I'm John Urschel, MIT mathematics PhD student and retired NFL offensive lineman, here to answer your questions about math, football, chess, Fiona Apple, and whatever else you may be interested in!

Twitter proof

This AMA is in partnership with the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, California, organizers of the National Math Festival.

I'll start answering questions at 2pm, and end at 3.

EDIT (3 PM) - Thanks for all the great questions, Reddit! Sorry I couldn't get to them all, but you can find me on Twitter [@johncurschel]

Comments: 391 • Responses: 51  • Date: 

bambam_mcstanky2193 karma

What are some of the biggest flaws that you see in how math is currently taught in the US?

johncurschel498 karma

That's a tough question, that a lot of people have thought about for a lot longer than I have. But I think one of the biggest flaws of math being taught in the school is too much of a focus on memorization, and not enough of a focus on original quantitative thinking.

Skunk_03191 karma

What was your favorite class at PSU?

johncurschel249 karma

I took Theatre 100 (I think that was the number) and I loved it. Seeing actors perform in the class was very entertaining and quite different than anything I ever took.

AriBLN146 karma

Context: I studied computer science and now at 32 started a company in machine learning after working for 3 years. Also I am going back to university to to study mathematics and I have to manage a full course load and my company.

Question: I was wondering how you managed the training AND your course load. What was your typically daily routine like as an undergrad / a grad student? (I listened to the Freakonomics podcast where you explained this a bit but I would like some more details regarding undergrad/grad in specific :-))

johncurschel204 karma

Okay, so going into my schedule is going to take a little bit too much time, but I gave up a lot of things, socially and romantically.

_JukeEllington142 karma

Is Joe Flacco a Elite Quarterback?

johncurschel219 karma

The age old question! I know Trump stated his opinion. https://www.si.com/extra-mustard/2015/09/21/donald-trump-joe-flacco-elite-baltimore-ravens

So if you think Trump is brilliant and knows everything, Flacco must be elite. But if you think Trump is a fool and knows nothing, then I guess Flacco isn't really that elite after all :)

Tato706988 karma

I feel like you're saying Joe Flacco is sub par on the down low haha

johncurschel226 karma

Noooooo. Joe is awesome. Seriously. Plus once he bought me Hagoromo chalk for Xmas. If that isn't elite, I don't know what is.

msri-math89 karma

We might have an entire cabinet with a secret stash of Hagoromo chalk at MSRI - a mathematician's dream!

johncurschel93 karma


sop1232118 karma

In your opinion, who was the smartest player you played with or against in the NFL?

johncurschel224 karma

Duvernay-Tardif is a pretty smart guy, and I'm happy to call him a friend. If you don't know him, look him and his accomplishments up!

JanetYellensFuckboy114 karma


  1. As a Penn State alum, Harvard student, & mod of /r/PennStateUniversity, I just want to say:
    You're my hero.
    You—more than any other player I can think off—embody Success with Honor. You do our great university proud, will always be my favorite cfb player, and frankly, I hope to run into you in Cambridge!

  2. Q:

    Who are your heroes?

  3. also:

    WE ARE!

johncurschel135 karma


Thanks a lot! I've found that heroes don't need to be people who you see in the media, but often are just people around you. After all, we're all people. My hero is my mother. She made so many sacrifices when I was young to make sure I had every opportunity to become whatever I wanted to be.

mixedmath112 karma

Hi John!

I have a more mathematical interest. I understand that you research spectral graph theory. I wonder: why spectral graph theory? When you applied to MIT's math program, did you already know you were interested in spectral graph theory (or perhaps just in numerical analysis)?

johncurschel130 karma

I did do spectral graph theory before MIT, but I picked MIT because I saw a lot of brilliant people doing a lot of things that I thought were pretty cool. I wanted to broaden my horizons.

SovietMaxx105 karma

Are you actually a mad scientist who used football as a way to fund your Doomsday device? But really you are an inspiration to anyone keep being a genius.

johncurschel233 karma

How'd you know? But first Musk and I gotta get off this planet.

GoTomArrow104 karma

What offensive thing did you say to become an offensive lineman?

johncurschel268 karma

Fries actually do taste good with mayo.

roguebagel74 karma

Hi John, did the timing of your NFL retirement have anything to do with the NY Times CTE article? I recall it was the day after. Thanks

johncurschel103 karma

Hey, I more or less already talked about this in a USA today article and Freakonomics podcast this week. I think the podcast was pretty fun, and you should check it out.

banach_tarskoffee55 karma

Do you feel like you need to challenge the stereotype of what people think the typical math student is? Do you feel the urge to represent us and how diverse we are?

johncurschel93 karma

I don't feel the need, but I am proud to be one example of many that mathematicians come in all different forms.

djtonydrake52 karma

Obviously you're great at Math, but were there any subjects you struggled with in high school or college? If so, how did you overcome those struggles and get through those classes?

johncurschel115 karma

I really really struggled with things like History and Biology, where a lot of memorization is required. I tried my best, made lots of flash cards, but at the end of the day, I'm just much better at things that value understanding over memorization.

tmc02148 karma

Hi John, who was the hardest defensive lineman to block? College or NFL.

johncurschel99 karma


roguebagel45 karma

John what are your favorite white and black chess openings? Are you building a repertoire and/or how seriously will you pursue chess? Any more chess.com videos?

johncurschel87 karma

My favorite white opening is certainly the Catalan, and as black I'd have to say the Berlin. I don't like studying openings too much, and spend most of my time working on endings though. And yes, Danny and I are going to do Amateur Hour weekly on chess.com/tv

chipotle_burrito8845 karma

John, it is nothing short of impressive to balance pursuing an advanced degree at one of the nation's top institutions as well as playing a popular sport at the highest level. My question would be, if you had to pick one, do you think you're better at football or at math?

johncurschel115 karma

I'm so much better at math than football. I wouldn't consider myself extremely athletic or gifted. I spent so many hours working to improve as a football player. Even though I've had to work to improve as a mathematician, I started with a lot more natural ability.

dimplejuice43 karma

What linkages, if any, have you seen between math patterns/sequences and football strategy/playing?

johncurschel81 karma

I think you can look at a lot of football decision making, especially from the coaches' perspective in game theoretic terms. My dad actually wrote a paper on something related

JanetYellensFuckboy40 karma

What's your favorite meme?

rosulek39 karma

What's your favorite theorem (and/or favorite proof)?

johncurschel104 karma

Riemann rearrangement theorem is one of my favorites. It can be very shocking to a lot of people.

RingsAroundMars36 karma

What would you say to a young person who feels discouraged by how long it takes them to work through a math problem?

johncurschel82 karma

I would say that the more problems you solve, the better you get at it. And also that sometimes it takes me a really really long time to work through one. The best part is when you solve it though. Maybe focus on the joy of solving instead of the stress of the amount of time it took?

presto111235 karma

Hey John, Penn State alum here!

I heard you speak when you were a senior, just two months away from being drafted into the NFL and talk about your past hardships. During your time at State, you went through a huge culture shock with the sudden departure of Paterno and the exit of many of your teammates to other schools. Are there any lessons from your five years playing PSU football that are relevant to your tenure with the Ravens or your docterate candidacy at MIT??

johncurschel96 karma

I think the biggest thing I learned was to keep things in perspective. Sure, my teammates and I faced hardships, but it paled in comparison to the hardships that the victims faced.

isogonal-conjugate31 karma

Hi John!

At what age did you discover that you like mathematics? Did you participate in math competitions when you were young?

johncurschel57 karma

I always knew I liked puzzles, but I didn't fall in love with math fully until I got to college, and then it started to come together. I did compete in MathCounts when I was a kid. I wasn't very good though. I never made it out of NY State. I'm a slow thinker...

Ibn_Sharmuta27 karma

What made you pursue pure mathematics over an applied field such as physics or engineering?

johncurschel44 karma

So I actually think that the things I do have a happy medium between pure and applied. Everything I do I like doing from a theoretical perspective, but I do a lot of things that have many applications, like numerical analysis, machine learning, and combinatorial optimization. I think it's pretty cool to solve fun problems, even if there aren't any applications, but if there are, it's that much more satisfying!

MDLawSoHard227 karma

Can you honestly say you gave the Ravens your all? Especially last season when you were also taking classes?

johncurschel77 karma

Yes. I only did math the evening after the game and the off day. It more or less replaced relaxing and catching up on movies.

mimw25 karma

Hey John,

I coach youth football offensive line, what would you say is the biggest thing that I need to stress to them at a young age?

johncurschel38 karma

See what they hit.

pozzowon21 karma

Has anybody ever messed your last name and confused it with Steve Urkel?

johncurschel26 karma

More than you know...

logically21 karma

Can you "explain like I am 5" your math research?

johncurschel54 karma

I like solving puzzles. The harder, and the more beautiful, the better.

MalletsDarker19 karma

Hey John, huge Ravens fan here.

Just wondering what you'll miss the most about the NFL/Ravens, and what you'll miss the least :)

johncurschel42 karma

I think I'll really miss the comradery. It's hard to find outside of football. I definitely won't miss the feeling when I wake up Monday morning.

kcostell18 karma

What changes do you think will be made and/or need to be made in football (particularly at the youth through college levels), given recent research on the dangers of head injuries?

johncurschel49 karma

I think the biggest thing is pushing flag football for young kids. Give them time for their bodies to develop properly first. They'll have plenty of time to play when they hit middle or high school.

jsd235816 karma

What kind of dinosaur would you be?

johncurschel33 karma

When I was young, I actually wanted to be a dinosaur when I grew up. I wanted to be a T-Rex.


supes115 karma

Just listened to the Freakonomics podcast where you were interviewed extensively. Great job, really enjoyed hearing what you had to say.

How do you feel about the news stories linking your retirement so publicly to the CTE study? Are you comfortable being seen so publicly as an NFL player taking these concerns to heart? And with the attention you've brought to this matter? Or would you rather have just been able to retire quietly?

johncurschel25 karma

I think a quiet retirement would've been greatly preferred. It was a little too much attention for my liking.

flaccomcorangy14 karma

Hey John, I'm a Ravens fan, so I have followed your career fairly closely over the past few years.

One of your interviews really struck me when you said that you were ready to play after about 3 weeks, but it took longer until your mind was working the way it normally does. It made me think that NFL may not know half of what they should know about head injuries, and it could be just because it's a very complex subject.

What do you think about the NFL's attempts to reduce these injuries, and do you think the league is getting safer each year? And do you believe the NFL is truly doing all they can to make the league safer?

johncurschel20 karma

I think the NFL truly is going in the right direction. Every year I was in the league, practices were being changed to try to help player safety.


How much sleep do you recommend per day?

johncurschel22 karma

I sleep seven. But I think eight doesn't hurt.

jewcy8310 karma

Hey John,

PSU alum and current doctoral student in econ. I actually met with you when you gave a talk at my university in July of 2016. Unfortunately I had to take off to unpack, so I didnt get to hear your talk (my bad). Mathematics is closely linked to economics and its not uncommon for many economists to be infatuated with math. Are there any other fields that you find yourself admiring or fascinated with?

Thanks for being an all around down to earth guy and ambassador for math.

johncurschel31 karma

I really love physics. I started out in mathematical physics, and almost ended up working in quantum mechanics research for a time. My first paper was on a three body problem.

zigbig7910 karma

Hey John, I am a former o-lineman at western Illinois university and current equipment manager for them! Do you have any good stories about Ty Howel or coach fisher?

johncurschel23 karma

I do, but none that I can put on reddit (at least without Ty getting mad at me). I'll be there for the game on the 30th, so we can talk then.

SB12127 karma

Hello John, I have been following you since training days on ESPN. What kind of music do you listen to prepare you for an important mathematical equation?

johncurschel22 karma

Fiona Apple is always a solid choice. My musical preferences are pretty wide. Lately, one of my chess buddies introduced me to EDM, and it's not bad. I've been playing one of Solomun's remix albums lately. I like Late Night a lot.

coryrenton6 karma

which fellow pro football players struck you as having underrated intellectual potential, and given the concussion risks, might have been better off if they were given incentives to pursue something else?

johncurschel18 karma

I think the better off conversation is a tough one to have. For example, I fully believe that I'm better off for having played in the NFL.

phosphenTrip6 karma

Hey John, big fan! Congrats (or sorry?) on your retirement. I know you have the answer to this one.. does P=NP?? On another note, since it says on your page you are working on machine learning, what is your opinion on neural networks as taking the lead for many applications, given that it has the "more of an art-form" reputation? Thanks!

johncurschel18 karma

I think one of the toughest things in machine learning right now from a theoretical perspective is trying to justify rigorously why neural nets work so well, and why some parameters work better than others.

R_U_B_I_X5 karma

Whose the smarter ex-Raven: Matt Birk or yourself?

johncurschel29 karma

I don't know who's smarter, but in my opinion MIT is awesome. Definitely the best school in Cambridge ;)

MathnasiumofWoodmore5 karma

Hello John, I enjoyed meeting you at the Mathnasium convention a few year back. Will you ever return to the DMV area?

johncurschel27 karma

My mother lives in the DMV. So if I didn't, I think I'd be in some real trouble!

Frajer5 karma

What made you interested in mathematics?

johncurschel16 karma

I think one of my favorite things early on was the clarity of it. Either something is true or not (more or less).

MalletsDarker4 karma

Hi John, huge Ravens fan here..

Just wondering what you'll miss the most about the NFL/Ravens? And what you'll miss the least?


Bonus question: What was your routine when you were mid-season AND doing your PhD? It seems like it would be crazy!

johncurschel3 karma

So I think I more or less answered this above. In season it wasn't too bad. I was able to get my work done on my off day.

wadius3 karma

Hi John,

Do you use MCMC in your work? If so do you know of a good textbook?

johncurschel7 karma

I don't, but my favorite MC book is the one by Yuval. There's a good amount of MCMC in there, and other really cool stuff.

RoyMustangela2 karma

Hi John, have you been to the Muddy Charles yet? That place is great. Gonna try to get your Pirate's License?

johncurschel4 karma

Yes, I have frequented the Muddy. It's been a while though.

noether3241 karma

Are you interested in an academic career after your PhD or do you think you will try industry, government, or something else?

johncurschel10 karma

I think academics is the way to go, for me at least. But who knows.

blaugrana11 karma

The news that you were also taking full-time courses even during the regular season has not gone down well with some of us Ravens fans, including the ones at r/Ravens, given the inconsistency of the interior line over the season.

How did the organization react to it ? Was there ever a discussion about it after you retired ?

johncurschel27 karma

I think the biggest thing is what I do on my off day is largely my business. If somehow doing math on my off day is much worse than players who volunteer on their off day, or play video games, or just watch tv, then I guess it's a thing.