Marken Vilson is a Florida native which, in his words, means football is in his DNA.
So without the game in his life for his first two years of college at Florida Atlantic University, Vilson was a bit lost. Although he wanted to play, his schedule didn’t allow it.
Now a junior cornerback at South Dakota School of Mines, Vilson is getting a second chance at the game with the Hardrockers, via a year’s stay in Troy, New York.
The journey has paid off academically and athletically as he had a career game on Saturday with two pass interceptions — one in which he returned 57 yards for a touchdown that was the dagger in the Hardrockers’ 38-21 win over Western State Colorado. He also had eight tackles.
For his efforts, Vilson was named the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Week.
It didn’t sit well with him that he wasn’t playing football, so he left FAU and went the junior college route at Hudson Valley Community College.
Before joining Hudson Valley, he would watch the games feeling that he was capable of doing what those players were doing. Even when he was home watching football on TV, he would do pushups, just to "burn off the steam."
He knew he would play again.
"When I did get my chance to play, I was going to take advantage of the opportunity,” he said Tuesday as Mines prepares for Simon Fraser Saturday in its annual M-Day homecoming game (5 p.m.) at O'Harra Stadium.
Not recruited out of high school, Vilson went on the offensive and sent his highlight tape to “pretty much all of the Division II schools,” in the country.
That tape caught the eyes of Mines secondary coach Travis Dixon and head coach Zach Tinker. He received a call from Dixon the night before his birthday a couple of years ago.
“Once I saw the academics and the football program, it was a no-brainer decision,” said Vilson, whose parents are both natives of Haiti. “It was a tough process, but I stayed patient, and I knew that ultimately I would be where I was supposed to be.”
A safety at Hudson Valley, Vilson made the move to cornerback. The switch took some time, but his athletic ability (and 6-foot-1 height) soon got him in the starting lineup with the Hardrockers. He started six games in the 2017 season.
“I feel like I am a natural athlete and I could adjust to it, but there were still some natural growing pains in football,” he said. “My first game I started was against Adams State. I had three pass breakups that game, so that gave me a lot of confidence going into the rest of the season. Plus that was against two first-team All-RMAC receivers.”
His two interceptions Saturday were his first two official takeaways of his D-2 career. In that Adams State game last season, he had an interception nullified by the officials.
“I caught it,” he said confidently.
Vilson said it was a team honor to be recognized, as he was helped by teammates on both interceptions. With the first interception, junior defensive end Michael Retland hit the Western State quarterback’s arm and the forced throw went over the receiver’s head into Vilson’s arms.
On the second interception, freshman defensive back Adrian Eastman tipped the ball and Vilson grabbed it, racing to the end zone for the touchdown.
The previous week the Hardrockers gave up the final 14 points in the fourth quarter in a three-point loss to Colorado Mesa. Vilson said that wasn’t going to happen Saturday against Western State.
“It was win at all costs and don’t wait on anyone else to finish the game; take it upon yourself to finish the game if you are presented the opportunity,” he said. “The opportunity came, so it was a no-brainer."
For Vilson, being a leader means you are a teacher. And teaching, he says, also helps you learn.
"Marken is a leader in our program both on and off the field," Tinker said.
He is also part of the improved Hardrocker secondary that enabled the defense to come up with five takeaways in the win over the Mountaineers. This improvement starts with team chemistry, from the veterans to the newcomers, he said.
“The new guys playing their first college football games were making plays. That always increases the camaraderie between us. Any one of us can make the plays on any given time,” he said. “I caught two picks, Dom Jackson got a pick; Adrian Eastman caused a fumble and Connor Janovy recovered the kickoff. We’re making huge plays.”
An industrial engineering major, Vilson wants to be a safety engineer when he graduates. He originally studied computer science and switched to business. When Mines called, he found is true identity once again.
Football and academics.
“Aside from my family and God, they are my two biggest priorities in life,” he said. “When I got this opportunity, it felt right. It felt like a second chance.”