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July 19, 2013This story appears in our upcoming preseason edition of Blue White Illustrated magazine.
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By Nate Bauer
Blue White Illustrated
John Urschel cringes when he hears the word.
Only a month away from the start of his final season as a Penn State student-athlete, Urschel has grown accustomed to seeing that adjective applied to his academic pursuits. In only three calendar years, he finished his undergraduate degree in mathematics with a 4.0 grade point average. In the year that followed, he earned his master's degree, compiling another 4.0 GPA.
Most students on Penn State's sprawling University Park campus would envy his transcript. But to Urschel, the reality doesn't match the description.
"I don't really like it. I'm not a fan," he said, choosing each word carefully. "I wouldn't really call myself perfect or even very close to perfect. This is going to sound strange, but I feel like sometimes I'm imagined as someone who is superhuman, who does these ridiculous things and doesn't have normal problems. I have the same problems that everyone else does.
"Honestly, I'm just a regular guy. I like math. I like football. I like doing well at the things I do, so I work hard and I try my best."
Urschel earned CoSIDA Academic All-America recognition following the 2012 season, and if he has a strong senior campaign at right guard, he could very well earn the National Football Foundation's prestigious William V. Campbell Trophy, which goes to the country's top student-athlete.
In the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the Freeh report and the imposition of severe NCAA sanctions, Urschel's sterling academic record stands as a sharp rebuttal to charges that the university has emphasized football success over academics. For a university and community that are eager to rehabilitate their image, Urschel is the elixir, and his story has been presented as the embodiment of Penn State's ultimate ideal.
He has taken part in its Faces of Penn State public relations campaign and has an individual profile on the campaign's website detailing his many accomplishments. He also appears in a frequently aired TV commercial and on a banner on South Allen Street in downtown State College. It would not be an understatement to refer to Urschel as Penn State's poster child.
And while he's uncomfortable with the notoriety his high-profile role has brought him, he has found a way to embrace its most idealistic aspects. "I accept the responsibility and I think it's an honor. This is a great university," he said. "I like the idea of being able to help my university out, because it's done so much for me. I'm helping them out a little bit, but this university has done tons for me. It just doesn't even compare, so I'm very grateful for the opportunity.
"If it helps our football team, I'm going to do it. If it helps the university, I'm going to do it."
But the storyline is an oversimplification. No PR blitz could ever do justice to the complexity of Urschel's personal journey.
Urschel's father, Dr. John D. Urschel, a retired former section chief of general thoracic surgery at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said that while his son has smiled willingly through the campaigns and photo ops, the portrait that has emerged is not entirely accurate.
"He's not a person who delights in having his picture up on posters. That's not who he is," Urschel Sr. said. "He would prefer to receive attention just because he's good at playing football, rather than receive attention for these other issues. He feels it's his responsibility to the school to do his part. If they want to use his story to their advantage, he's going to say, 'Sure.' But to be honest, he grows weary of it. You can only have so many articles and stories about how he's a smart guy. It gets tiresome.
"He's just looking forward to the day when this isn't the story anymore, when the story might be that he's a good football player, and that's it."
These days, Urschel stands a robust 6-foot-3, 307 pounds. His arms are so thick it looks as though the sleeves might tear away from the rest of his shirt. His genial demeanor negates the intimidating aura that big men sometimes project. But on the football field, it's a different story. He's a fierce competitor obsessed with perfecting his technique.
This hasn't always been the story. He was an unheralded prospect coming out of Canisius High in Buffalo, N.Y., in the winter of 2009. Rivals.com gave him two stars, and he was the second-to-last player to accept a scholarship offer from Penn State when he made his announcement in January of that year. He signed his letter of intent just weeks later, becoming the seventh offensive lineman in a class that was loaded with three- and four-star talent.
"People told me I wasn't going to be good," said Urschel, who was favoring Princeton before he received Penn State's offer. "It's not like I go out and read the news, but I see things. Coming into Penn State, people didn't think I was going to be good at football. People were like, 'Who did Penn State just offer? Why waste a scholarship?' "
Western New York didn't have a reputation for producing quality football players, so Urschel wasn't offended by the slights. And besides, once practice got under way, fan and media expectations meant nothing. Urschel quietly earned a spot on the two-deep his first training camp, then followed his redshirt year with limited playing time in his first season of action.
By his redshirt sophomore season, he was splitting time at guard with DeOn'tae Pannell. Urschel would take the second and fourth quarters, while Pannell would take the first and third. His father was concerned that his football career had stalled and encouraged him to seek a transfer. But Bill O'Brien had made a good first impression after his hiring as head coach, and Urschel decided to stay.
He has added more than 15 pounds of lean muscle since the arrival of strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, a rare feat among offensive linemen in college football. Perhaps even more important, he took his commitment to football to another level leading into the 2012 season. That commitment paid off, as he went on to start all 12 games for the Nittany Lions. And after the season, he received first-team All-Big Ten recognition from the conference coaches - a stirring moment of validation for all his work.
"You always hear evaluations from your own staff, from your own position coach telling you how good he thinks you are. Your head coach will sit down, talk to you, tell you how good he thinks you are. But a lot of times, that's different from how everyone else thinks you are," Urschel said. "I was very, very honored to get that. That might be my No. 1 accomplishment to date, or very close to it, certainly as a football player, and maybe overall."
If that sounds counterintuitive, bear in mind that football has challenged Urschel in a way that his classes have not. "A lot of man hours have gone into football over the years," he said. "A lot of hard work, dedication, perseverance, and to see the results of that is very, very fulfilling.
"That same struggle didn't happen academically. I've really worked to improve my game, really worked to be a good football player. I'm very, very pleased that I got that honor. It meant a lot to me, and I still have to play well this season, but that meant a lot to me and that's the honor that I take the most pride in. The 4.0 and stuff, that's just me going to class, doing what I'm good at."
While he was developing himself into a full-time starter, Urschel began to think about delaying his entry into a Ph.D. program. He was sure to be accepted at a prestigious school, an MIT or a Princeton or a Stanford. But could he make it to the NFL?
He was working with experienced coaches in O'Brien and offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, and they were reinforcing his confidence. He was also getting advice from his close friend and former teammate Stefen Wisniewski, now a third-year starting center with the Oakland Raiders.
Wisniewski thought he had NFL potential, so Urschel started taking steps to ensure that he was peaking athletically. One of those steps was to lighten his academic load this summer in hope of freeing up time for football training.
Said Urschel, "I'm consciously recognizing where I think I want my next accomplishments and achievements to be. I'm structuring my life and planning accordingly, so I'm focusing this summer on football. I'm really just ramping up my dedication level. I'm trying to spend every hour I can on football - training, working out, making sure I'm the best that I can be."
Urschel has become so identified with academic pursuits that it's disarming to hear him talk about rearranging his priorities. This, after all, is a student who declined a mentor's recommendation that he apply for a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. But if he's proven anything during the past four years, it's that he can multitask.
"The focus has definitely shifted. I think that's OK," he said. "I have my undergrad and my master's degrees. I've gotten my education. I think it's OK to shift my focus. I think it's acceptable. I'd like to think so."
His parents, friends, teammates and coaches seem to think so, too.
"He's definitely got that kind of ability, strength, athleticism and intelligence on the football field - apart from his academic intelligence," Wisniewski said. "He's a really hard-working guy and he's really committed to becoming the best player he can be. I certainly see him as a guy who can play in the NFL for a while."
For now, Urschel is preparing for the next step on that journey: a strong senior season at Penn State. Everything else can wait.
"He only has one thing to worry about now, and it's a real relief to him, for the time being, just to worry about this one thing - football - and do well with it," Urschel Sr. said. "He just can't wait for the summer to be over.
"He's enjoying his summer in terms of not having these other headaches, but he's also enjoying it because he can see the real action is just about to start."
Welcome to Blue White Illustrated's annual preseason football issue!
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Now, let's take a look at what's in our special preseason issue!
2013 Football Preview
Bill O'Brien Q&A - BWI editor Nate Bauer caught up with Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien this month for an exclusive one-on-one interview to get a grasp on the NIttany Lions as they enter his second preseason camp at the helm. How is he feeling as Season Two quickly approaches? Find out, here!
Phil's Corner - Blue White Illustrated publisher Phil Grosz is back for yet another year as the helm. This year, he explains why Penn State has the talent to maintain its momentum during the 2013 season. Don't miss his expert analysis leading into the season, here!
Lights, Camera, Action! - The sanctions have undoubtedly hurt Penn State, but with Bill O'Brien at the helm, the Nittany Lions remain one of college football's greatest draws, Blue White Illustrated editor Matt Herb writes.
Game Changer - His commitment helped the Nittany Lions regain their recruiting mojo during a time of upheaval. Now, Christian Hackenberg looks to make an even bigger impact on the field, BWI special contributor Ryan Jones writes.
Wait's Over - BWI editor Matt Herb focuses on the unknown firepower in Penn State's arsenal leading into the 2013 season, redshirt freshman wide receiver Eugene Lewis. Can he lend a hand this fall in Penn State's new high-powered offense?
Hold on tight - Penn State's tight end explosion during the 2012 season was just one of many highlights for the Nittany Lions' offense. With every contributor back for this season, BWI contributor Eric Thomas checks in on the expectations moving forward.
Rise and Shine - Motivated to win the starting defensive end position opposite Deion Barnes, redshirt junior C.J. Olaniyan is ready for his opportunity to excel, BWI's Tim Owen writes.
The Road Back - Injuries slowed linebacker Ben Kline last fall, but as Owen writes here, he's expected to be a key contributor - if not a starter - in the Nittany Lions linebacking corps this season.
Safety Dance - Stationed at a new position, Adrian Amos is looking to leave opponents empty-handed, BWI editor Nate Bauer writes.
Boom Times - Rounding out our position-by-position look at the Nittany Lions heading into the 2013 season, BWI editor Matt Herb catches up with senior punter Alex Butterworth as he embarks on what he hopes will be his best season yet.
BWI 2013 Big Ten Preview
From a game-by-game breakdown to special contributor Lou Prato's look at the Nittany Lions' first foray in the conference, we've got the Big Ten covered.
Class of 2014 continues to expand
Blue White Illustrated recruiting analyst Ryan Snyder has the latest on the verbal commitments of quarterback Michael O'Connor, defensive back Troy Vincent, and defensive tackle Antoine White, pushing the class of 2012 to 13 members. He also takes a look at what's left on the Nittany Lions' recruiting board.
These are just some of the stories featured in this special Blue White Illustrated 2013 Preseason Penn State Football Issue.
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