Embracing the Len Bias Legacy Challenge

challenge_coin_front

A University of Maryland Challenge Coin

I anticipated that some dynamic moments might occur when NCAA president Dr. Mark Emmert spoke last week about the state of college athletics at the University of Maryland’s Riggs Alumni Center in College Park. The Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce organized a breakfast and town-hall type gathering, highlighted by Dr. Emmert’s speech. Among those in attendance was Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson, who joined other athletic officials and those tied to the local business and educational communities. Anderson provided some early sparks.

As a member of a chamber committee that hosted the event, I volunteered to help manage the media. I also brought along copies of my latest book, Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias, hoping to promote it on site. I was wary, though, about how Maryland athletic officials might react it to its presence. Since the book was released in December 2011, the department has unsurprisingly greeted the book with a consistent chill. They’ve blocked any attempt to promote it at a department-related event. The death of Bias, after all, is not considered one of the more fond moments in the school’s rich athletic history.

When I saw Anderson near the check-in area, I reached out my hand and introduced myself, saying I was a former Terps athlete and author of the book on Bias. I sent Anderson a copy of the book soon after its release but heard nothing in response, and I wondered if he had read it. I expected a standard response, with little more than a “nice to meet you.”

Surprise number one. “Ah, I read that book,” he said engagingly. When an author hears those words, the next thing they hope to hear is something similar to, ‘greatest book I ever read’, or “I’d like to buy one for every Maryland student athlete, their parents, and their siblings.” To my disappointment, neither happened. To my pleasant surprise, however, Anderson said something with conviction that stunned me. “We’ve got to get Len Bias in the Hall of Fame.”

Maryland’s Athletic Hall of Fame committee has so far shunned Bias. I’ve been told Maryland’s reluctance is due to a few members on the committee who refuse to forget the trauma Bias’ death caused the university. I have written repeatedly about my support of his Hall of Fame bid.

“I agree with you,” I replied to Anderson, and then offered assistance to help make it happen. Anderson pulled something out of his pocket and handed it to me saying, “take this.” No explanation or reason followed. I thanked him, not knowing what it was. In the midst of a brief crush to register members of the media, I was unable to engage Anderson further, and placed the object in a pocket.

challenge_coin_backI soon noticed that one side of the coin–about two inches in diameter and heavy enough to function as a paperweight–featured Testudo, the Terps mascot, posed strongly and proudly and capped by the words “Go Terps”. On the other side of the coin, the following words circled a large letter M: “Presented by the Athletic Director. For Excellence.”

Later, I approached Anderson and asked him about the coin’s significance. I expected an inspirational, serious response. Rather, he tossed me a humorous aside. “It’s a challenge coin,” he said. “If I see you somewhere and you don’t have it with you, that means you have to buy all the drinks.” A weak smile tweaked his lips, and I chuckled, still unsure of the coin’s meaning.

“We did this at Army,” added Anderson, who was athletic director at the U.S. Military Academy before taking the Maryland job in 2010.

Challenge coins symbolize support of an organization represented on the coin. They also promote unity, boost morale and command respect within that group. They are also used to recognize a special achievement. Showing it to someone can also initiate a challenge. Military groups started using the coins around the time of World War II.

I was never able to ask Anderson that day why he gave me the coin. This allowed me to theorize about his motive. Perhaps he wanted to develop a bond with a former Terps athlete and promote a sense of unity. Or perhaps it represents how he felt about the book. Maybe it reflected our shared interest in helping Bias earn his just due at a Maryland Athletics Hall of Fame member.

The next day I reached out to Anderson’s office, asking for clarification on his intent for giving me the coin. An assistant told me Anderson rarely distributes the coin. He’s handed them to athletes on senior night and to other athletes who have shown excellence as well as to military veterans at halftime of football games. In an email from the assistant, Anderson said he gave me the coin “…for the work you are doing for Len Bias.”

I own few remaining symbols of my days as a Terps athlete. I lost my varsity letter jacket decades ago. Medals won at track meets are stored unceremoniously in a box. A rarely used, but highly cherished, varsity letter sweater hangs in a closet. A couple of track and field pictures are displayed on a wall in my office.

Receiving the challenge coin revived a faded sense of pride in being a University of Maryland athlete. Receiving it from the school’s current athletic director only enhances the feeling. And If Anderson is challenging me to properly recognize the mixed legacy of Bias, consider it a challenge eagerly embraced.

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