‘I have got murderers coming into my cell ... talking to me about my goal against Man United - former Norwich City star
Archant © 2005
Leon McKenzie had visits from murderers wanting to hear stories of his footballing career when the former Norwich City striker was jailed for motoring offences.
McKenzie has become a champion of mental health awareness since his career finished, visiting clubs and educating young players on the pitfalls of the game – and how to handle them.
His own experiences saw him try to take his own life and, remarkably, report for training the following day - and then, in February, 2012, was jailed for six months for trying to avoid a speeding conviction.
It was during his spell in prison that his own life began to change.
“What I learned in jail was, finding peace with myself and getting into a routine straight away,” he said. “I got myself a job in prison. It was obviously quite scary. I was all over the news and TV and pretty much the jury was out for me. I got into a few altercations and I had to look after myself in there.
“I learned to be productive, not to feel sorry for myself and take it on the chin. I found myself counselling in there. I have got murderers coming into my cell, people from all walks of life sitting down and talking to me about my goal against Man United or certain goals they were familiar with, and big, grown men crying their eyes out saying ‘I miss my children’.”
McKenzie’s career was plagued by a knee injury but he said few players were given guidance on life after football – either after rejection from a club or at the end of a career, no matter how long.
And he believes his own current ambassadorial role would have helped him during his own playing days.
“I think it has come a long way, I still think the money there is in sport in general, especially football, they can pump a lot more into these areas on mental wellbeing,” he said on The Lockdown Tactics podcast. “I am very much aware of what it is like at that age - under 16s, under 18s, under 23s. When I was playing I never had someone like myself come in and just break it down and be real.
“We had the PFA come in, but if we were playing first team football we kind of just wanted to get home because we were tired. If I had someone like myself who had been around the block a bit, and gone through life’s circumstances, it would have helped my state of mind. That is why I am passionate about going in and speaking to the kids and putting on workshops to prepare them for life afterwards, because at those ages it is critical.”
Tomorrow: Leon’s fight for mental health awareness