As John Urschel prepared to lead Penn State’s offensive line, the outside perception of Penn State Football could not have been any worse. Marred by the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, there were few outside of State College who would even think of uttering a single nice thing about the program, including the student-athletes, who like at so many programs at so many levels across the nation, were simply there to better themselves while continuing to play the sport they love.
It became widely assumed that Penn State’s reputation for doing things the right way was just a sham- they were no different than the football factories throughout the nation who won at all costs, collecting championships while players regularly found their way into the police blotter, with a small amount earning a meaningful degree before moving on. Because of the atrocious actions of a few that occurred when the current team members were in preschool, the players abilities and standing off the field were called into question. The success with honor mantra that came from the Grand Experiment went out the window.
But to those who remained close to the program, they knew the high standards that set Penn State apart had always been in place. And perhaps no other player exemplified this more than offensive lineman John Urschel.
As a budding math genius, Urschel had his pick of the most prestigious universities in the U.S. He eventually ended at Penn State, as it offered the best of both worlds- the chance to shine on the gridiron while having top-notch programs that would allow him to fulfill his long and impressive list of academic achievements. While the Academic All-American honors piled up as expected, Urschel demonstrated his immense ability by publishing his work in prestigious academic physics journals and teaching calculus classes to undergraduates- all while still an NCAA athlete.
Seriously, who among us can even begin to understand his contributions to the academic world?
When NCAA president Mark Emmert made his infamous comment that the sanctions were set in place “to make sure the university establishes an athletic culture and daily mindset in which football will never again be placed ahead of education,” he clearly didn’t have Urschel- or many of his past and present teammates in mind.
While the media continued to one-up one another to share their misplaced disdain, Urschel continued to be an extraordinary ambassador for the many positive things about the program that had been left for dead.
Despite entering Penn State as a lightly recruited two-star prospect, Urschel developed into one of the Big Ten’s best offensive lineman as an upperclassman in 2012 and 2013. While those outside of Penn State buried the program, Urschel was among the primary leaders who helped the team achieve two mostly unexpected winning seasons. He then entered the NFL as a fifth-round pick by Baltimore, and once again exceeded expectations by working his way into a starting role by the end of his rookie season.
Urschel may have received notoriety for being a standout on the football field who also happened to be a mathematical genius. But when it’s all said and done, his life as a football player will likely be a small footnote in his overall story. However, for those from the Penn State community who were able to follow Urschel from the start, he will always be known as the perfect example of a Penn State student-athlete just when the program desperately needed one the most.