‘No one prepared me for divorce, bad investments, bad agent, even collectively just depression’ - Leon McKenzie
Leon McKenzie is using his life experiences to teach others about mental health and to help them through difficult times, as Chris Lakey reports
Leon McKenzie has suffered the highs and lows, like any other sportsman – but few have sunk to the depths that the former Norwich City man endured.
McKenzie went from Premier League hero to a prison cell – and an attempt to take his own life on the way down.
Now 41 years old, McKenzie, thankfully, survived the lows – now he is warning others of the pitfalls of the beautiful game. His own experiences suggests he is perfectly placed to do so – his rounds of talking to young players has already included a visit to Norwich City’s Colney Training Centre where he spoke to both the Under-23s and Under-18s about a career after professional sport and the paths they can take.
McKenzie is involved in a company called LAPS – Life After Professional Sport. That life can start at an early age, when a player is discarded by a club, or, like McKenzie, closer to the natural ending when a player has failed to prepare properly for retirement.
“Injuries were a major burden to me,” said McKenzie, speaking on The Lockdown Tactics podcast. “I feel I could have played a lot higher for a longer amount of time. Once you get that one, bad serious injury – and it was my knee - it didn’t work out to the amount of games I would have liked to have been involved with.”
McKenzie was forced to retire in early January, 2013. He wasn’t prepared for the next step.
“Because I wasn’t ready to retire I wasn’t in control of how I was actually feeling and I was very, very lost - what am I going to do? I wasn’t in that position to retire and I think that’s why I go in and speak all over the Premier League now. I speak to under 16, 18s under 23s and prepare them for life after, because no one prepared me for divorce, bad investments, bad agent, even collectively just depression.
“When you retire you are a long time retired. It is a massive percentage to the ones who don’t want to retire from football that have actually a choice to walk away from the game fully loaded, fully secure. A very small percentage of us will walk away comfortable in that respect. I always knew I was going to have to work again or reinvent myself.
“I had to go to prison for a little bit after football, learned a great deal in there, and it wasn’t just a normal prison, I was in an A Cat prison with murderers, paedophiles and rapists, so I learned a great deal in there to prepare myself to come back out into the world.”
McKenzie published an autobiography - My Fight With Life - and began educating himself on mental health.
His work sees him deal with players from all levels of the game – and all ages. For youngsters who suddenly find themselves on the pro game’s scrapheap, it can be tough to recover.
“If you are in that under 23s squad, now you are in a position where you haven’t played first team football, you are a reserve player and you don’t get given that contract you have got an issue and that is what I am trying to get these young players to build on.”
McKenzie recalls in 2012 when he first started speaking to groups and a call he put into the PFA.
“When I called up and I said I am sort of struggling, I tried to take my own life, it was pass the buck – I spoke to this person and that person and in the end I gave up.”
McKenzie has been a sounding board for plenty of players.
“I can’t tell you the amount of players who got hold of me and contacted me – I am talking international players down to lower league players. It was frightening the amount of players who said, ‘thanks, Leon, I’ve been going through this and that and life circumstances’... that is what really triggered me to do what I do today.”
However, during his playing days that sounding board wasn’t always evident, with a fear among some players that speaking out would damage their playing opportunities.
“Especially towards the back end of my career I was trying to hold on to playing at a decent level and I think probably around that time managers wouldn’t have understood. I don’t think they had enough education within this topic to really understand. I felt it would have probably got me out of the team quicker.”
McKenzie is currently working on a documentary which,he says, will make people realise the true extent of the problem of mental health.
“I think they are going to realise after this pandemic situation,” he said. “There are over 200 types of mental health conditions. If you never understand anything, you are going to understand now. It isn’t about how much money you have got, it is not about your fantastic job. Now it is about finding out about you. When we find out about ourselves sometimes it is not really what we want to see.”