Offensive lineman Keanu Saleapaga has gone through so many physical, emotional and mental setbacks during his six years at BYU that he’s almost lost count.

Five surgeries.

Three deaths of close family members.

Some academic struggles.

Bouts with depression and despair.

But there the 6-foot-6, 310-pound giant was earlier this week at the Cougars’ seventh spring practice, fighting for a starting spot on the Cougars’ deep and experienced offensive line.

“I’m a survivor, I guess,” said the Californian who came out of La Mirada High in 2016 with so much promise that he had offers from more than a dozen Power Five programs and originally committed to USC before Steve Sarkisian was fired there in 2015.

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He’s certainly not a quitter, although he acknowledges that several times in the last few years he has seriously thought about doing just that.

“It was tough,” he said of the journey that took him from starting in 19 games in the 2018 and 2019 seasons to being on the precipice of giving up football and his pursuit of a BYU degree. “I found myself running away from every game, every friendship, even social media, because I felt like I was going to be done with it all.”

BYU offensive lineman Keanu Saleapaga, left, in action during game at South Florida on Oct. 27, 2019. After two years battling injuries, Saleapaga is back and healthy, and ready to contribute in 2022. | Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

During some of the “lowest points of my life,” Saleapaga says, he turned to his parents, his siblings, his girlfriend, his teammates and coaches, and his church to get back on the team.

“All of it has made me a stronger person,” he said.

Head coach Kalani Sitake said the first day of spring camp — after Saleapaga’s name appeared on the Cougars’ 2022 spring football roster, to the surprise of many — that the big guy’s return is the result of a lot of work by a lot of people, especially Saleapaga himself.

“He is much like the Keanu that we saw in the past,” Sitake said. “He is a great addition for us on our offensive line.”

After choosing BYU over Colorado in February 2016 although he was not a member of BYU’s sponsoring faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Saleapaga had to wait until 2017 to enroll because of some issues with the NCAA clearinghouse.

BYU OL Keanu Saleapaga was once committed to USC and grew up a Trojans fan, but he’s all Cougar now

He redshirted in 2017 and played along the defensive line for the scout team, then was asked by then-offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes to move to offensive line before the 2018 season. He became a starter in 2018, and played a similar number of games at right tackle and left guard over the course of the next two seasons.

He was widely viewed as a potential NFL prospect. Then the injuries came — all to his upper body. He had both biceps and both shoulders surgically repaired, and then more surgery was required on his left shoulder. That’s five times going under the knife.

In 2020, when the Cougars were going 11-1 and climbing in the national rankings, Saleapaga returned to practice before the Texas State game on Oct. 24, but re-aggravated one of his injuries and had to shut it down the remainder of the season.

“I was getting back,” he said. “But I was kinda hitting it harder than I should have been, and I got injured again.”

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Schoolwork has never been easy for him, and he admits that his grades slipped a bit in 2020. That’s one of the reasons that his parents, Lori and Roger, had moved to Utah from Southern California in 2017 — to help him with his academic pursuits.

Now he’s just a few classes away from getting a degree in family studies.

“Honestly, the first thing that really came to mind when I started my surgeries is that (football) isn’t going to last forever,” he said. “So that made me hit the books harder. My parents were harder on me about going to class, getting my homework done, extra study hours. And everybody upstairs (in BYU’s student athlete building) helped me a lot.”

The ordeal has caused him to readjust his priorities, he said. Football is still important, and he would still like to take a shot at the NFL if this final season at BYU works out. But if it doesn’t, he will have his degree and his newfound confidence that he can do anything to which he puts his mind.

“The biggest thing is I am just grateful. Grateful for all the opportunities I have had and will have, grateful to the coaches for sticking with me, grateful for my family and all their help. I am grateful to be alive, grateful to wake up every morning and play this sport I love.” — BYU offensive lineman Keanu Saleapaga

“The biggest thing is I am just grateful,” he said. “Grateful for all the opportunities I have had and will have, grateful to the coaches for sticking with me, grateful for my family and all their help. I am grateful to be alive, grateful to wake up every morning and play this sport I love.”

It won’t be easy breaking into the starting lineup, and Saleapaga knows that. The unit has added Oregon transfer Kingsley Suamataia, a former five-star recruit from Orem High, and center James Empey is the only starter from the 2021 team moving on.

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“Keanu is a guy who has played a lot of games for us and started,” Sitake said. “Adding him to a deep O-line is really good for us, and we will see how much we can use him.”

Sitake said the offensive linemen are a “big reason” for the team’s success the past two years.

“The linemen do the hard work that nobody gives them any credit for,” Sitake said. “I talk about staying humble and staying hungry, and those guys lead the way. If we can get them all right, the linemen are going to make sure this team is never going to be in trouble.”

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