BY TOBY PORTER
Ex-Crystal Palace and Charlton footballer Leon McKenzie has interviewed a host of sports legends in a new film about mental health issues.
Ten Count is a documentary about why some sportsmen and women can be susceptible to emotional vulnerability. McKenzie spoke to British sporting heroes including Frank Bruno, Alan Shearer, Ricky Hatton and Kelly Holmes.
He also talks to Global movie star Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, as part of Ten Count, a documentary about why some sportsmen and women can be susceptible to emotional vulnerability.
The film has been five years in the making, starting with McKenzie’s switch to boxing in 2013 from football – where he had twice won promotion to the Premier League, with Crystal Palace and Norwich.
“It has evolved into something different,” he said.
“It will have interviews interspersed with the 10 rounds of my last fight, which was epic. I turned pro at the age of 35 and had 11 fights in four-and-a-half years, losing only twice.
“My last two fights were for domestic titles. But I had to give up boxing because I am old – I am 40 now. When it is time, it’s time. My body had had enough.
“I did not want to hold on like others have done.
“I learned my trade at Palace and I am very proud of my time at Peterborough, where I scored 60 goals in 110 appearances.”
McKenzie achieved a long-held ambition this week when he staged a conference on helping people suffering from mental health problems. He hosted a range of experts in the field at Mortimer House on May 15.
The conference also had a lighter side, to lift the mood and stress the importance of having fun in an event dubbed “an evening of discussion, poetry, music and laughter, to celebrate positive approaches to tackling mental health”.
Among the speakers was mental health campaigner Natasha Devon MBE, poet Hussain Manawer who recently set a Guinness World Record for the World’s Largest Mental Health Lesson, stand-up comic Mo Gilligan; and singer-songwriter Clinton Jordan who has worked with Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Tina Turner.
Croydon-raised McKenzie, who scored in all four professional divisions of the English game, is an ambassador for CALM – the Campaign Against Living Miserably – whose chief executive, Simon Gunning, was one of the speakers at the conference.
Leon, the son of former British and European boxing champion Clinton McKenzie and nephew of three-time world boxing champion Duke McKenzie, has spoken openly about attempting to take his own life while struggling to overcome injuries during his Charlton stint.
He said: “It is about making people more aware of the help that is out there and making it easier for everyone to access that support.
“It does not matter if it is fans or other members of the public. It will open a few eyes to what I have been doing and look at progress in the field in the light of my own story.
“My motto is ‘Fight it’ and I explained what that means to me, and how once upon a time I was not able to do that.
“I have suffered from depression for many years. So these issues are close to my heart.
“It is about educating people and giving back and trying to inspire. I will continue to do that in other events.
“I hope to be able to create my own foundation to further these issues and even influence the government.”
McKenzie was released by Charlton in 2010 and retired from football 18 months later, admitting he had tried to end his life after finding himself rejected by football. He said: “When you have been doing the job you have been doing, and you are made redundant – where you have no choice in the matter – it is hard for anyone to deal with.
“That is the case whether you are an athlete or work in a bank.
“Injuries were a massive trigger for my mental wellbeing – plus divorce, missing my kids and all the other personal things life can bring.
“If you don’t speak to the right people, it can hurt. When I was playing, there was not the same help there is now. It was a lonely and dark road into a black hole.
“I made an attempt on my own life. But then I fought back. I say that if you keep trying, you will keep winning. That is what I was able to put into boxing.
“Saying I have inspired people is very rewarding, even overwhelming at times. It shows how powerful a voice can be.
“I have had two careers which were high profile. But at the end of the day, I am still there to be judged, because some people are ignorant and do not want to understand.
“There is a lot more work to be done in mental health. Suicide is the UK’s biggest killer of men under 45 – and those figures are increasing.
“I want to help kids in schools with workshops and however I can educate the minds of young people to make things better.
“I am very lucky to be able to speak about it today.”
These days he coaches boxing at the 12×3 Gym in Aldgate. He also helps with Life After Professional Sport , which trains and finds new careers for ex-sportsmen and women.
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