Feature Friday: What Can Happen When So Many Open Their Hearts

Maryland Athletics
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By Steve Kornacki
Henry Poggi and Melvin Keihn lived under the same roof during their years as high school football teammates in Baltimore.
That they became "brothers" despite being born on different continents and coming from completely different worlds was the longest of long shots.
Yet, Poggi, a fullback at the University of Michigan, and Keihn, a defensive end at the University of Maryland, ended up playing together at The Gilman School, a 120-year-old college prep school in Baltimore, where Henry's father, Biff, was the head coach.
And, as fate would have it, they'll meet again Saturday (Nov. 11), when the Wolverines visit the Terrapins in College Park, Maryland. It will be their second game against one another, the first coming last season in Ann Arbor.
"I actually got a chance to block him in the game last year," said Poggi. "I ran and hit him, and then I looked at him and started talking junk. He's just smiling at me and said, 'Good hit, Bro! Good hit, Bro!' "
Poggi, sitting in a leather chair at Schembechler Hall, laughed and shook his head.
He continued, "I was like, 'Melvin, come on, just for once can you stop being such a good guy?' That was pretty funny. And now we'll meet again on his turf."
That story was recalled for Keihn in a telephone conversation, and he also chuckled at the memory.
"Yeah, that's my brother, and it was great playing against him," said Keihn. "You're cracking heads, and of course after the play it was great to see him. It had been awhile since I saw him, and it was just nice to play against him, to be honest with you.
"That was one thing we both really looked forward to, knowing we were both in the Big Ten. Playing with him in high school, I learned a lot from him."
Football and the Poggi family were central to Keihn assimilating to his new country and surroundings.
Keihn was born in Monrovia, Liberia during a bloody civil war. He recalled being awoken one morning by soldiers holding guns and standing over him. His father, Bainda Keihn, joined the United Nations and escaped to the U.S., where he was granted political asylum. He applied for a visa that was granted to Melvin, who flew to Baltimore to live with his father 14 years ago.
There was one awful thing about leaving, though. His mother, Satta Johnson, who was not married to his father, couldn't get a visa. But she loved him enough to let him go to a land where he could prosper and be safe, while leaving a place where children were recruited for armed combat by warlords.
"Everything has worked out for me" said Keihn, 22. "It's not every day that you see a child leave a country such as mine and all of a sudden everything changes for him. Honestly, if I was in my country right now, I don't know what would've happened to me as I got older. To be honest with you, only God knows.
"But my mother agreed to let me go, and while I was young, I didn't want to leave her. I didn't understand why she really did it. But it was a great thing that she did and also a blessing for me and my family that she let me go because now I have the chance to ... like my dad and I were talking, if I make it to the league (NFL), that's a bonus. But I will graduate in May and have a foundation, just the difference that can make for my family. I'm a family person and love being around kids and talking to people. I went more into the family science part of my major, which could bring me to family guidance or being a counselor.
"So, now I understand what my mom did, and for her to just let me go was hard. It was very hard, but as a mother she was thinking, 'It is going to be better for him in the future.'  "    
A half dozen years after coming to America, his talent in football, a game he discovered put him into his own world, brought him to Gilman. The long commute between the home he shared with his father and stepmother led to an offer from the Poggi family to bunk with them on weekdays.
"All Melvin wanted to do was be friends, and he cared so much about people," said Poggi, 23. "So, it was smooth sailing. He's my little brother. It was quick how it developed.
"It started with football. We both played D-line, and he was always asking me questions. He'd ask me about classes and teachers. It was the stuff I asked my older brothers, Jim and Sam."
In a living arrangement made for convenience sake, Keihn found a second family. He refers to Henry's father, Biff, as "Pops" and to his mother as "Miss Amy." He's right in the middle of the family photo taken at the wedding of Sam and Alyssa, joined by his three brothers and two sisters, Mary and Mellie, who's a junior at Michigan.
Biff was their head coach, while Sam coached the defensive line at Gilman, and Keihn said all that time spent together with them and Henry on the football team bonded them that much quicker.
"It was like a football family and then a regular family, too," said Keihn. "It was a great experience."
They celebrate Christmas and take vacations together.
"They all mean a lot to me," said Keihn. "When I moved in with the Poggis, at first I was a little shocked. It took me awhile to get used to the family, but it was great being around them from the start. Any time I call or text any of them, they are so excited to hear from me.  
"My relationship with Henry and his family just kept building up. We got closer and closer, and I'm so excited about the opportunity they gave me. It was great to have a big brother who helped you a lot. Henry's like a friend and a brother who I can get in touch with any time I need to talk. He's always excited to talk to me, and I'm always excited to talk to him. It's a great feeling."
Poggi said, "We talk a lot all the time. We talk a lot about football still. But he's always there for me when I need him, and I know that if I'm going through something tough, I can always call Melvin. He's a very close brother and friend for me."
Both were standouts at Gilman and played in the Under Armour All-America Game. Poggi was the Baltimore Sun's co-defensive player of the year, and Keihn was a consensus two-time all-state selection.
Poggi has moved from defense to tight end to fullback for the Wolverines, making 15 starts. The fifth-year senior excels in blocking, pass-catching and on special teams.
There wasn't an opportunity for Keihn to follow his brother to Michigan, and he chose Virginia Tech before transferring after one year to Maryland, where he has played the last two seasons and made 26 tackles in 2016.
That move has worked out, and it became a real plus last season when Wolverines defensive coordinator DJ Durkin became Maryland's head coach.
"I knew right when Coach Durkin left Michigan for Maryland that he'd really like Melvin," said Poggi. "Coach Durkin was all about running to the ball and hustling, and that's what Melvin is. He has a relentless motor, he's a great workout guy, and is really positive."
Durkin was central in making Keihn's reunion with his mother happen, initiating the paperwork and helping map out the plan.
The trip was approved June 5, and a little over three weeks later he was on a flight to Liberia that connected in Belgium. After spending that first night at a Monrovia hotel, his uncle drove him to where his mother was staying 45 minutes away in Kakata.
Keihn exited the vehicle amid a drizzle, and as he walked up a slight hill, his mother spotted him and began running toward her "baby," as she called him, now a grown man. He put his arms around her and they wept, their bodies shaking for joy. His older sister soon joined them in an emotional embrace, and then another sister and an older brother rushed into the happy reunion.
"It was a great moment," said Keihn, "a moment that I had been waiting for for over 14 years. I was so glad for my family and the support I had from Maryland. I was definitely glad that Maryland helped that dream come true to see my mom again for the first time in 14 years.
"That was the greatest feeling I've ever had. Just thinking about it now makes me happy to know I had that moment. When I walk into my room, I see that picture of me and my mom hugging for the first time up on the wall. It cheers me up when I have a down moment, and it was a feeling that will last for a very long time."
They spent some days together, and Keihn brought his mother Maryland gear, newspaper clippings and a locket. They watched his game highlights together on an iPad.
Poggi watched the video features by the Big Ten Network and ESPN on his brother's journey home.
"I was really happy for him," said Poggi. "He would talk two or three times each week with his mother in Africa, and you could tell when he finished just how sad he was that he wasn't with her. Nobody deserved to see his mom more than Melvin.
"With everything that's going on in college football, you can get caught up in yourself. But not Melvin. He has such a big heart and always thought about his mother and his family back home in Africa. Melvin's a kid you can't help but root for."
Poggi met Keihn's father, and he hopes to someday meet his mother, too.
"Absolutely," said Poggi. "I heard she's a lot like Melvin."
Keihn said he's working through a process to bring his mother to America.
"It's a lot of paperwork," he said. "I'm hoping it happens soon. I've spoken a lot with Mom about the Poggis, and she asks about how each of them are doing when we talk. She asks about how my dad and stepmom and little brother are doing.
"She asks about all of them. She's a great woman, a great mother. My teammates and friends all want to see her."
His past and present have been woven together, blending people and places that seem quite different into one big, happy, connected family. It's what happens when so many open their hearts to what can be.