From Bedford to BYU: How receiver Keanu Hill found his place in Provo
Hill brought a rich football pedigree with him from Texas to Utah, and according to his Hall of Honor dad and uncle, the best is yet to come
Everything is bigger in Texas — including expectations.
The Dallas Cowboys are judged by winning Super Bowls, the Texas Longhorns by College Football Playoff appearances, and high school football players by their bloodlines.
Sadly, for many, expectations and reality don’t always align. The result is often disappointment and discouragement — unless you are BYU freshman Keanu Hill. He has been managing high expectations since the day he was born.
Hill is the son of Lloyd Hill, a first-team All-American and member of the Texas Tech and Texas High School Football Halls of Fame. He is also the nephew of Roy Williams, another high school star, All-American, a member of the University of Texas Hall of Honor and former Dallas Cowboy.
Both Lloyd Hill and Uncle Roy were big-body receivers — just like Keanu, who is 6-foor-4 and 207 pounds. With BYU junior Neil Pau’u set to miss Saturday’s game at USC with an ankle injury, the opportunity for Hill to be a big contributor is right in front of him.
“I already know that coach (Fesi Sitake) knows what I can do on the field,” said the freshman from Bedford, Texas. “I just need to be ready when he calls my name and go in and make plays.”
Time is on his side. Hill has played in 22 games, but due to a redshirt season (2019) and last year’s COVID-19 season, which did not count against his eligibility, he is a third-year freshman. With grad-transfer Samson Nacua and juniors Gunnar Romney and Pau’u potentially wrapping up their Cougar careers next month, Hill’s playing time is set to skyrocket.
“It was tough for Keanu to play a major role in the opener against Arizona (with the Nacuas out) and come back the next week and not have the playing time he was hoping for,” said BYU receivers coach Fesi Sitake. “He grew from that. He stayed ready. He just came to work every day. When his name is called, he is always ready. To me, that’s the sign of someone who gets it.”
It’s also evidence that Hill listens closely to family advice.
“Do your job,” Lloyd Hill instructs his son. “This is what you have been waiting for. My main thing is you want to catch the ball, but also do the intangibles — block for others when the ball isn’t coming to you.”
“When I watch him play, I see the best run-blocking receiver BYU has,” said his uncle Roy Williams. “I’m very proud of him. It shows a lot about his character. I know he wants to play more, but he’s a little behind the eight-ball with those great receivers that they have.”
Lloyd Hill has attended most of the home games this season and records and reviews every play of every game — just as he did through Keanu’s Pop Warner and high school days.
“Our route running is kind of similar,” he said. “I wasn’t very fast, but I could go and get the ball. Keanu is the same way. He’s taller than me, but I did think he needs to get better and high pointing the ball during his catches.”
Hill has 20 career receptions for 375 yards and two touchdowns. He made the most of his opportunity three weeks ago against Idaho State, when Romney was out with an injury. Not only did the accounting major catch four passes for a career high 92 yards and a touchdown, but he also blocked and recovered a punt for a touchdown, something that his famous dad or uncle never did.
“That blocked punt shocked me. I didn’t even know he was out there on the field,” said Lloyd. “He’s gonna throw that in our faces for years to come!”
Bedford to Provo
Lloyd K. Hill was destined to follow in his dad’s footsteps. His parents, Lloyd and Hanna, who met and married while at Texas Tech, named him after his father, but he goes by his middle name Keanu.
“It was a compromise,” Lloyd said. “I wanted my name in there somewhere and my wife is Polynesian, and she has always admired actor Keanu Reeves, who is also Polynesian, so there you have it. Plus, Keanu always said Lloyd is an old man’s name!”
Keanu Hill played football at Trinity High in the Dallas suburbs, on a field 338 miles east of where his dad was a superstar in Odessa. Lloyd had offers from just about everywhere, while Keanu’s college interests were minimal. He surprised his family by choosing the Cougars.
“I think that was the best thing for him,” Lloyd said. “Everybody expected my brother (Roy) to go to Tech and follow in my footsteps. I was glad he chose Texas. It’s always hard to follow someone. Go make a name for yourself. Sure, every dad would love for his son to play at his school, but it was important for Keanu to go to BYU and make a name for himself.”
Sitake and former BYU assistant Ryan Pugh had Trinity High on their radar in 2018 because of past recruiting success within the Latter-day Saint and Polynesian communities in the area.
“I went there and saw the type of leader Keanu was, his size and his personality. He was raw, but you could see a ceiling there,” Sitake said. “Then I learned about his pedigree, and you could see the genetics come to fruition. I said, ‘If I’m gonna miss on a kid, I’m gonna miss on him.’”
Sitake didn’t miss. All evidence points to him hitting a bull’s-eye.
“I was surprised he was looking at BYU,” Lloyd said. “But my thing is, if a team wants you, then they have seen you play, and they know you can come help them. That’s my biggest thing. BYU was really interested in him. Coach Fesi has done a great job with those receivers, especially the kids who are so far from home.”
The move to Provo was a big one for Hill. “I’m just trying to be myself, find my own way,” he told the Deseret News when he arrived on campus in August 2019.
“I thought he was crazy when he chose BYU, but I understood what he wanted to do,” said Williams. “I wanted him to go to Texas.”
“I know it was really hard for him. All he knows is Texas,” said Sitake. “I could feel his sense of worry and the questions he had about what he was stepping in to. But he is extremely loyal. He is one to say, ‘You guys believed in me first — I’m rocking with you guys.’”
Lloyd Hill was a top-10 national recruit at Permian High in Odessa. He chose to play for Texas Tech in Lubbock (1990-93) and finished his career holding school records for receptions (189), receiving yards (3,059) and touchdowns (20).
“He was so good that as I child I wanted the name “L. Hill” on the back of my jersey and to wear his No. 18,” said Williams. “All the pictures in my coloring books were done in red and black because I was going to Tech to be like my brother.”
Lloyd led the nation in 1992 with 76 receptions and set school single-season records with 1,261 receiving yards and 12 receiving touchdowns. Even 28 years later, he remains fourth in Texas Tech history in receiving yards.
The first team All-American was selected in the sixth round by the Chicago Bears in the 1994 NFL draft before a knee injury ended his career.
Lloyd was inducted into the Texas High School Hall of Fame in 2005, one year after the movie “Friday Night Lights” hit the big screen, starring Billy Bob Thornton and Tim McGraw. The movie was based on a book written about Hill’s 1988 team.
“Our football coach was nothing like Billy Bob Thornton,” he quipped.
Permian finished 16-0, outscored its opponents 620-97 and won the Texas 5A State Championship. NBC turned the popular sports movie into a television series that lasted five seasons.
“It’s nice,” Lloyd said. “It makes me feel proud to be a part of that story.”
Lloyd was inducted into the Texas Tech Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006, but despite his reservoir of football intellect and experience, and his all-encompassing interest in his son, he has taken a hands-off approach to the BYU staff.
“I’ve been very pleased with how he has handled the relationship between Keanu and me,” Sitake said. “When you have that kind of credibility as a receiver, I’m sure it’s very hard to bite your tongue on the football side of things. Every dad wants more playing time for their son, but I’ve appreciated how he’s handled things. It’s been a joy.”
Freeland vs. Hill
In a twist of fate, Lloyd Hill played high school football against James Freeland, father of BYU left tackle Blake Freeland. Lloyd’s Permian Panthers defeated Freeland’s Arlington Colts during Lloyd’s junior season in 1987.
During Keanu’s and Blake’s recruiting visits to Provo, the two dads and rivals, but strangers, came face to face.
“I was wearing my Permian hat and he looked over and asked, ‘Did you attend there?” Lloyd said. “I said ‘Yes,’ and then James said, “You have no idea how much I hated you guys.”
The two have been nice to each other ever since, as their boys are now teammates.
Like his older brother, Williams also starred at Permian High, but unlike Lloyd, Williams chose to play at the University of Texas (2000-04) where he earned the nickname “The Legend.”
“I was Mike Leach’s first recruit at Texas Tech, and he promised me 100 balls a year,” Williams said. “My mom got upset with him, saying, ‘He can’t make those kinds of promises?’ So, I turned him down and went to Texas. After Leach’s first year at Tech, my mom admitted that she may have been mistaken.”
Williams finished his Longhorns career as the all-time leader in receptions (241), receiving yards (3,866) and receiving touchdowns (36).
The Detroit Lions grabbed him with the seventh overall pick in in the 2004 NFL draft. He joined the Cowboys in 2008 and finished with the Bears in 2011. He gave Lloyd Hill the ball from his last touchdown reception with Chicago — the team that drafted him years before.
The University of Texas inducted Williams into the Longhorns Hall of Honor in 2013.
When it comes to passing on advice to Keanu, the former NFL all-pro lets Lloyd do most of the instructing.
“I learned from his dad as well,” Williams said. “I do know Keanu has watched me before and takes things from my game. If I see something he can use with his, I’ll point it out.”
‘Get your degree’
“I’d say on a scale of one to 10, football is a nine with us,” Lloyd said. “But the main thing is getting your degree and football helped me get mine. Get your degree — that’s what I was taught growing up. My wife and daughter have their degrees and football is giving Keanu an opportunity to earn his.”
When the phone rings at night at the Hills’ home in Bedford, and if it’s Keanu on the other end of the line, Lloyd knows to hand the phone over to Hannah.
“When Keanu calls and asks for mom, it’s a question about school,” he said. “He’s already heard from me about the football.”
Lloyd is a fan of BYU football. He knows the playmakers like the back of his hand.
“Jaren (Hall) is an excellent quarterback,” he said. “He had some big shoes to fill with Zach (Wilson) leaving and he’s done an excellent job with it. Tyler (Allgeier) is great running back.”
To no surprise, BYU’s receiving corps has his full attention.
“Each one of them has something that reminds me of me,” he said. “I wish Samson (Nacua) had another year and who knows if Gunner (Romney) and Neil (Pau’u) will be back? But Puka (Nacua) is a special player. I think that will help Keanu in the long run with Puka getting double-teamed a lot.”
Keanu vs. Texas Tech
Two years from now, BYU will be playing against Texas Tech as a new member of the Big 12. For the first time, Keanu will be suiting up in opposition to the school where his father remains a revered Red Raider.
“I’ll always support my team, but my son comes first,” Lloyd said. “I’d like Tech to win if they are in the running for something, but I’m gonna go with BYU because they gave my son a chance to play.”
Lloyd has experience in balancing his loyalties.
“When I would attend go watch my brother play at Texas, I cheered for him, but I wore a Texas Tech hat and jacket when I did.”
Even Williams, a beloved Longhorn who watched Taysom Hill run over his alma mater on two occasions, is sipping the BYU-blue Kool-Aid.
“It was cold here yesterday in Odessa. I have a BYU winter toboggan hat and a shirt and that’s it when it comes to that stuff and I wore the toboggan around town with my Longhorns shirt,” Williams said. “I wear the Longhorns because I’m here and I wear BYU because my nephew is there.”
High expectations still rule Texas sports.
Frustrated with a lack of success, Lloyd’s alma mater, Texas Tech, fired head coach Matt Wells last month in the middle of his third season. The Red Raiders are paying the former Utah State head coach $6.9 million to leave.
Texas, where Williams was a star, paid Tom Herman and his staff over $24 million to vacate Austin after four seasons. They are now paying former BYU quarterback Steve Sarkisian over $5 million annually with the expectation that he will return the Longhorns to their former glory. However, after a 57-56 home defeat to Kansas this month — many Longhorns faithful are already wondering if Sark is the right guy to do it?
As for the Cowboys, the world’s most valuable sports franchise at $5.7 billion according to Forbes, they haven’t reached the Super Bowl since 1996, well before Keanu Hill was born.
Expectations can be motivating, but also cruel and crushing when they aren’t met.
“I feel like I’m always improving every week,” Keanu said. “My coach believes in me, and I believe in myself.”
Provo is well beyond Keanu Hill’s football family shadow. It’s where this Lone Star State product has found a place to shine on his own, where reaching the end zone is a pleasant surprise for BYU fans who have little or no idea where he has come from.
“My big picture for Keanu is to get his degree from BYU and then let the chips fall from there,” Williams said. “Our family legacy will follow him wherever he goes.”
As for now, the only expectation for Keanu is to catch the ball or make a downfield block against USC and run back to the huddle for another play. This may best explain why this young Texan, whose nerves cause him to shudder at the very thought of a media interview, always has a smile on his face.
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.