Back to School

When I was in high school I wanted to be Jake Long, the tackle for the Michigan Wolverines.

My mother wanted me to be an aeronautical engineer — a rocket scientist.

My mother wanted me to go to MIT. She wanted it so badly that, knowing I was intent on playing football, she called MIT’s coach and asked him to recruit me. She even offered to send him my game film. The coach was a little confused. No game film necessary, he explained. The team didn’t make cuts. If I wanted to play, all I had to do was show up to practice.

In February, seven years later, I finally showed up to practice at MIT.

I had just begun a Ph.D. program in mathematics. Attending graduate school at MIT had always been a dream of mine, but one that I imagined I would have to postpone until I was done playing professional football. But after the end of my rookie season in the NFL in 2014, my decision to put off grad school began to eat away at me. I had always prided myself on not sacrificing football for math, or math for football. And yet, during my first offseason, when I was honest with myself, I knew I wasn’t pushing myself to become the best mathematician I could be. I had more to learn. I wanted to grow. So I applied.

Of course, my schedule presented problems. When school began last September I was studying the Ravens playbook instead of partial differential equations. Fortunately, some of the most creative, intelligent and driven people I have ever met are at MIT. The people in the admissions office read my work and spoke with my professors; they knew I belonged there. They are in the business of solving tough problems. Figuring out my schedule was nothing compared to, say, solving NP-hard problems in polynomial time. If I couldn’t come in the fall, I could start in the spring. If I needed to train, no problem — MIT has a football team.

Which is how I found myself running sprints on Monday mornings this spring with the Engineers. I am a 310-pound offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens. I probably had about fifty or sixty pounds on the biggest guy on MIT’s O-line. But when we ran, they put me to shame. They could outsprint me.

Some things have changed for MIT since my mother tried to get the Engineers to recruit me. The team used to have trouble finding enough players to play both offense and defense. Sometimes, there were no more than 40 guys at practice. But starting in 2013, the Engineers started recruiting for the first time in their history. The program is Division III so the coaches can’t promise admission, and applications from recruits are held to the same rigorous academic standards as applications from other students. Nevertheless, MIT went 6–3 three years ago, and 10–1 the next season — the first back-to-back winning campaigns in the team’s 124-year history. Seventeen players on the 2014 team were high school valedictorians, and the starting quarterback was majoring in aerospace engineering — rocket science. (Sorry, mom.)

On the teams I had played for in high school, college and the pros, football came first. If a meeting was scheduled, you had to be there. Workouts were mandatory. Practice time was almost sacrosanct. At Penn State, Joe Paterno would say that if you were five minutes early, then you were late. You could never be late. In college we planned our coursework around our practice schedule. There were rewards, of course: money in the NFL; status in college and high school; the roar of 100,000 people.

At MIT, most practices are in the morning before classes begin, or during the school-wide activities window from 5 to 7 p.m. MIT actually sets aside time for students to stop studying. If a player has to miss practice, or if he shows up late because he was busy with his schoolwork, there is no punishment and there are no questions. The weight room is about 1/20th the size of the weight room in the football building at Penn State — and it’s for all 33 varsity sports. The strength coach for all the teams, a great guy named Tim Viall, is also the football team’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. For much of the day, the weight room is empty and shut.

I didn’t know what to expect. But what I found was that the team at MIT is no joke. It is a football team — in some ways, more of a football team than any I’d ever seen. These guys love football. They are playing the game because they want to. No one is making them come to practice, no one is checking up on them. They know as well as anyone about head injuries; they know that football is dangerous; they know the feeling of exhaustion and pain. They still play. They don’t do it for money, and they don’t do it for status. The average size of their crowds is fewer than 1,000. On campus, no one gives them a second look. (The guys who won the Putnam Competition — a national math contest — three years in a row are the ones who get treated like star quarterbacks.) But they show up every day and work hard because it’s their choice — because they love to play.

We talk a lot about dedication and passion in the pros, but the truth is, sometimes the game feels like a job. You start to think of the paycheck. You feel the grind. But training with the team at MIT, I started thinking about what had drawn me to football as a kid. It felt like a game again. I had thought I might have something to teach the team. I never imagined they’d have so much to teach me.