A precise measurement here and a few nails there, and there it stood — a handmade table.

Staring at what he had just made, it struck Marlon Walls that this little piece of furniture meant he could fuse two of his favorite subjects, math and science, into tangible and real-life concepts. The innovation he experienced during that class led him to pursue an engineering degree at SFA.

Even now, years after that day in his construction technology course at Pearland High School, Walls’ interests and achievements are dual in nature. While maintaining a 4.0 GPA in SFA’s rigorous engineering physics program and interning with Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory during the summer, the SFA senior and football safety also was the first in SFA football program history to be named a College Sports Information Directors of America first-team Academic All-American.

“That was a huge accomplishment because I was one of only 23 people in the entire U.S. to receive that award,” Walls said. “On top of being the first one in SFA football history to receive it, that’s a very big honor for me.”

The award is presented to student-athletes who perform strongly on the field and excel academically. Walls attributes the accomplishment to his dedication and ability to manage time.

“I’ve always been pretty good at balancing myself,” he said. “I’ve been good at time management since I was in high school and carried that to SFA. I knew college would be tough, and the course load would be more rigorous, and I just had to step up my game. SFA has exceeded my expectations by far.”

Getting Into Football

Walls’ love of math and science began when he was in the third grade, but it wasn’t until the eighth grade that a passion for football developed.

“I actually hated the game of football growing up,” Walls chuckled, seated in the SFA field house at Homer Bryce Stadium. “I didn’t want anything to do with it, but then one day I met Adrian Peterson. My dad and I were at the Galleria Mall in Houston, and he pointed Adrian out to me.”

At the time, Peterson was a running back for the Minnesota Vikings; he now plays in the same position for the New Orleans Saints. The football player, who is a native of Palestine, Texas, was unrecognizable to Walls.

“I wasn’t quite sure who this man was, but I shook his hand,” Walls said, adding how much of a vice-grip handshake Peterson had. “So I searched online that night and found out he’s a professional football running back, and it pretty much inspired me to play. If he could do it, I could, too, and so my eighth-grade year, I played for the first time, and I’ve played ever since.”

Honorable Young Man

As both an athlete and student, Walls has been able to strike a masterful balance between two demanding areas. He has maintained a 4.0 GPA in SFA’s engineering physics program, having just entered his senior year, and he continues to receive accolades such as his recent first-team All-American award.

Walls’ versatility, intelligence and talents don’t go unnoticed.

“What I like best about Marlon is his focus and work ethic. As a student-athlete, the demands placed on our young men and women are tremendous,” said Robert Hill, SFA director of athletics. “What sets him apart is his uncanny ability to balance his football career with his academic responsibilities, and he does it at the highest level. He excels at both, and that says volumes about our faculty and athletic staff members. He is the ultimate student-athlete.”

His professors and instructors agree.

“Marlon is a great time manager — one has to be able to successfully handle football and engineering physics simultaneously,” said Dr. Harry Downing, professor and chair of SFA’s Department of Physics, Engineering and Astronomy. “Marlon is one of the best students I have ever had the privilege of teaching. He is a respectful, responsible and honorable young man.”

Johns Hopkins University Lab

Walls’ talents led him to receive an internship with Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory near Baltimore. He completed the internship during the summer months and was part of the mechanical systems staff working on the Europa Propulsion Module — a spacecraft, he explained, with a mission to identify whether there is the potential for life on Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

“I didn’t know what to expect coming in,” Walls said. “I expected it to be a challenge and an overall new experience, which it definitely was. But the work itself was easier than I thought it would be and a lot more fun for me than I anticipated. They often had to tell me to not take my computer home because I would always try to do more work for ‘homework’ as if I was still a student! Overall, I loved this internship, and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life. I’m very blessed to have received the opportunity.”

Between May and July, Walls was tasked with finding the mass properties of each component of the spacecraft in order to find its total center of gravity in different configurations, he said. Walls also created a rapid prototype model of the spacecraft that was 3-D printed and used for Johns Hopkins University’s Preliminary Design Review.

“This internship had so much more to offer in addition to my assigned work,” Walls said. “I was able to see many other projects being worked on, such as the Parker Solar Probe with its mission to ‘touch the sun.’ I also was able to speak with other engineers about their work experience. That, by far, was the most beneficial part of this internship — learning about others’ experiences and gaining those connections to use as references and mentors. A lot of things they did there directly correlated to classes I’ve taken or will take this semester at SFA, so that was very encouraging to see.”

Preparing for His Future

Walls attributes the opportunities and accomplishments he has been afforded to many things, including the support of his family, fellow athletes, instructors and friends. As he enters his senior year, however, his main suggestion for incoming students — or anyone pursuing their dreams — is to look inward.

“Have your mind right and know that you have to have some give and take as far as your day-to-day life,” Walls said. “If you want to excel academically, you have to give up something else. I actually posted something on Twitter one time that read, ‘There are five things that you can focus on in college: partying, academics, athletics, a social life and sleep. At least one of those won’t get done, so pick wisely.’ I have a bigger plan for my future, and I think academics will definitely lead me in the right direction.”

What started with a handmade table has grown into spacecraft gravity configurations and 3-D prototype models. Braced with the knowledge he’s gleaned during his time at SFA, Walls is excited to see what comes next.