By Kait Borsay.
Footballer Leon McKenzie opens up in this exclusive interview for The Offside Rule (We Get It!). From his debut for Crystal Palace to scoring against Manchester United for Norwich; his highs and lows have been perpetuated by depression. And now there’s a new battle to overcome.
Leon McKenzie, who enjoyed the high life at Norwich and Coventry, is skipping in the middle of the compact South East London gym owned by his father. His feet dance with the rope, his mind lost to another place, lost to the effortless rhythm of the rope tapping against the mat.
He looks completely natural, uninhibited. The sweat in the air, the whiff of men pummelling punch bags, the deep base beats of the music grinding from the stereo.
Underneath the surface there are different demons for McKenzie to fight: “Depression can creep up on you any time, it doesn’t really go away, it’s just a matter of coping with it, understanding it and respecting it.”
It is nearly 20 years since McKenzie’s debut for Crystal Palace, 10 years since the moment he describes as the best of his career, scoring against Manchester United, and just over five years since he was found in a hotel room in Bexleyheath with an empty bottle of Jack Daniels and 40 pills in his stomach.
In 2013, the newly-turned boxer marked his professional debut with a second-round victory against John Mason at York Hall, Bethnal Green.
Now undefeated in six, his next fight is for a belt at super-middleweight. He goes up against Croatian Ivan Stupalo for the International Masters title on 14 March.
Boxing is in the blood, his uncle, Duke, is a former world champion. In this den beneath a football stadium he looks completely at ease.
“I was in the gym from about nine years old. Secretly I’ve probably been a gym fighter for 20-odd years,” says McKenzie.
His father Clinton, a small statue of a man, robust and ferociously fit has just finished sparring with his son. “I had a feeling in my bones that he would do it sometime,” he laughed. “He left it to the last minute though.”
For his 36-year-old son, the major battles have been outside the ring.
“Life’s about choices,” McKenzie says. “I’ve made some bad choices that have put me in a situation, not to make depression an excuse, because it’s not. It just makes things more difficult compared to how a normal person would deal with it.
I’ve had my fair share of women, I suppose that’s been my downfall.”
He’s just about to become twice divorced, and a “situation”, as he puts it, has meant he is now a father of five. The infidelity led to the breakdown of his second marriage.
“There’s no excuse for cheating, but that’s what happened,” he says. “My sacrifice was I lost my family.
“I regret not being able to wake up with my babies every day, that’s what eats me each day.
“I cry most days because I carry a lot of guilt. I don’t ask people to feel sorry for me because it’s not about that.”
He reveals he has always been sensitive. The tears are just a fact of life at the moment.
“I always cry when I put my kids to bed, especially the babies. When they’re sleeping I go and spy on them, I just sit there for ages, just stare at them.”
The gym playlist – McKenzie’s choice – had earlier played a Curtis Mayfield classic: “The joy of children laughing around you. These are the makings of you.”
When he signed for Charlton, the move took McKenzie away from his family, injuries had started to staccato his career; a pulled hamstring was the latest in a long list of setbacks. The dark beast of depression was gnawing away.
“I probably had it in my head for a good few months. It was just that day that I thought ‘this is me’. I was collecting those things (anti-inflammatories and painkillers) for a while.”
Clinton reached his unconscious son in time. After an overnight stay in hospital he returned to work the next day, silent.
In February 2012, the former striker was jailed for sending bogus letters to the police to try and escape a driving ban. He was found out and sent to Woodhill, a Category A prison, to join murderers, rapists and paedophiles. He started his prison term on suicide watch and emerged, unscathed, three-and-a-half months later.
“I’m five years on, not had any relapses like that,” he says. “I’m trying to get back on my feet. It’s all draining; some people going to prison would finish them off, I’m a stronger person”.
In prison, McKenzie began counselling his fellow inmates, a career he is now pursuing: “Ideally I want to have my own personal training stuff going on, my own little place, do my boxing training and I want to provide some sort of counselling too… I believe the two combine really well.”
Do people reach out to him? “Not really, because people are scared of putting their demons on the line, no one wants to be judged.”
Clarke Carlisle is a good friend. It recently emerged the ex-chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association tried to commit suicide at the end of last year, despite championing the fight against mental illness.
“I understand everything,” McKenzie says. “Clarke always goes missing, that’s when I know there’s a problem. What happened brought me to tears. I spoke to his wife and went straight up to Leeds on the train the next day.”
There are thousands more out there like Carlisle. Through personal training, or by lending an ear, McKenzie hopes to understand many more.