UNIVERSITY PARK -- The enterprising teenagers on the Canisius High School football team flopped onto air mattresses and gathered around Xbox systems they hauled into their temporary western New York living quarters.
John Urschel enjoyed being around his teammates. But he used the time between football camp sessions in other ways. The 6-foot-3 offensive lineman sprawled onto his air mattress and read the "The Art of War."
As his body grows more powerful, Urschel continues mixing football with vast mental curiosities.
Urschel will begin his junior season as Penn State's starting right guard on Sept. 1 against Ohio University at Beaver Stadium.
He solidified a full-time starting spot while graduating college. Urschel earned a mathematics degree in May. He completed the degree in three years, graduating with a 4.0 GPA and only one close academic call. Urschel, a state indoor champion in the shot put, skipped his senior track season at Canisius to enroll at Penn State in May 2010. He was greeted by an introductory English class.
"It's the toughest class I have ever taken here, tougher than anything I have taken in math," Urschel said. "I wasn't doing so hot, but I had a great teacher. She was really helpful. I have no clue how she gave me an A."
Urschel has traveled an accelerated academic path since first grade when his mother, Venita Parker, handed him math workbooks. Urschel completed the assignments, learning afterward they were designed for fifth-and sixth-graders.
By his junior year at Canisius, a Jesuit college prep school, Urschel was leaving football practices early to attend classes at the University of Buffalo. Urschel's offensive line coach, Rich Robbins, said he's never seen a student-athlete like Urschel in seven years at the demanding school.
Urschel, though, almost never played football.
Parker, an attorney, tried steering Urschel, who was born in Winnipeg, toward hockey.
"She specifically planned to have a boy so she could have a hockey player," Urschel said.
There was one major problem.
"I didn't like it very much," he said.
Urschel didn't discover football until his freshman year at Canisius. He also played lacrosse, but a track coach convinced him to throw shot put and discus. He owns a personal best of 58 feet in the shot put.
Considering his background, football seemed like an unlikely match. Nobody in his family played the sport yet Urschel quickly grasped the physical and mental aspects of line play.
Robbins inserted him into his first-team line as a sophomore. He earned all- Catholic League honors as a junior and left Canisius as an unanimous Trench Trophy selection. The award honors western New York's top lineman. Coaches and former NFL players are on the selection committee.
Robbins said Urschel blossomed between his junior and senior seasons by increasing his bench press to 400 pounds and examining film of successful college and NFL linemen.
"He was a force to be reckoned with," said Robbins, who is now Canisius' head coach. "He played every snap both ways. He would tap his helmet to take a break. I acted like I didn't see him."
Urschel had planned to attend Princeton and study engineering. A highlight tape reached former Penn State coach Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions offered Urschel a scholarship. He accepted it despite Parker's reservations.
"His mother is one of the toughest single mothers I have been around and she didn't really care about him getting a football scholarship," Robbins said. "Even after conversation with her, she wasn't sold all the way about him going to Penn State. Now, she's really happy. But she always envisioned him going to a place like Princeton or Harvard."
Urschel arrived at Penn State as an engineering major. He breezed through his math requirements -- he already tested out of some courses but was forced to take them anyway -- and realized he developed a passion for the subject.
Math dominates many of his thoughts. His research focuses on using equations to solve real world problems. He has entered a masters program and will spend two years working closely with Penn State professor Jinchao Xu, one of the world's top mathematicians.
"We don't usually take masters students," Jinchao said in a telephone interview from China. "All of our students are going for their PHDs. But he knows what he's doing. Finishing undergraduate work in three years and being on the football team says a lot about him. I'm looking forward to working more and more with him."
Jinchao never has worked closely with a football player before meeting Urschel.
"He's big and I remember asking, 'Why is he so big?'" said Jinchao, who isn't a football fan. "I got to know him and figured out why. He doesn't talk about football unless you ask him about it. He's a very pleasant guy, and apparently he likes what he does."
Balancing math and football can be tricky, and Urschel's schedule varies. He struggles stopping once he begins working on a problem, which means he will sometimes wake up at 2 p.m. after sleeping seven hours. He's spending the next two years solving complex equations and preparing for doctorate work.
"Sometimes you get a little worn down toward the end of the semester and the end of the year," he said "But that's only natural."
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien is relying on Urschel to exhaust opposing defensive lines. O'Brien named Urschel the starting right even before he released a preliminary depth chart last month. The first-year coach said players such as Urschel are "why you take a job like this."
"You're talking about an excellent football player but so much more than that," O'Brien added. "The guy's going to go on to play pro football more than likely, but at the same time he's going to have a very successful life after his football career is over. To me he's one of the best players on our team right now the way I evaluate our team. I'm talking about every position."
Robbins said there's nobody at Canisius with anything negative to say about Urschel. For his part, Urschel isn't noticing the praise.
"I try not to listen to those things," he said. "Believe it or not, I kind of live under a rock. I don't really watch the news or pay attention to things. I'm usually at my place doing math."