Fremd grad stars on field and in classroom at MIT
Those who know Massachusetts Institute of Technology star running back Justin Wallace say his work ethic is second to none.
Justin, a graduate of William Fremd High School in Palatine, has been shining at MIT both on the field, where he made history as just the second running back in school history to record a 1,000-yard season, and in the classroom, where he's assisting in high-level research into astronautics -- the theory and practice of spaceflight.
Justin WallaceAge: 21
School: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Who inspires you? Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and former Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, because he was such a great athlete and a great person.
What's on your iPod?Metallica, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC.
What book are you reading?I don't spend much time reading.
The three words that best describe you?Driven. Relentless. Passionate.
"Justin is a man of few words, he's more of a man of action," MIT football Head Coach Chad Martinovich said. "When he says he's going to do something, he does it -- and he does it with everything he has."
Alvar Saenz Otero, and MIT professor and principal research scientist and associate director of the MIT Space Systems Laboratory, agreed.
"He's sort of a quiet person, he goes right to the job," he said. "You can tell him the big picture, and he moves on and knows what to do with the details."
Justin, a 21-year-old junior at MIT, says that's just how he is, mostly serious and always focused.
"Once I get an objective in mind, I'm relentless at pursing it," he said.
Justin carries a 4.3 GPA on a 5.0 scale at MIT, where he is double majoring in electrical engineering computer science and aerospace engineering. He is also a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity.
"Here everyone's smart," he said. "On the entire football team, a lot of us are very good academically. Even in high school, I think I was known more for the combo (academics and athletics) than for just being a football player."
His interest in all things space started when he was a little boy who played with space Legos and gazed at pictures of the Saturn 5 rocket and the Space Shuttle.
"I dreamed of being an astronaut. That's what put me on my path initially," he said.
His more recent interest in computer science was sparked by a programming class he took his senior year at Fremd.
"I really enjoyed it," he said. "Since then, working with computers -- whether hardware or software -- is something that has really interested me."
Last year, Justin helped program and support Zero Robotics, a competition for high schoolers who programmed satellites inside the International Space Station, Saenz Otero said.
Because of his outstanding work, he was chosen to work on Visual Estimation for Relative Tracking and Inspection of Generic Objects, or Vertigo, a vision-based satellite navigation project whose goal is for satellites to know their location based on camera images alone.
"Justin was a big part of the Vertigo team in putting together the whole system," Saenz Otero said. "We are very happy with him. I would say he's an exceptional MIT student. I think he does stand out among MIT students."
Justin was also a major reason why MIT had its best football season in 14 years, finishing 6-3, his coach said.
"He's made unbelievable strides in the weight room as well as on the field. He's built himself into a very, very good running back," Martinovich said. "He's one of the best in our league and, in my opinion, one of the better Division III running backs in the country."
Justin has earned All-New England Football Conference honors all three years at MIT. This year, he finished with 1,157 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns, and his average of 128.3 yards per game was second best in the league.
"He leads by example," Martinovich said. "He picks and chooses his times when he has to speak up in front of the offense, but when he does, everyone listens because of the respect they have for him."
Former Fremd football coach Mike Donatucci, who now coaches at Hoffman Estates High School, said Justin exemplifies the term "student athlete."
Justin graduated Fremd with a 4.7 GPA on a 4.0 scale. His senior year, he helped lead the team to the second round of the state playoffs while earning a spot on the Daily Herald All-Area team and an honorable mention all-state selection.
"He's just such a rock solid kid," Donatucci said. "You talk about kids who lead by example, and it's overused a lot. But with Justin, it's just the way he is. He has such a tremendous presence and work ethic."
"He's a tough, tough kid," he added. "He's a physically tough individual, and a mentally tough individual."
Justin's schedule at MIT -- what with class, practice, research and homework -- has him up until 2 a.m. most days.
"If I'm working on a homework assignment, I'll sit down and whether it takes me two hours or six hours, I'll continue to work on it until I got it," he said. "I just make sure I get it all done."
As a kid, Justin loved to take things apart and put them back together, like when he did so with a computer at age eight, his father Robert Wallace said.
"He's the kind of kid that if you tell him he can't do something, he'll work his heart off to prove you wrong," he said.
No one ever had push Justin to do well in school, Robert Wallace added, saying his son would be upset if he came home with anything other than an A.
Robert Wallace and his wife Barbara recently moved to Florida after Barbara, the former ICU director at St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates, took a took job as ICU director of Ocala Regional Medical Center in Ocala, Fla. The couple have a younger daughter, Jenna, 19, a freshman at University of Tampa.
Justin tried baseball, basketball and soccer before finding his niche in football, his father said.
"He wasn't a coordinated kid. He didn't really excel at any sports until he started football in the 5th grade," he said. "When he started youth football, everything changed. He went from hating sports to he couldn't wait to get to practice and work hard at practice every day."
These days, it's hard to imagine life without football, Justin said.
"I love the team atmosphere, I love hitting people," he said. "It's an adrenaline rush. I really enjoy it."
However, he adds, he'll never get used to the losing that sometimes comes with playing the game, He's still stung by the loss in his final last high school game.
"When it comes to losing in general, I always feel I didn't do as much as I could have."