When Maryland linebacker Melvin Keihn was an eighth-grader at Southwest Academy in Gwynn Oak, Md., an advisor told him he should give football a try. Keihn, who loved basketball, bought a football for him and his dad, Bainda, to toss around in the backyard.
The advisor hooked him up with a Pikesville, Md., youth football program, where he played for two weeks before switching to the Hamilton Tigers' program. But in the short period of time Keihn was with Pikesville, the football novice had already caught the attention of Biff Poggi, then the head football coach at Gilman School.
"I heard that there was a kid playing at Pikesville who was really special athletically," Poggi said. "I went out to look at him at practice, and he was certainly that. He was bigger, faster, stronger than everybody. He had no idea what he was doing, but he had all the pieces."
Keihn had proven to be a quick study in football, a sport he was initially reticent to play. He wondered why anyone liked playing it.
"When I used to watch with my dad, I was like, 'Who wants to play football and hit each other? That looks painful,'" Keihn said.
But he quickly learned to love the sport and the physicality attached to it. He was recruited by Gilman and Calvert Hall not long after he picked up football.
"It's just one of those drives, you know? Everything I do, I do for my mom," Keihn said.
Keihn, now a 21-year-old redshirt sophomore at Maryland, was born June 21, 1995 in Monrovia, Liberia. Liberia experienced two civil wars from 1989-2003. Hundreds of thousands were either killed or displaced from their homes. One of many tragic aspects of the war was the frequent use of child soldiers, some of the victims were Keihn's age. Keihn's childhood is filled with unpleasant memories of the war: kidnappings, abductions and bombs going off around him.
"Honestly, that's one of the major things that I really remember as a kid, going through wars and running away with my stepmother and trying to make sure my family's safe, making sure I'm safe," Keihn said.
Keihn lived with his mother, Satta, until he was 6 years old. Satta told Keihn his father lived in the United States, but he was first going to live with his stepmother, Pauline, until the two could join Bainda in America. Keihn said he didn't even know he had a father in the United States until his mom told him. When he was 8 years old, Keihn hopped on a plane bound for the U.S. with Pauline, leaving Satta behind.
Keihn initially settled in with his father, stepmother and aunt in Silver Spring, Md., and didn't know a lick of English -- only his native Kpelle. Keihn moved to Woodlawn, Md., when he was in third grade. He'd eventually meet Poggi, who recruited him to Gilman and soon learned Keihn's story.
"He misses [his mother] terribly, talks about her constantly," Poggi said. "One of the big drives in his life is he really wants to go back and see her. He hasn't seen her since he [was] 8. She's an older woman and not in great health, and he worries about her tremendously.
"And usually when he gets news, it's not great news. News doesn't come, 'Hey, your mom's doing great.' It's usually 'she's not feeling well' or 'she's in the hospital.'"
'A Dominating Player'
When Keihn decided to go to Gilman, Bainda was working two jobs that occupied him for 18-19 hours every day. Bainda was concerned about whether Keihn could make it to and from school each day and get his work done.
Poggi, who was the head coach at Gilman for 11 years before taking an associate head coaching position at Michigan this year, took Keihn in throughout his tenure at Gilman. Poggi and his wife, Amy, have five children -- Henry, Sam, Jim, Mellie and Mary, all of whom Keihn refers to as his brothers and sisters.
"He has an incredible sense of empathy. He's one of the kindest people I've ever met," Poggi said. "He has a very high-emotional IQ. He can sense in others where they are and what's happening, and he really wants to be a friend and a healer and a part of the family. My kids love him. I mean, they love him."
The Poggis are a football family. For example, Henry Poggi is a senior fullback at Michigan now and played with Keihn at Gilman, where Keihn fit right in. Keihn credits the support he got from the Poggi family as vital to his development as a football player. Sam Poggi was an assistant coach at Gilman.
Keihn said his English vastly improved while he was at Gilman, and he credited Biff Poggi for making sure his tutoring sessions took precedence over practice.
"My accent was so much worse than what it is now," said Keihn, who became a U.S. citizen during his Gilman years. "It was just doing all of the little things as possible to make sure I learned English and to make sure I get English down. That was one of my hardest things. When I got to Gilman, that's when my English really sharpened up."
Keihn played for four years on Gilman's varsity squad, and the Greyhounds won two MIAA "A" conference championships while he was there. He was named to
The Baltimore Sun All-Metro first team for his efforts during his junior and senior seasons. Keihn, who was a four-star outside linebacker and the fourth-best recruit in the state on Rivals.com, recorded 85 tackles, 16 tackles for a loss, nine sacks and forced two fumbles as a senior.
"He's an unbelievable athlete. And at Gilman, he picked it up very quickly," Poggi said. "We asked him to do the things that he could do well. We had him pursue, chase and go to the ball and rush the passer, and he was a dominating player. I mean, dominating player."
From Hokie To Terp
When it came time to pick where to attend college and continue his football career, Keihn was "50-50" between Maryland and Virginia Tech. Keihn called the choice "probably one of the hardest decisions I've ever made," and ultimately chose the Hokies because of how comfortable he felt with the program.
Keihn played a lot on special teams during his freshman year in Blacksburg, Va., in 2014, but he felt the tug of wanting to play close to home. He spoke with current teammates Josh Woods and Jesse Aniebonam, both of whom were local kids he was close with even though they didn't play at Gilman. Keihn was granted his release by then-Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer and landed at Maryland.
Keihn sat out the 2015 season but has been a productive reserve for the Terps this year (22 tackles, two for loss and a pass breakup, as of Nov. 11). Keihn started the season competing with Aniebonam for the starting inside linebacker spot but shifted in recent weeks to the strong side linebacker position "because he's got the ability to pass rush and also cover," according to Terps defensive coordinator Andy Buh.
But Keihn's fit within a particular scheme is a minuscule detail of his life story.
"He saw and lived through the worst atrocities in the Liberian genocide. This kid, he is a complete miracle," Poggi said. "I believe God has a great future for this child because this child, by all rights, shouldn't even be here."
Issue 227: November 2016