Keenan Ellis didn’t see it coming. After months of rehab from a violent concussion, and with spring practice approaching, the BYU junior defensive back huddled up with the medical staff expecting to hear some good news.

“I thought it was going to be a regular checkup,” Ellis said as he sat down with head football athletic trainer Steve Pincock. Head team physician and concussion specialist Dr. Darren Campbell joined them on the phone. “I was ready for them to tell me that in a few months I would be all healed and ready to return to football.”

Instead, Ellis, who had two years of eligibility remaining, was told “it is too dangerous for him to return” and just like that, his days of playing football were over.

“It was the worst news I’ve heard in my life. As soon as I heard it, I just shut down. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t want to tell my family because I felt like the more people I told, the more real it became.” — Keenan Ellis

“It was the worst news I’ve heard in my life,” Ellis said. “As soon as I heard it, I just shut down. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t want to tell my family because I felt like the more people I told, the more real it became.”

Adding to the shock was the fact that Ellis hadn’t felt this good since before the incident on Sept. 4 against Arizona. His BYU doctors, along with an outside “second” opinion, ruled on the side of caution and common sense.

“It’s a hard thing to talk to any player about stepping away from playing the sport they love and changing direction in life. That’s hard news to deliver,” said Campbell. “At the same time, it’s easier than having a discussion with a player or parent about long-term complications that could have been prevented.”

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Ellis was bound and determined to be back in the starting lineup for BYU’s Sept. 3 season opener at South Florida. Football is in his heart, but the injury is in the brain.

“Physically, I believe I’m back to normal. I feel like my good old normal self. No lingering symptoms,” he said. “I’m blessed, but I’m not surprised. I just knew what God can do for me. My healing was a blessing.”

Being shut out of football may prove to be a blessing too.

“Our brains are fairly resilient. We often have a type of ‘reserve’ that can help us return to normal function in life even with lingering injury,” Campbell said. “However, if we’ve used up that reserve and have another injury in the same place, we can have long-term deficits in brain function.”

The dark night

Ellis was knocked out in the first quarter against Arizona when his head collided with the leg of Wildcats running back Michael Wiley after an incomplete pass.

Wiley stayed on his feet, but Ellis hit the ground and stayed there.

BYU defensive back Keenan Ellis is injured during the Vegas Kickoff Classic in Las Vegas on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“In my 26 years on the sideline, this was one of the worst I had ever seen,” BYU team physician Dr. Kirt Kimball told the Deseret News in late October. “I’d never seen someone out that long. He was out a minute or so. Most guys are out for just a few seconds.”

Ellis was carted off the field and rushed to University Medical Center. A CT scan showed only minor damage, but an MRI back in Provo revealed a much more serious situation and he was held out the remaining 11 games of the 2021 season.

Keenan and Kalani

“The world is still his for the taking,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake. “Just one option is gone, which is football.”

It pains the coach to see an injury derail such a promising talent.

“The unfortunate part is he has the ability to play at the next level and the talent to play at the next level, but that has come to an end,” Sitake said. “He will always have a huge influence on our program, and I still need him to be a mentor and leader for our players currently. He just won’t be able to do it on the field.”

Ellis has been carrying a football since his very first steps. He was an offensive star at Bonita Vista High in San Diego and transitioned to defense at BYU. He played in 21 games for the Cougars and won 16 times, including the last nine.

BYU defensive back Keenan Ellis takers a knee before the game against Texas State Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Provo, Utah. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

“The advice he gives these young players on our team now will be vital to our success this season and in the future,” Sitake said. “I’m excited about the things he is going to do in the community and as a future husband and father.”

Ellis chose to attend BYU over Washington State. The injury relegated him to a cheerleader when the blue Cougars beat the red Cougars 21-19 in Pullman, Washington, last fall. Although his playing days are over, he remains loyal to the man who brought him here.

“That’s a guy I would go to war for,” Ellis said of Sitake. “I love him so much. He cares about me, not just on the field but also off the field. He told me I have his full support and he is so excited for my new journey.”

Law school

For Ellis, what he thought was the end of his hopes and dreams may be just the beginning. Football brought him to BYU, but he plans to leave with much more.

“I went and talked with Coach (Ed) Lamb (assistant head coach) and he urged me to use that same fire I had for football and let it carry me forward,” said Ellis, who graduates in April in sociology. He plans to take the LSAT in June for admittance into the BYU Law School.

“I talked with one of our administrators and he threw out the idea of attending law school,” Ellis said. “I started thinking about it more and more and thought ‘Yes!’ I’d love to do it.’ I have family members that have been in and out of the court system and I think I can help them and help families in similar situations. I feel like this is my new path.”

No looking back

Driven.

That word describes the empowering ingredient that brought Ellis success on the football field and in the classroom. 

“Keenan will remain a leader for the season and beyond,” Lamb said. “His example of toughness and professionalism has already left a legacy for his teammates.”

Ellis says he will miss those teammates and the energy that comes from competing. He will also miss the roar of the crowd.

“I’ve seen all of the messages and appreciate the support,” Ellis said. “I remember fans sending my brother-in-law help through a GoFundMe account when he was in the hospital. We raised $15,000 for him. BYU fans are amazing. I’m truly grateful for them.”

Ellis was on his back for 20 minutes after sustaining his injury at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas while family, teammates and fans feared the worst. The sound of the silence in that vast facility was deafening. The injury cost him the game he loved, but his life is just getting started and he believes his best performance is still to come — and he is not alone.

“As far as how brilliant he is, the amount of adversity that he has been able to overcome,” said Sitake. “And to do it with a great attitude and great personality and see the things he’s improved on, and the character and integrity he possesses, it’s gonna allow him to have so much success in life. I’m really excited about him.”

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

A football players mentality is to take a hit, get up, shake it off and go back for more. But when a hit can’t be shaken off, it’s time to do something different.

“A person can look at it like, ‘Football is over. Why did this happen to me?’ Which is a pessimistic view,” Ellis said. “Football brought me this far. It got me a free education, memories with friends and my family got to watch me play. Football is something I will forever be grateful for. I’m thankful for football pointing me on the new path that I’m on.”

The proverbial phrase “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” certainly applies here. For Ellis, football gave him a career-ending concussion, but where it’s leading him may just blow his mind.

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.