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What Keenan Ellis remembers — and doesn’t — the night of his harrowing injury

Catching up with the now-retired BYU defensive back one year after he suffered a serious injury against Arizona

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BYU cornerback Keenan Ellis talks to media during BYU media day at the BYU Broadcasting Building in Provo on June 17, 2021.

BYU cornerback Keenan Ellis talks to media during BYU football media day at the BYU Broadcasting Building in Provo on Thursday, June 17, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Editor’s note: This story was originally published Oct. 22, 2021. It has been updated with new information.

The clock was stopped at 10:12 in the first quarter, but the race against time continued.

Keenan Ellis, a promising junior defensive back at BYU, lay unresponsive at the 30-yard line after his head had collided with an opponent.

“It was a nightmare. I just knew that he needed me and somehow I had to get to him.” — Saadia Ellis, Keenan Ellis’ mom

A training staff of 11 rushed the field to determine the problem. They acted fast to stabilize his body and then waited for him to wake up.

“In my 26 years on the sideline, this was the worst I had ever seen,” said BYU team physician Kirt Kimball. “I’d never seen someone out that long. He was out about a minute or so. Most guys are out just few seconds.”

Ellis’ mother watched the situation unfold on her television in San Diego.

“I just froze when I saw him go down like that,” Saadia Ellis said. “At first, I didn’t think it was something serious, but then I kept watching and he wasn’t getting up. I just started to cry.”

The training staff worked on Ellis for 20 minutes.

“I don’t even remember any of that,” Ellis said. “I heard later that they were calling my name and I wasn’t responding to it. I was just trying to fight everyone off and get back on the field.”

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BYU players come to the aid of defensive back Keenan Ellis (2), who was injured during the Vegas Kickoff Classic in Las Vegas on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The longer the staff worked, the greater the fear increased throughout the stadium that something was terribly wrong.

As Saadia watched from her living room, ESPN switched its coverage from the game to its studio in Bristol, Connecticut, leaving her in the dark as to what was happening in Las Vegas.

“I tried calling Keenan’s dad, my brother, Chaz Ah You’s mom, I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “It was a nightmare. I just knew that he needed me and somehow I had to get to him.”

“I’m doing way better. Way better. I just had to take a little nap. I’m sorry I scared so many people, but I’m doing better.” — Keenan Ellis

Ellis never stopped breathing during the ordeal, but the training staff feared for the worst — a possible broken neck.   

“It was a scary sight. For guys like him, after you have spent time with his mom and dad during recruiting, he’s one of your own,” said cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford. “It’s emotional seeing him down like that and not knowing the prognosis of what’s going on?”

After what felt like forever to his family and teammates, Ellis regained consciousness. He was in shock, and he was mad.

“When he woke up, he was combative, resistant and powerful,” said Kimball, who was assigned to hold down Ellis’ right arm, which he said was a mighty struggle. “We were trying to control his position, get his pads off and stabilize him. We were just trying to protect him from himself.”

Ellis was moved to a cart and then to the back of an ambulance, where he was rushed to the nearby trauma center at University Medical Center, with his dad, Keenan, at his side. Saadia flew straight to Utah and remained at their son’s side for three weeks assisting with treatments and homework.

Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Keenan Ellis (2) is injured during the Vegas Kickoff Classic.

BYU defensive back Keenan Ellis (2) leaves the field on a cart after being injured during the Vegas Kickoff Classic in Las Vegas on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Where is Keenan Ellis now?

Nearly eight weeks to the day of the injury and BYU’s 24-16 win against Arizona, Ellis gave an interview to BYUtv and was happy to report that he was improving.

“I’m doing way better. Way better,” he said with a full smile. “I just had to take a little nap. I’m sorry I scared so many people, but I’m doing better. I’m dealing with a little brain fog and a little bit of memory loss. We are just being cautious about it.”

In February, BYU coach Kalani Sitake announced that Ellis was retiring from football for medical reasons.

“It is really, really sad,” Sitake said. “We feel really good about the recommendation that we have (from medical experts), just about his overall health and livelihood. It sucks when you have a guy that is a starter and has the potential to play at the next level, and has worked really hard to get here.”

Ellis is still around the team. He currently works in a telesales job and studies for the LSAT, which he plans to take this fall. At one point, he planned to be a student coach with the team, but is focusing instead on his goal of beginning law school at BYU next fall.

Keenan Ellis’ injury

Arizona faced a third-and-5 situation on its own 31-yard line. The predominant BYU crowd of 54,541 rose to their feet to encourage a defensive stop.

“Right before the play Chaz Ah You gave me the signal for our coverage,” Ellis said. “I remember getting that call and everything else is blank.”

Arizona quarterback Gunner Cruz threw a short pass to Michael Wiley. Ellis converged and knocked the ball away, but also collided his head with Wiley’s body and fell to the ground unconscious.

“I’m still a little confused about how the injury came about from an awkward tackle like that,” he said. “It’s frustrating because I have never had to deal with an injury like this.”

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BYU defensive back Keenan Ellis falls to the ground after colliding with Arizona running back Michael Wiley during game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Las Vegas.

David Becker, Associated Press

Ah You and other members of the defense frantically waved the medical staff onto the field. Just like that, his opening night was over, but that was the least of the concerns.

“Keenan was so eager for that game,” Saadia said. “He was so happy. He texted me that day and said, ‘Mom, this is gonna be something really exciting for me.’ When he went down and stayed down, I just couldn’t believe it.”

With no real-time recollection of the events that unfolded, Ellis gathered his perspective by watching the game tapes.

“It took about three weeks before I realized what happened and how severe the injury was as my memory started to return,” he said. “I didn’t remember a thing.”

Ellis has since seen the injury and the aftermath hundreds of times, and while the focus of the moment was on him that night, he saw something else.

“I saw how our team came together. I love my brothers,” Ellis said. ”They were all praying for me. They have a lot of love for me, and I have a lot of love for them. I loved seeing that, and the crowd as well as they applauded for me. That just means a lot.”

CT scan vs. MRI

As the game ended, word spread through the media from BYU that Ellis’ CT scan at the hospital was normal and that he had movement in all his extremities. The next morning, he was reported to be moving without any pain to his neck and back. There was even widespread optimism that Ellis might even return to play in the Arizona State game two weeks later.

That changed quickly.

“We learned out about the severity of the concussion,” he said. “They didn’t want to rush me back too soon. They want to make sure all my symptoms are gone.”

Ellis received an MRI on his brain when he returned to Provo and the results were such that he was not cleared to play.

“A CT scan is an X-ray that looks at the bones. It can detect if there has been a shift in the brain,” Kimball said. “An MRI shows swelling on the brain, tissue damage or areas of bleeding at a micro level. It gives us the ability to look at actual potential injury to brain tissue where a CT scan looks at it in a more generic fashion. Five years ago, we didn’t do MRIs on concussions, but technology has changed.”

Ellis, and any student-athlete like him with a concussion, undergoes daily computer testing on his or her brain.     

“It’s no longer ‘hold up and count how many fingers you can see.’ It’s more sophisticated,” Kimball said. “As they can do more brain functions, we increase various activities to see if the concussion symptoms return. We can no longer say the kid will be back in a week. We don’t know.”

Road to Provo

Ellis didn’t play a single down on defense at Bonita Vista High in San Diego. At the time, he thought catching, not defending passes, was his ticket to fame. He caught nine touchdown passes during his senior year in 2016.

“This has taught me that I’m really a fighter. I had to really think about that and whether I wanted to keep going. This adversity is making me stronger mentally.” — Keenan Ellis

“When I came to BYU, I thought I was thinking I would play receiver,” he said. “But when I got here, they threw me at the corner position. It’s given me a whole different experience and it’s allowed me to become mentally tougher.”

Gilford recruited Ellis to Provo.

“He had speed, ball skills, change of direction and fluid hips and those are the things we feel can make a good corner,” Gilford said. “We have to be able to go left and right at the drop of a dime. He showed those skills as a receiver and had all the tools that we thought we could develop.”

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.