Holly Rowe stands at the podium in front of the finalists for the William V. Campbell Trophy, also known as the Academic Heisman. Rowe has covered the best athletes in the world for more than 30 years, but when she gets to Stephen F. Austin senior safety Marlon Walls, she has to pause.

"I'm not even smart enough to be on the stage with you right now," Rowe says. "This is awkward."

Walls blushes and chuckles. The Pearland High School (Texas) grad might change the world one day, but the attention is overwhelming. He's spent most of the past four years on an FCS football field in Texas or in the lab -- he finished college with a 4.0 as an engineering physics major with a minor in mathematics. On this day in December, he is in the same room as Peyton Manning, Steve Spurrier and Brian Urlacher, with ESPN cameras pointing at him at all angles.

Rowe asks about Walls' internship from the previous summer at John Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory. Now he feels comfortable.

"We worked on this project called the Europa Propulsion Module," Walls says. "Its mission is to go to Jupiter's moon, called Europa, and to do fly-bys and take pictures to see if there's any potential for water underneath -- ice layer surface on that moon. If there is, they have a correlation to earth where, if there's water on earth, there's always life. So they want to see if there's any potential for life on that moon, Europa."

So if humans ever discover life on Jupiter's moon, you can give Walls some of the credit.


Walls says the internship was a chance to "get some exposure to the life of a mechanical engineer and everything that entails with it." He'll return to Hopkins this spring and work through the summer on the Europa Propulsion Module. After that, Walls plans on getting a master's degree in mechanical engineering.

"One thing I tell everybody is, 'Consistency is the difference between being average and being here today and speaking to you,'" Walls says.

On the football field, Walls was third on the Lumberjacks in total tackles this year (60). As a sophomore in 2015, Walls intercepted former Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Trevone Boykin of TCU, and during his four years at Stephen F. Austin -- 2014-2017 -- no teammate started or played in as many games.

And to think Walls might never have had football in his life if it were not for a chance encounter with an NFL star. When Walls moved from Detroit to Texas as a youth, he didn't know much about football.

"One day, I met Adrian Peterson," Walls says. "He was a running back for the Minnesota Vikings at that time. And he really just changed my life. When I met him, my dad said, 'Hey, that's Adrian Peterson.' I'm like, 'I don't know who that really is.' I went and shook his hand. And he had a death grip on my hand to where I was like, 'Dang, I got to see who this guy is.' So I searched him up later on that night, and I found out he was this crazy, stellar running back. And I just really had a motivation. I was like, 'If he can do it, I can do something in my life too in that realm of football.' And it's been a gateway for me to be here today and have so many accomplishments to my name. So I really owe a lot to the game of football."


Unlike some of the other National Football Foundation National Scholar-Athletes, Walls does not have plans to play professionally. At this point, the sport has opened enough doors for him to leave the room for good.

Walls has a moon to study.

"The sky is the limit, as I always tell everybody, literally," Walls says.

No. He is wrong. Outer space is the limit.

Actually, scratch that. The limit does not exist.

-- Follow Jeff Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband. Like Jeff Eisenband on Facebook.

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