‘It was a nightmare’: BYU DB Keenan Ellis opens up about his medical retirement from football

Ellis suffered a severe neck injury in BYU’s season opener last year

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Center back Keenan Ellis joins BYU football coaches, players and staff participating in BYU football media day in the BYU Broadcasting Building in Provo on Thursday, June 17, 2021.

No matter what happened, Kennan Ellis did not want to tell his mom.

It was the morning of Jan. 5, the day Ellis would meet with BYU’s head trainer Steve Pincock and team physician Darren Campbell. After months of seeing countless doctors and upward of five specialists for his neck injury, that afternoon he would find out if he would ever play football again.

And he couldn’t bring himself to tell his mom. Because if the answer was no, telling his mom would make it real.

“I remember everything about that day,” Ellis told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It was just a nightmare. I sat in the training room and they told me it’s too dangerous to play. I’d have to medically retire.”

Ellis drove home in the snow in silence. He didn’t talk for the next five hours. By the next morning, Ellis still hadn’t come to terms with it. His body felt fine. So he went to the football offices like usual. He talked to special teams coordinator Ed Lamb and left.

It wasn’t until 48 hours later — after trying unsuccessfully to live a normal life — when he broke down and told his family.

“Football was always my dream because of the opportunities,” Ellis said. “It gave me a free education and my parents didn’t have to worry. I always saw the NFL as an opportunity to help support my family financially. So just telling my mom felt like, ‘Man, that is all cut off.’”

Ellis has since come around to his medical retirement. It feels real to him now. The only problem is, reality doesn’t make it easier. Life consists of moving on and finding the next chapter.

Ellis became nationally known this August after being involved in a collision that nearly broke his neck. Within the first five minutes of BYU’s season, the junior broke up a pass intended for Arizona running back Michael Wiley. When he went in for the collision, his head landed squarely on Wiley’s shoulder.

(David Becker | AP) BYU defensive back Keenan Ellis reacts to an apparent injury after defending against Arizona running back Michael Wiley during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Las Vegas.

In a split second, he collapsed on the ground motionless. Ellis was unconscious for over a minute. Trainers eventually immobilized him and rushed him to a trauma center in Las Vegas. Some feared Ellis would be paralyzed. By morning, he was moving around.

“You never want to see a player like that,” BYU linebacker Keenan Pili said right after the injury. “A teammate we love, to see him like that hurts.”

He spent the better part of the next six months rehabbing and seeing specialists. Some within the program thought Ellis had a legitimate path back to football. His body looked good and as spring practice rolled around, Ellis began lifting for football activities.

But he never touched a football in the rehab process. If a football hit his neck, it would have been a risk. And doctors ultimately agreed if an errant football was too much, so was full contact football.

“It was the right decision,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said. “We had a lot of conversations. I feel good about the decision. But it’s sad. He had NFL potential.”

The last two months have been introspective for Ellis. He started morning meditations — every day at 7 a.m. for 20 minutes. Originally, he started doing meditations during his rehab process. He thought if he kept a strict routine, he could trick his body into thinking it was healthy.

But now those meditations are to help his mind more than his body. He is trying to come to terms with a career that lasted just 13 games, one start and one Covid-riddled experience. It wasn’t how his college career was supposed to go for a former Power Five recruit.

And the other element is his body feels good. He is football ready, he says, and in shape. Neck injuries are cruel that way, lurking in the background but not always present.

“It’s just crazy. At first I was like, ‘Oh, I could be back in a few weeks.’ Then I’m out for the whole season. Now, I’m done,” Ellis said. “But the whole time I was thinking I’m good. I feel healthy and all the brain fog is gone.”

Ellis openly admits he has more work to do mentally. He started training for the LSAT to take his mind off football.

He has a set regime — like a training schedule of studying. He has circled BYU’s Pro Day as a day he wants to be ready for the exam. It is as if he is preparing for NFL scouts, only this time it is a law school acceptance committee.

“All that energy has to go somewhere,” Ellis finished. “Now it’s just on a new path. It’s just hard for me. I’ve accepted it. But it’s just like, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I still have the same fine motor skills. I still run full speed.’ But I’m just done playing so I’m just like, ‘Wow, my abilities are still there but I just have to be done.’ So yeah, hearing that just felt like a nightmare.”