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The cautionary tale of former UNLV safety Kenny Keys

Updated October 3, 2020 - 3:48 pm

Had they known what former UNLV safety Kenny Keys was going through, they would have intervened. They would have stopped him from playing football again. They would have separated him from the sport he loved.

The sport he lived for.

But Kenny Keys Sr. and Kendal Keys didn’t know because they couldn’t know. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the disease that might have ended their son and brother’s life, can only be diagnosed posthumously.

“There was a lot of things that we did because we were not knowledgeable about CTE,” said Kendal, who played wide receiver for the Rebels from 2014 to 2018. “I definitely would have done some things differently that would have saved my brother’s life.”

Keys died by suicide at age 25 in July 2018 in Las Vegas, ending lengthy battles with depression, schizophrenia and CTE.

The neurodegenerative disease is caused by repetitive blows to the head — like those Keys sustained while playing football — and is linked to several significant behavioral changes, including the depression and suicidal thoughts Keys long experienced.

Keys’ family learned of his condition by donating his brain to a research initiative at Boston University’s CTE Center and Brain Bank, where doctors discovered additional brain traumas that might have adversely affected his mental health.

UNLV's Sidney Hodge (36) and Kenny Keys (44) defend a pass intended for New Mexico's Ty Kirk (8 ...
UNLV's Sidney Hodge (36) and Kenny Keys (44) defend a pass intended for New Mexico's Ty Kirk (84) during their football game at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Nov. 3, 2012. (Las Vegas Review-Journal final)

One Boston University doctor, Thor Stein, compared Keys’ brain to that of someone in their 70s and said “it’s reasonable to say that (the sport) contributed to the symptoms he had that ultimately led to his suicide.”

A study the school published in 2018 concluded that 86 percent of the brains donated by the families of college football players were diagnosed with CTE. And though members of Keys’ family hadn’t talked publicly about the diagnosis or his death amid their grief, they choose to now promote mental health and CTE awareness.

“While there was a self-inflicted wound, it is disease that leads to that point,” said Keys’ adviser at UNLV, David Wedley, referring to Keys’ suicide and subsequent CTE diagnosis. “That does help put it in perspective. … It’s like ‘OK. I get it. I guess I kind of understand.’ ”

Second thoughts

Keys Sr. said his son was diagnosed with two concussions during his football career, but speculates that there were many more. Keys was always a heavy hitter who relished contact. He would often lead with his head while making a tackle, a technique that since has been discouraged to prevent the sort of head trauma he incurred.

He battled clinical depression while attending Helix High School in La Mesa, California, and nearly quit football for good before his senior year. But he pressed on at Kendal’s request and earned a scholarship to UNLV, where some of his symptoms emerged after his freshman year.

“He would daze off. He would take long pauses to talk back to you,” Kendal said. “He wouldn’t really have much substance to what he was saying.”

Keys withdrew from UNLV during the 2013 season and was treated for depression at an inpatient facility near his native San Diego. The depression seemed to dissipate as long as he took his medication, and he enrolled again at UNLV in January 2014 to conclude his studies and playing career.

Keys Sr. says now he should have stopped his son from rejoining the team. Kendal says he wished he would have communicated with Keys Sr. more when Keys did show signs of slippage.

Fellow UNLV safety Troy Hawthorne said Keys would complain of headaches after practices or games, but he wasn’t sure if he informed coaches of his symptoms.

Medical officials check on UNLV Rebels wide receiver Kendal Keys (84) during the first half of ...
Medical officials check on UNLV Rebels wide receiver Kendal Keys (84) during the first half of a football game against the USC Trojans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. Chase Stevens Las Vegas Review-Journal @csstevensphoto

“It was more like a joke in a way,” Hawthorne said. “I would always recommend that he go see the trainer. Can’t force him to do anything. … He’d kind of brush it off. He was very tough. He was known for being a hard hitter and took pride in that. I think it was more of him being tough and wanting to fight through it and not show any weakness.”

Keys refused to show weakness for much of his life and rarely spoke about his thoughts and feelings. His friends and family, subsequently, did not always grasp the severity of his symptoms.

Keys Sr. doesn’t harbor any ill will toward UNLV or the game of football. He only regrets that he didn’t insist his son stop playing sooner. He said he’s open to speaking to other parents and families about the severity of brain trauma. Anything to prevent the same thing that happened to his son from happening to someone else.

“It’s the awareness,” said Keys Sr., who hasn’t spoken to any former UNLV coaches since his son’s death. “Parents (should) have to go through a quick crash course before signing your kid up for sports.”

Next steps

Tony Sanchez, one of Keys’ head coaches at UNLV, said recently that he deferred any medical decisions regarding injured players to the team’s medical personnel, which is standard operating procedure in most college athletic programs. None of the medical staffers who served the football program when Keys played is still at the school.

UNLV last updated its concussion management plan in 2017. It’s in accordance with the consensus statement from the fifth International Conference on Concussion in Sport that was held in Berlin, Germany, in October 2016.

Key elements include preseason screening and a series of thorough evaluations if a player is symptomatic. The plan acknowledges that concussions are connected with changes in mood and depression.

“Epidemiological studies have suggested an association between repeated sports concussions during a career and late life cognitive impairment,” the policy reads. “Similarly, case reports have noted anecdotal cases where neuropathological evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy was observed in retired football players. Clinicians need to be mindful of the potential for long-term problems in the management of all athletes.”

Kendal, like his father, has no qualms with football and is training in San Diego, hoping for a professional tryout. He advocates for his brother with the Concussion Legacy Foundation — an organization founded in 2007 that supports those affected by concussions — by encouraging athletes to be forthcoming about their symptoms.

He also believes that symptomatic people should be accompanied by a loved one to their doctors’ appointments who can make sure the patients are being honest. Keys Sr. insists he isn’t worried about Kendal’s continued pursuit of a football career.

They know now what Keys didn’t know then — precisely how devastating concussions can be.

“I don’t blame football,” Keys Sr. said. “But if (Kendal) gets another concussion … then it’s time to hang it up. … He’s not afraid to come and talk about it if he gets a concussion. He saw what happened to Kenny. And me, myself, now I know the things to keep an eye on. I watch what he says. I watch what he does.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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