(EDITOR'S NOTE: During this offseason we frequently ask guest columnists to contribute. Today NFL historian Ken Crippen, president of the Professional Football Researchers Association and a frequent contributor, tells us how one former Detroit draft pick rocketed to fame after failing to make the team.)
Trivia Time!! Who's the only person drafted into the National Football League (NFL) and who has flown into space? Let me give you a hint: His official NASA photo went viral after he insisted that his two rescue dogs, Jake and Scout, be a part of the picture.
Answer: Leland Melvin.
Melvin was a standout receiver for the University of Richmond where he produced 198 catches for 2,669 yards, 16 touchdowns and at least one reception in every game. It is also where he was later inducted into the university's Athletic Hall of Fame.
Chosen by the Detroit in the 11th round of the 1986 draft, Melvin had a decent showing at the Lions' mini-camp. But it was training camp where he needed to shine to earn a spot on the roster, and it was training camp where he was sidelined by a hamstring injury.
Though he returned to play a couple of preseason games, he did not have his typical speed and was bothered by persistent pain. Unfortunately for Melvin, that lack of speed cost him a job, and he was cut before the season began.
But all was not lost. The following day the Dallas Cowboys called and wanted him in for a tryout. The Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League also called. So Melvin worked out with Dallas, then flew to Canada for a two-week workout with the Argos where he heard from the Cowboys again -- this time telling him they wanted to sign him as a free agent for the following season.
So he had a second chance to make an NFL roster.
It didn’t last long. While in the Cowboys’ mini-camp, Leland ran a route at quarterback Danny White’s request, running as fast as he could to impress then-head coach Tom Landry. He again pulled his hamstring and was later cut, ending his NFL dream.
End of story? Hardly. After leaving the NFL, Melvin went to work for NASA as a research scientist. His job was to find ways to detect damage on spacecraft and the International Space Station. After a brief stint going for his PhD, he returned to NASA as a program manager for the X-33 Reusable Launch Vehicle.
He later was selected to the astronaut program following a long application process, with his first flight on Space Shuttle mission STS-122. On that mission, he was responsible for operating the craft’s robotic arm, moving a new module into place on the International Space Station. He flew a second time on STS-129 before retiring after a total of 565 hours in space.
While at NASA, Melvin spent time in the Educator Astronaut Program (EAP) where he interested teachers and students in the space program. That, in turn, led to him to become the associate administrator of NASA’s Office of Education before he retired from NASA in 2014.
Melvin has said that White and former Lions' quarterback Chuck Long "helped him get into space."
But his story didn’t end there, either. Starting in 2009, Melvin had appearances on various television shows -- including “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern,” “Top Chef,” and “The Dog Whisperer” -- and was a moderator on “Child Genius” and judge on “Battlebots.” In total, he has 26 television credits and was the director of “Truth Behind the Moon Landing.”
Melvin today focuses his efforts on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) education and is an inspirational speaker, talking about the hurdles he had to overcome to achieve success in his career. This is a continuation of the work that he did as the White House’s Federal Coordination in STEM Education Task Force, which developed a five-year plan for STEM education.
He received the NFL Players Association’s “Award of Excellence” for his work inspiring athletes to greatness.
Ken Crippen is the president of the Professional Football Researchers Association, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to preserving and promoting this history of professional football. He has been researching and writing about pro football history for over thirty years. You can follow him on Twitter: @KenCrippen.