught a trigonometry class to undergraduates while fulfilling all his obligations to his team and also published a paper, "Instabilities of the Sun-Jupiter-Asteroid Three Body Problem," in the journal Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy. John Urschel is, justifiably, a big deal.
Even as a kid, it was obvious John was headed for great things. His mother, Venita Parker, set high academic standards for her son, and John made it his mission to meet them. A first generation college graduate and single mom, Venita felt it was her duty to make sure John filled every part of that giant, helmet-averse head with as much math and science as he could. She bought math and science workbooks two to three levels above his current grade and expected him to complete the work. At parent-teacher conference nights, even with John's 96 percent average, she complained to the teachers that she was unsatisfied and asked what John needed to do to receive a perfect score. A 96 was good, but he could do better.
John's football career began when he received a scholarship to Buffalo's Canisius High School, known for its rigorous academic program and nationally recognized sports teams. It was not a football scholarship. John had yet to play even a single down since his failure to make the team back in middle school. Fortunately, Canisius was well equipped to deal with players of all head sizes. John was chosen for the football team and quickly became a standout player. He distinguished himself on the field and in the classroom, and by his senior year, Penn State had come calling with a football scholarship.
And here we are, five years later. As news outlets profile the athletes in the upcoming NFL draft and shower attention on those players with the best times in the 40 and highest weight on the bench press, it is worth acknowledging that John's formidable academic achievements stand out as an anomaly on the stat pages. John is a rare breed of scholar-athlete, one we can only hope will become far more common in future years -- and if John has any say, it will.
John the athlete, John the scholar, is also John the communicator. He understands that his long list of impressive accomplishments and public persona make him a role model for rising mathletes and children across the country. Over the past years, as our society has put the spotlight on athletes and people like Michael Vick, the Kardashians, Justin Beiber and others who contribute the worst possible examples for our children, we should make sure to highlight and celebrate those like John Urschel who will impact our world far beyond an NFL career.
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