Melvin Keihn has one picture of his mother, Satta.

Carefully torn to frame only the 8-year-old boy and the woman about to send him from war-ravaged Liberia to a better life in the United States, the photograph holds every visual memory the Gilman senior has of his mother. He hasn't seen her since.

That day at the Monrovia airport, she finally persuaded him to get on the plane that would take him away from a life of labor on the rice farm where they both worked amid the threat that he could be forced at any time to become a child soldier in the West African nation emerging from a second civil war.

In some small way, he understood what she was telling him, but Keihn could never have imagined the life he has today as an 18-year-old Gilman football star about to play in the Under Armour All-American Bowl and embark on a college career that could take him to the NFL.


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"I remember she told me, 'If you go there you'll have a chance to get a great education, you'll graduate from school and you'll have a lot of money," Keihn recalled, "'and if you really want to send for me, if you really want me to have the best life, then you'll do that for me. If you go, you'll have more chances to give me a better life than you would here.'

"That's what basically convinced me, because as a kid I always wanted the best for my mother. I knew if I came here, I would do anything to get her to have a good life."

Ever since, he's been working toward that goal.

For Keihn, the NFL dream doesn't include the mansions and fast cars many young players envision. His dream is to use whatever he could earn with an NFL career to bring his mother to the United States and repay her sacrifice with a comfortable lifestyle.

At first, the little boy had no idea how he was going to make that happen. After flying to the United States with his stepmother to join his father, who has been in the United States more than 15 years, Keihn just wanted to go home.

He spoke only his native Kpelle and other children made fun of his English. He got into fights and was suspended from school. But the family soon moved to Woodlawn from Washington, D.C., and Keihn discovered basketball. He stopped thinking about going home.

At first, he thought basketball might be the ticket to the education his mother wanted for him. He played for the top AAU basketball teams in Baltimore — Team Melo, Nike Elite, Team Future, Team Sizzle — but his speed and size, now 6 feet 3, 225 pounds, made him an attractive football prospect. He started playing in eighth grade and quickly landed on the recruiting radar of private schools.

Gilman coach Biff Poggi laughs when remembering his attempt to chat with Keihn after scouting a practice. Keihn didn't have much to say.

"I got back into the car and said to our coaches, 'Well, I don't want him. I think he's arrogant. All he did was sit there and smile. He didn't say anything,'" Poggi said. "I didn't know he was African and was learning the language basically. I'm glad I didn't go with my intuition."

Instead, Poggi did everything he could to get Keihn into Gilman. The Poggi family took him in when his father couldn't figure out a way to get him to school on time every day.

Since August of his freshman year, Keihn has spent the week — and many weekends — living with the Poggis at their Towson home, where his picture with his mother is pinned to a kitchen bulletin board. The five Poggi siblings consider him a brother and Biff and Amy Poggi treat him as a fourth son.

While his father has accompanied him on most of his college visits, Keihn also took advice from Biff Poggi and from Henry Poggi, who graduated from Gilman last year and is now playing football at Michigan.

Keihn, who had more than 50 college scholarship offers, had planned to announce his commitment at the Under Armour All-American Game Jan. 2 in St. Petersburg, Fla., but he said last week he couldn't stand it any longer. Tuesday, he announced that would play linebacker at Virginia Tech.

Biff Poggi isn't the only coach who thinks Keihn has NFL potential.

"The No. 1 thing about being an NFL football player above everything else is you have to be an elite athlete, and I think he is that," Archbishop Spalding coach Kyle Schmitt said. "When you just take the baseline raw materials of 'can he run, does he have the body type?' I don't think there's any doubt."

A highly-disruptive defensive end for the No. 2 Greyhounds with great speed and quickness off the edge, he had 85 tackles, including 16 for a loss, nine sacks and two forced fumbles in 2013.

Coaches frequently note his strength, but Keihn could get a lot stronger in college.

"He's really never had any dedicated weight room time, because he's always doing other things," Gilman linebackers coach Henry Russell said. "He goes from football to indoor track to outdoor track and it's hard to bulk up when you're running 300-meter hurdles. Once he gets to college and he's not doing track, he'll spend a good amount of time in the weight room, and it's scary to think about how good he can possibly be."

Keihn has also missed some gridiron practice time to get extra help in the classroom. When he arrived at Gilman, he was still learning English and failed a couple classes, but that stoked his competitive drive and he now has a 3.2 GPA.

His academic improvement mirrors the way he knew little about football as a freshmen and is now rated a four-star prospect by Rivals.com.

"It's a tribute to his work ethic," Russell said. "He's the type of kid that you put a task in front of him and he's not going to be satisfied until he figures out how to accomplish that task. He's had so many challenges and he never let anything slow him down or make him feel like he couldn't do what was assigned to him.

"It's just incredible how much effort and desire and heart that he has to be good at everything. You're not going to be able to tell him, 'Melvin, You can't do this,' because he's going to prove you wrong."

No one has told Keihn that he can't make it to the NFL, but he knows the odds, so he has a fall-back plan. He wants to major in engineering, one of the keys factors in his choice of Virginia Tech and a career path he feels could also make him successful enough to reunite with his mother. It could also take him back to his native land, where he would like to build houses.

In the fall he became an American citizen, another step necessary to bring his mother here. Next comes college and then a career. Whether it's football or not, Keihn is driven to make the most of the opportunity his mother gave him.

"The way my mother raised me, she said in anything that you do, don't let anyone ever beat you," he said. "That's another reason I'm so much of a competitor. She said never, never take no for an answer. If you want something, go get it.'"

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

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