Leon McKenzie: I tried to end it all… now I want to help others cope with the pain
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.
Fresh start: McKenzie is settling into a more modest lifestyle, befitting a player winding down his playing days
McKenzie lived the high life at Norwich, Coventry and Charlton, squandering money on fast cars, gambling, nights out with the boys and a bitter, acrimonious divorce from his first wife.
But no-one really knows 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 Daniel”s and 40-odd sleeping tablets in a hotel room in Bexleyheath.
Premier talent: McKenzie shared a pitch – and swapped shirts – with English football”s elite
McKenzie, 33, slides back into his favourite sofa at his mid-sized detached home in Northampton and retraces the steps that nearly took his life. At times he is close to tears. There is no holding back, not now that he has come this far.
The son of Clinton McKenzie, the former British light-welterweight champion, he grew up in south London and fought his way into the Crystal Palace first team.
In black and white: Leon with his father Clinton McKenzie
Leon was a dad at 19 and already there was confusion. The youth-team coach at Palace told the young striker he had ruined his career; the first-team manager Steve Coppell simply asked McKenzie if he was happy.
“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, scoring 46 goals in 90 appearances under Barry Fry. Life was sweet. And then came the phone 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, she said she couldn”t fit in with her white friends, 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 me, in tears. Gone. At 23.
Up for the battle: McKenzie playing for Northampton Town earlier this year
“My clubs taught me how to score goals, but I was a kid – they never taught me how to deal with something like that.”
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 got a move to Norwich and was in the team that won promotion to the Premier League. He formed a formidable strike partnership with Dean Ashton the following season.
“I was in a place where I didn”t want to be and I wouldn”t wish it on anyone”
“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, call my mum in tears. I was spending 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.
“I didn”t have the best people around me. When things are going well they are by your side – I call them hangers-on.
On target: McKenzie formed a deadly relationship with Dean Ashton at Norwich
“I”m generous and I was earning good money at Norwich. I lent people money because I thought, “If that is going to make you happy then I will give it to you”. But of course I never saw the money back.”
He moved to Coventry in 2006, making a fresh start there after a turbulent, wretched final year spent injured at Norwich.
Moving on: McKenzie is keen to help others
Coventry gave him a pay rise, lining his pockets again after an expensive settlement with his ex-wife.
“I had to start again. Then the injuries really set in. I broke my ankle at Norwich, but I got a thigh strain at Coventry and then I ruptured my achilles. I never really got back from that.
“Then it started. “Ah, you”re injured again, you”re injury-prone”. Media, fans, the manager were all on my case.
“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 again, signing for Charlton in 2009 when Phil Parkinson was in charge. He spent most of his time on the treatment table, riven with niggles that kept him away from the first team. Then he hit rock bottom.
Flying high: McKenzie started his professional career with Crystal Palace
“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.
“The manager brought me in and it didn”t work because I was injured. Sometimes they look at you in a certain way – but no-one means to be injured or to go through what I went through in my life.
“As much as this is a business, we are all humans. I called my mum, crying, telling her it was driving me crazy. I didn”t know what to do, she started crying, she hates seeing me like this. I told her I loved her loads and that it would be all right.”
Yellow peril: The striker enjoyed a successful spell at Carrow Road
Except he was not all right. He was on his own, alone with his thoughts and scared of a future without football. His darkest day.
“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 was in a place where I didn”t want to be and I wouldn”t wish it on anyone. I wanted to end it, to end the pain. I got a bottle of Jack Daniel”s, a load of sleeping pills and anti-inflammatories and must have knocked back 40 tablets.”
People will say, “Oh, he”s on 200,000 a week, get on with it”
He knew what he had done, calling his father Clinton in the moments before he spiralled out of control, stumbling around the room until he lost consciousness.
“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 the players to speak with. They need someone they can relate 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.
“People will say, “Oh, he”s on 200,000 a week, get on with it”, but that kind of money creates its own pressure. I lost money, I gambled, I got divorced and then I tried to take my own life. I look back and regret what I did, but others cannot say the same.”
Leon lives at home with wife Sofia and two of his children (the other two are in Norwich with his first wife), planning a successful life away from football. In a few weeks he will retire, calling family and friends to Kettering to watch him play one last time.
Like the rest of the squad, he is unpaid. He is concentrating on his future. He loves music, finding a talent for singing, and is about to release a record, Feel the Flow. That”s his passion, spending time in the recording studio and funding the project that will lead to a music video and EP. He is enjoying life again, free from the treatment table and full of enthusiasm.
FOOTBALL IS FINALLY REALISING THAT IT CAN”T FORGET ITS TORTURED SOULS
For eon McKenzie to tell his life story and become a torchbearer for the game”s troubled souls took huge courage. His account of his sister”s suicide, along with his desperate plea for help when he was at Charlton, highlights some of the sport”s tragic off-field issues.
Player welfare has been neglected, but change is afoot, 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. Having taken media mentoring seminars on behalf of the Premier League”s players programme, I am fortunate to have met some of the game”s raw recruits. Many 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.