The only thing John Urschel loves as much as math is football.
The 308-pound offensive guard for the Baltimore Ravens has spoken and written at length in defense of the game, in spite of what some see as its inherent violence. The feeling of laying “everything on the line,” he has said, is as wonderful as it may be addictive, a feeling that he’s “hard-pressed to find anywhere else.”
“I love hitting people,” he once wrote in The Players’ Tribune. “I’ve fallen in love with the sport of football and the physical contact associated with it.”
But even Urschel understands the dangers of the game, especially for young children. Ask him how long a child should wait before playing football, and he won’t blink.
“High school,” he told The Huffington Post when asked during a recent sit-down interview. “I think high school is the right age.”
“Before that, your body is not developed, your brain is not fully developed,” he continued. “If I had a child, I’m not letting him play football until high school.”
Urschel’s suggestion is in line with that of Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon at Boston University and one of the country’s premiere experts on concussion-related injuries. Cantu, who recommends children avoid tackle football through the age of 14, has said that the nerve fibers in young people’s brains are not yet fully coated, which leaves them more vulnerable to brain-related trauma than the fully developed mind.
A study earlier this year conducted by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine, which Cantu did not participate in, found evidence of more tangible effects, too. The study discovered that NFL players who started playing tackle football before age 12 performed "significantly worse" on cognitive tests than NFL players who started playing at age 12 or older.
Since the study only looked at former NFL players, the authors have cautioned against extrapolating the findings across the population as a whole. But all over the country, parents are questioning whether the rewards of playing football outweigh the risks. Multiple surveys have found that roughly half of all parents would prefer their children not play football. Pop Warner, the largest youth football program in the country, experienced a 9.5 percent drop in participation between 2010 and 2012, and participation has only leveled off since then.
But parents only have so much power to stop a child from doing what he or she loves, and Urschel is a prime example of that reality. In fact, he still regularly has discussions with his mother, who wishes he’d stop playing the game he loves.
“It’s like two brick walls trying to talk to each other,” he told HuffPost. “She’s never going to change her opinions and I’m never going to change mine.”
When HuffPost asked Urschel about Chris Borland, the former San Francisco 49ers linebacker who abruptly retired at age 24 earlier this year for fear of brain-related injury, he didn't waver.
“When a football player retires of his own decision, I’m happy for him,” he told HuffPost. “It means he’s accomplished things in football, he’s enjoyed his football career, but he’s recognized that it’s time for him to move on.”
“This is a beautiful thing and this is a good thing to be capable of,” he continued. “A lot of football players are not capable of this.”
And could Urschel, one of the NFL’s most brightest players, be counted among those who don’t realize it’s time to stop before it’s too late?
“I could very well be one of those people,” he said. “But everyone has their faults.”
This is Pt. 2 of our sit-down interview with John Urschel. To read Pt. 1, click here.