This time, Melvin managed to elude his defender and catch the game-winning touchdown pass—as well as the eye of a scout from the University of Richmond's football team who was on his way to the exit after witnessing Melvin's botched first attempt.
"I guess he heard the crowd roar and saw me doing a little dance in the end zone after the second try," Melvin says. "He figured he'd give me a shot."
Melvin entered college in 1982 to play wide receiver for the Richmond Spiders. He majored in chemistry and taught himself to prioritize his studies over his sport.
"When you go to play sports in college, [the first thing] to ask your coach is: If you play on the team, can you still get the degree that you want?" advises Melvin, who now co-manages NASA's educational outreach program. "You come into school as student-athletes, not athlete-students."
Former Richmond linebacker Rafe Wilkinson still remembers his teammate's focus on academics, noting that Melvin was occasionally late or would even miss practice because he was busy hitting the books. His reputation as a scholar-athlete went well beyond his teammates: The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) named Melvin an honorable mention to its Division I Academic All-American squad in both 1984 and 1985.
Melvin not only worked hard, he played hard. He still holds all-time receiving records at Richmond with 198 receptions for 2,669 yards (2,441 meters) and captained the team during his senior year.
He was also the go-to-guy in clutch situations—like tough third downs. "Melvin had a real knack for finding an opening [in the defense's coverage]," says Wilkinson, who is now president of Richmond-based Old Dominion Security Company.
Melvin's success on the field paid off—the Detroit Lions picked him in the eleventh round of the 1986 NFL Draft.
But, his pro football career proved to be short-lived. Melvin pulled his hamstring badly during preseason training, limiting his ability to compete for a coveted spot on the team—and he failed to make the final cut of 45. He later reported to the Dallas Cowboys for spring training, and was still hoping to play in the pros when he was again sidelined by a hamstring injury.
There wasn't going to be a future in football for Leland Melvin. But when one door closed, another opened. "It set me up perfectly to go back to school," he says, citing a chance encounter with a friend and mentor who steered the ailing wide receiver toward academia.
Between tryouts for the Lions and Cowboys, Raymond Dominey, a chemistry professor at Richmond, turned Melvin on to materials science. The professor had a hunch that Melvin might like the emerging field, which Dominey describes as wedding "pure chemistry with engineering."
"I knew Leland was very motivated," he says. "I got a sense from him that he wanted to do something that had real relevance."
Dominey recommended that Melvin meet with a materials scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (U.Va.), where he had previously taught. Melvin became a research assistant and in early 1987 enrolled in U.Va.'s graduate program in materials science engineering. At first, he continued training for the NFL, but he was back in Charlottesville that summer after failing to complete Dallas's spring training program.
In 1989, while working toward his master's degree—which he completed in 1991—Melvin took a job as a researcher at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. There, he did work on fiber optics and prototyping sensors for rovers. He also participated in a project to develop a reusable vehicle for launching space shuttles—the experimental X-33 craft—in the mid-1990s.