09 December, 2011

"I tried to kill myself - now I'll help others cope with pain,"

McKenzie: looking forward to getting life on track
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"In the dressing room, I could be loud and aggressive, one of the boys, showing no sign of what's really going on."    

               Leon McKenzie knows that some people will read the story of his journey back to life and say:  "£15,000 a week and you were depressed?  Get over it."  Professional footballers are fair game and he knows it, a price the public and the media expect him to pay for acting out our childhood fantasies.
            No-one really knows however what goes on when footballers close their front doors, isolated from the rest of the world and wrestling with their insecurities.
            Fear.  Injuries.  Form.  Confusion.  Friendship.  Cash.  Fame.  Wife.  Family.  Trust.  Faith.
            McKenzie will tell you it swallowed him whole, leading to a bottle of Jack Daniels and 40-odd sleeping tablets in a hotel room in Bexleyheath, south-east London.  McKenzie told the  "Irish Daily Mail"  his story this week.  At times he is close to tears.  There is no holding back, not now  that he has come this far.
            Leon grew up in south London and by 19 had fought his way into the Crystal Palace first team.  By the age of 19 he also become a dad and the confusion had begun.  The youth-team coach at Palace told him he had ruined his career while first team manager Steve Coppell simply asked McKenzie if he was happy.
McKenzie as a "happy" Palace apprentice
            "I was confused - someone at the club was telling me I'd made a mess of things and someone else was making sure I was happy.  I was happy."
            He moved on to Peterborough in 2000 and settled in well scoring 46 goals in 90 appearances as a prolific centre forward.  Life was sweet and then he got a call from his mother that ripped his life apart.
            "My sister (Tracey) had called me a couple of days before.  She said she wasn't happy, she had an identity crisis.  She had skin like me, said she couldn't fit in with her white friends, she said she couldn't fit in with her black friends and it messed her up.
             I told her not to worry, I would be down to see her soon.  Then my mum rang, in tears.  Gone.  At 23."
             The week after Tracey's death, he played for Peterborough and carried on as if nothing had happened.  That is what was expected of him.  He moved to Norwich and was in the side that won promotion to the Premier League and formed an impressive partnership with Dean Ashton the following season.
            "In the dressing room, I can be loud and aggressive, one of the boys, showing no sign of what's really going on.  Halfway through that Premier League season at Norwich, I was getting divorced.  I couldn't see my children and they are my life.  I used to go home and call my mum in tears.  I was spensing too much time alone.  Divorce was another trigger.  I spent a lot of money on it.  It might have been my fault, but it didn't feel fair.

Celebrating promotion to Premier League
             I had some hangers-on around me.  I was generous and earning good money at Norwich.  I lent money because I thought it would make them happy.  But of course, I never saw the money back."
             He moved to Coventry in 2006 and got a pay rise after a tough final season at Norwich which was ravaged by injuries.  His injuries flaired up again; adding a ruptured Achilles to a broken ankle and thigh strain.  The manager, fans and media were starting to give him hassle again.  
             "People think you are paid thousands so you just get on with it. I love scoring goals, but it was being taken away from me. When you leave the training ground, who knows that I lost my sister, went through a divorce or worry that I will never play again?
              When you play, the crowd expect you to score the winner - that's why they worship you.  That's one reason it can make people depressed - you can't always give them what they want."                    He was desperate to prove himself and moved to Charlton in 2009 but spent most of his time on the treatment table.  Then he hit rock bottom.              
               I felt I had done all the things I wanted to do in my life. Got married to my second wife, my kids, professional football, Premier League, scoring 100 goals... I got a bottle of Jack  Daniel's, a load of sleeping pills and anti-inflammatories and must have knocked back 40 tablets."             
"I was in a hotel in Bexleyheath for four or five months, I wasn't even training because I was injured all the time. My family were back in Northampton, my wife, my kids, my life... I wasn't well, but I didn't know it. I would sit there, crying for a couple of hours, not calling anyone, not  having anyone to speak to. I thought it would pass, but it got worse. When you're injured it's a lonely world.
McKenzie (centre) hit rock bottom whilst at Charlton
               I woke up in hospital in Dartford and my family were in tears. The doctors told me I was lucky, a couple more pills and that would be me done. I was lost, cut off from the outside world. I was numb, I didn't know what to do any more, but I knew I wasn't happy and I don't know why. I just knew my career was coming to an end and I couldn't handle everything else that was going on in my life. The hospital let me go that day, they told me I was lucky to be alive. I felt terrible."  He drove straight to training at Charlton and did not tell a soul.
               Two years on and McKenzie is determined to pass on the benefit of his experience, challenging himself and channelling his emotions in the direction of young players.  McKenzie, now at Kettering, had professional counselling, accepting help after he realised the full extent of his actions.
               He has started to work with the PFA, offering guidance and one-on-one talks with players about the problems facing footballers. 
               "I hit rock bottom. I was scared to own up to feeling depressed because it's a male, macho environment and you're not supposed to show any weakness.
                 Now I know that the bravest thing to do is to call for help - that is a strength.  There is no-one for players to speak to, passing on the benefit of their experience.  In sport, we don't trust anyone.  I can count my friends on one hand now.  Some of the top guys in the Premier League will be suffering depression, but if they knew they had someone to talk to, they could find help."
New career is in the offing for man who nearly lost it all
               In a  few weeks time, Leon will retire from football, calling his friends and family to watch him play (for Kettering) one last time when his (unpaid) contract runs out at the turn of the year.  He has found a new passion having found a talent for singing and he is looking forward to releasing a new music video and EP as well as live gigs and a life away from the treatment table.

               Player welfare has unquestionably been neglected in football's  "macho"  world.  Change is afoot however with the Elite Players Performance Programme offering a support network.  The top academies will have programmes tailor-made to the players and the Premier League offers modules to prepare them mentally for their career.
               Some clubs have mentoring projects, with former Manchester City star Jeff Whitley, a victim of depression himself, working with players at Wolves.  Many of the game's raw recruits are confused and misguided, lacking the skills to cope with their environment.
               The PFA have sent out guides on depression to 4,000 current members and 50,000 past players.  It is a starting point, but more needs to be done.

With thanks to the  "Daily Mail", Leon McKenzie and Neil Ashton.
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