Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel announced his abrupt, unexpected retirement from the NFL Thursday at the age of 26. The announcement comes just two days after the results of the medical study found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (better known of CTE) in nearly 99 percent of the brains studied.
Keep in mind, that in this study, the brains donated were done so because of multiple concussions or troubling symptoms before the player died. The study was not a random sampling of football players; however, it does raise many more questions regarding CTE and a player’s potential risk.
While the study found evidence of the disease in the deceased players, it doesn’t address anything but the presence of the disease. There were no footnotes on the various players’ possible genetic risk, how many years they played, or their lifestyles. It is unclear how many years of football is too many; how many concussions is too many; or how things such as drugs, alcohol, steroids, and diet might affect the impact of CTE on the brain.
What the study does show, however, is how little we still understand about the disease. Clearly, more studies are much needed. And, if there’s a way to detect it before the player is dead, maybe we can find a way to slow or prevent it.
The study was still enough to push Urschel over the edge. Or maybe the timing is just a crazy coincidence. Urschel hasn’t told us yet. He informed the Ravens of his decision without making a public statement.
“This morning, John Urschel informed me of his decision to retire from football,” said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. “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.”
While it isn’t clear if the concussion crisis is what made him call it quits, Urschel was set to compete for the starting job at center this season; however, he is more well known for his pursuit of a doctorate in spectral graph theory, machine learning, and numerical linear algebra at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this offseason. Yes, he’s an offensive lineman and a mathematical genius. Quite the unique combination.
Urschel has appeared in a number of NFL promotional ads and commercials including one where he beats an entire classroom of kids in individual chess games simultaneously.
Earlier this year, Urschel appeared on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” to talk about balancing his passion for football and his passion for math even though the first poses head trauma risks that could compromise the second.
“I recognize that this is somewhat irrational, but I am doing it,” said Urschel. “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 path and not listening to what people say I can, and I can’t do.”
Urschel is a smart guy. He knows what he’s getting into. He’s been playing for years, after all. He did have an eye-opening experience in August 2015, however, when he went helmet-to-helmet with another player, suffering a concussion and being knocked unconscious. The experience had a clear impact on his ability to think critically in the field of mathematics.
“I think it hurt my ability to think well mathematically,” said Urschel. “It took me about three weeks before I was football-ready. It took me a little bit longer before my high-level visualizations ability came back.”
With Urschel’s retirement, the Ravens have now lost five players since June 1, in a span of less than 60 days. Tavon Young, an offensive starter last season, tore his ACL on June 1. Tight end Dennis Pitta suffered what will most likely prove to be a career-ending hip injury the following day on June 2. Darren Walker, the Ravens’ backup tight end and one of their better special teams players, was suspended for the year on June 30 for violations of the league’s substance abuse policies. Kenneth Dixon, the Ravens’ top running back, went under the knife for season-ending knee surgery Tuesday.
And now there’s Urschel. And this list doesn’t include quarterback Joe Flacco, who could miss up to six weeks with back issues.
Not the best way to kick off a season that’s still a month away.
Urschel, however, will be just fine. At 26, he has his whole life in front of him, and he was recently named to the Forbes “30 Under 30” list in the field of science. Urschel has published six peer-reviewed mathematical papers covering a number of topics and fields, and he has three papers awaiting review.