The word “fight” has become somewhat of a buzzword within the Maryland men’s basketball program. It’s been used repeatedly in virtual news conferences and has unofficially become the mantra for a team that scrapped its way from a 4-9 start in conference play to a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament, where it will play seventh-seeded Connecticut on Saturday night.
But the word took on a far more literal meaning for the Terps when they were introduced to Ben Snyder, a 9-year-old from Alexandria, Virginia, who has battled back from a heart transplant in the past year.
‘It was just one of those really bad dreams’
Before his health problems started in early December 2019, Ben was “completely healthy,” active in taekwondo since the age of 4 and also baseball, said his mother, Cheri.
But Ben woke up one Saturday morning ahead of practice for a holiday black belt performance with a headache and began throwing up.
“That’s when everything just went downhill,” Cheri said.
She took Ben to the hospital, where doctors told her he was suffering from gastroenteritis, an intestinal infection. Ben received penicillin shots the following Monday but it didn’t improve his condition. By Dec. 10, he was brought into the hospital. Right when Ben was set to be discharged, a doctor noticed a little cough. An echocardiogram and X-ray discovered a cyst that “ate through” Ben’s aortic valve, which helps blood flow through the heart.
“Thank God that she did what she did because she saved his life,” Cheri said.
Ben immediately underwent emergency open-heart surgery and was on extracorporeal life support for a couple of days, but it was “just sustaining him. It wasn’t helping his heart.” The discussion quickly shifted to a heart transplant.
“It was just one of those really bad dreams, and that’s when our world just really started falling or crashing around us,” Cheri said.
Ben was transported to the University of Virginia Medical Center for the transplant and he stayed there until his release in late February 2020. But by the time the two could finally return home to Alexandria, the coronavirus pandemic had already shuttered most aspects of life.
So, like countless children around the country, Ben spent the year learning from home, while Cheri, a program analyst for the U.S. Marshals Service, also completed telework. But it was even harder for Ben, who hadn’t seen many of his friends since the previous December.
‘He’s just such a strong kid’
While Ben was recovering at Virginia’s medical center, a nurse whose daughter has cancer suggested to Cheri that they sign up for Team IMPACT, an organization that pairs children facing serious and chronic illnesses with college programs. At Maryland, many sports teams have participated in the program, but it was the first time for Maryland men’s basketball.
As Mark Bialkoski, Maryland’s director of operations, read up on Ben’s story, he knew he would be a perfect fit for the team.
“As a coach, you try to show direct correlations from the basketball lessons to life lessons,” Bialkoski said. “You say the word fight and toughness and how they stuck together and what they had to overcome … down eight in a game is a lot different from the fight Ben had and the fight his mom had.”
The team officially met Ben for the first time after its Christmas Day road game against Purdue. Each player watched on their phone screens as Ben opened a gift-wrapped box that held a customized Maryland jersey. Senior guard Reese Mona and junior forward Jairus Hamilton have served as team liaisons throughout the season, texting, calling and joining him on Zoom calls periodically.
“It makes me felt great, you know, just talking to someone,” Ben said.
Since coronavirus restrictions have prevented in-person gatherings, Maryland has had to be creative with Ben. During one call, each person grabbed an item that was meaningful to them and explained its importance. Mona showed a quote that hangs in his room: “He who says he can and he who says he can’t are both usually right.” Hamilton brought a Bible and a picture of his family — both of his parents are pastors. And Ben showed an item relating to his Corgi, which he recently welcomed home.
“He just becomes more and more open to us,” Mona said. “And the more calls Jairus and I have with him, the more comfortable he gets and the more he’s willing to open up, share with us and really be comfortable and be himself. … He’s just such a strong kid. And I just admire the passion he has for everything.”
‘It renewed my faith’
Since leaving the hospital, Cheri said Ben has gone down from 12 medications to two. His cardiology appointments are bimonthly instead of monthly, and the biopsies are also once a month. Cheri and Ben have received support and words of encouragement from all around — people who have seen the Christmas Day video Maryland posted on social media and some who have similar experiences within their family. Jan. 9 marked one year since the transplant and Ben is now back to participating in taekwondo and many of the other activities he enjoyed before his health scare.
“It renewed my faith in, like, humanity, and also in prayer and the support renewed my faith in God,” Cheri said. “Not that it wasn’t there before but it was just the power of prayer, it has really touched our family.”
Bialkoski said he’s hopeful the relationship extends past this season and, when heath restrictions allow it, he’s eyeing an in-person meeting with Ben and his mom. For now, the team has made a friend, found a source of inspiration — and maybe even a new assistant.
During a late February session before Maryland’s home game against Michigan State, Ben walked them through taekwondo moves, while they in return showed him a footwork drill and how to get into a defensive stance.
As the session concluded, Ben moved closer to the screen, straightened the camera and stopped for a moment before speaking.
“If there’s any fouls you get in the game — 20 burpees each,” he said with a smile.
NCAA tournament first round
NO. 10 SEED MARYLAND VS. NO. 7 SEED UCONN
Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Ind.
Saturday, 7:10 p.m.
TV: CBS (Chs. 13, 9) Radio: 105.7 FM
Line: UConn by 3