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

BYU defensive back remembers little from the night he suffered a serious injury during the team’s season opener against Arizona in Las Vegas, but is confident he’ll be back on the field someday

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

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.

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.”

Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Keenan Ellis (2) is injured during the Vegas Kickoff Classic in Las Vegas on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.
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.”

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.

The last time BYU fans have seen Ellis was when he left Allegiant Stadium in the ambulance. Nearly eight weeks to the day of the injury, and in his first interview since Sept. 4, the night BYU opened its season with a 24-16 win against Arizona, Ellis is happy to report that he’s improving.

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

“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.”

The Ellis interview will be featured Saturday during “Countdown to Kickoff at noon on BYUtv.

The injury

Arizona faced a third-and-five 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.”

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 hasn’t been cleared to play and may not return until next season.

“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.

“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.”

BYU beat out Washington State in the recruiting battle for Ellis. On Saturday, when the two teams meet in Pullman, Washington, at 1:30 on ESPN, he will be relegated to cheerleader.

The road back

While Ellis still holds out slim hope for a return this season, next year may be more realistic. For now, he is weightlifting, conditioning, working through his rehab and offering coaching tips to his teammates at practice.

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

Ellis has been missed by his teammates, especially during BYU’s recent two-game skid.

“He’s a guy who can lock down a receiver. He’s physical and he’s not afraid to tackle,” Gilford said. “His leadership is definitely missing. He’s been with me for four years. He’s an extension of us coaches on the field.”

Ellis is a member of tight-knit, very protective families — both in Provo with his team, and in San Diego with his parents.

“I’m beyond proud of him, but I told him, ‘Keenan, you don’t have to play. It’s OK. You have a great education at one of the best schools in the world and you have had a great experience,” Saadia said. “He said, ‘Mom, I’m not stopping here. This is what I want to do.’ I said, ‘OK, but your health comes first’ and he understand that.”

Ellis may not remember the moment the clock stopped for him in Las Vegas, but he is counting down the days and the concussion tests, until the time is right to step back onto the field — healthy, happy — and ready for another play.

The Cougars open the 2022 season on Sept. 3 at South Florida.

“I’ll be on the field,” he said. “That’s the goal.”

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.