Sports celebrities share their stories of tough times to help encourage other men to seek help.
In March and April 2019, Samaritans partnered with TalkSPORT radio to encourage men to ask for help when they're not feeling okay.
Sports celebrities who have been through tough times shared their stories, and spoke to callers on the Jim White show and On the Sporting Couch with Gary Bloom.
You can climb back up and things will look different.
Former Premier League footballer and boxer turned coach, personal trainer and mental health campaigner Leon McKenzie always had a passion to succeed. As well as tremendous achievements he faced huge challenges, too.
The former footballer, now 40, a father of five and a grandad, said: “I made a choice to do the best that I could,” but he struggled with depression and injuries which affected his career and his mental health.
Leon’s sister took her own life aged 23, when he was 24 and playing for Peterborough. “I kept strong, but I did not really know how to deal with it,” he said. He still sleeps with a picture of her by his bed.
Aged 31, playing for Coventry, he ruptured his Achilles tendon. “I never got back from it and I did not recover psychologically,” Leon said.
In a hotel room one night, he took an overdose. “I had had enough, I didn’t want to be here anymore,” he said. “I woke up in hospital, surrounded by my family, who were crying, and that is the worst feeling in the world, the guilt.”
Life went further off the rails, and Leon was sentenced to six months in HMP Woodhill. But things changed in prison. He began training and wrote his autobiography. “Fitness is a big part of mentally coping for me. It can make your mind calmer.”
Leon turned a corner and in 2014, he started boxing as a Super Middleweight and won awards. In 2017 he retired, and is now a coach and personal trainer, raising awareness of the importance of good mental health and wellbeing, especially among young people.
“My motto is: Fight it. We all have it in us to fail, it’s how we bounce back. Hold on and keep focused.”
I didn’t tell them how I was feeling because I didn’t really understand it myself
Former goalkeeper Chris Kirkland, 37, had to leave Bury football club before the 2016/17 season began when his battle with depression reached crisis point. He shares his story:
“Injuries had a massive impact on me. I’d fight my way back in but there was always just setback after setback. When I signed for Bury in 2016 my depression and anxiety was at its worst. But I didn’t tell anyone at the club what was going on.”
“I couldn’t wait to go to sleep at night, but I didn’t want to wake up again in the morning. I eventually got to that place where I knew it was bad enough that I had to do something about it.”
“We went to Portugal in pre-season and I didn’t want to go out there. We stayed in these villas, where I was on the top floor, and I just broke down. I rang Leona and said: ‘Look, I can’t do this anymore. I need to get help and I need to get home’.
“I flew back the next day, and when Dave Flitcroft [Bury’s Manager] and the team got back I went to see him and said: ‘I’m in a bad way here… I’m struggling. I need some time’. And he gave me two weeks, he was brilliant.”
“I rang Professional Football Association (PFA) and as soon as I made that call, I had a huge weight off my shoulders. I should have talked to the club and rang the PFA sooner and told them I was struggling. It was a big taboo subject, so I didn’t tell them how I was feeling because I didn’t really understand it myself. No one used to talk about mental health, especially not in sport, so it’s great to be able to share my story to encourage other men to seek help when they’re struggling to cope and finding life tough."
There were a few times I thought about taking my own life.
English professional footballer Jamie O’Hara plays as a midfielder for Billericay Town. Jamie lost his mum to cancer when he was 17 when he played for Tottenham. When his relationship broke down and he found himself without a team to play for he struggled to cope. Here’s his story:
“When my mum died, everyone around me fell apart. I felt sorry for my dad, but I was also angry with him for not being the rock I needed when we were going through that as a family. After my mum’s death that family unit fell apart a bit and he was the head of it and he didn’t keep it together.
"In 2008 I was breaking into the Tottenham team, there was still a massive stigma around talking about how you feel and saying ‘I’m not okay’. When I was going through a tough time, I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t talk to anyone until I was 27 because I didn’t want to give anyone at the training ground an excuse to let me go.
“I started going out with Danielle Lloyd and they didn’t like the attention I was getting from the media. That’s when I signed for Wolves on a big contract and I was on a lot of money. That’s when it all went wrong, it all came crashing down.
“I missed my mum and I would have loved for her to have been around to say ‘get your act together’. My life was a mess and I went through a stage where I wasn’t happy at home or work and my life was spiralling out of control. I was depressed and I was really down about the way my career had turned out.
“There were a few times I thought about taking my own life. I felt like the whole world was against me and I had no one to turn to. I thought about how I felt when my dad was suicidal, and I remembered how I felt and I knew I didn’t want to do that to my children.
“I walked away from my contract at Wolves and I walked away from Danielle. I didn’t have a job and when Harry Redknapp offered me a place to train me at QPR. And that saved my life. He helped me get my life back”
The best thing you can do if you're struggling is talk.
Boxer and Sky Sports presenter, Johnny Nelson, is the longest reigning world cruiserweight champion. But when he was at the top of his boxing career, he found himself struggling to cope and having suicidal thoughts. Here’s his story:
Although Johnny won 45 out of his 49 fights, underneath it all he was feeling low and suffering from depression. “Everyone thinks their problems are nothing compared to the next person, which is why we don’t open up about them.”
Johnny felt like he had to always be strong and had a huge fear of failure if his career didn’t all work out. “I fell into boxing really. I’d won things and I didn’t think I was good, I just thought the people I was fighting weren’t very good. When it came to that match against Carlos de Leon in 1990 I knew I was in trouble.”
“When it came to the fight I was petrified. I couldn’t do anything and froze. It was a draw, and everyone called it the ‘bore draw’. My family could have said anything and everything, but it helped just to know they were there.”
“It took me about 6 years to get over that fight. Everyone in Sheffield knew who I was, and I had more friends that I could think of, but it didn’t feel like that. It hurts when you think anybody and everybody looks at you with pity. I didn’t want to say anything, I wanted to keep quiet. Brendan [Johnny’s coach] would talk at me and I would be thinking ‘shut up, I don’t want to talk about this’. But then he kept talking and the penny dropped. I knew why he was doing it.”
“He sent me off to Germany to become a sparring partner, which was the best thing I ever did. I did feel lonely at times, but it made me realise my worth, strength and what I was capable of doing.”
“When people seek help, they expect a curing potion there and then, but it’s not about that, it’s about how you look at life and interpret things that happen to you and experiences you have. As a guy that became the world champion, the best thing you can do if you’re struggling is talk. You’re not weak or any less of a man. Your biggest enemy is you, but you are the only one that can help yourself initially and you’ve got to talk to someone.”
If you’re not thinking straight and can’t cope then it’s not a weakness, you need to go and get help from someone.
Former footballer and QPR manager Ian Holloway and his wife Kim discovered their twins were profoundly deaf at just 16 months old. Feeling the pressure to support his family and continue working in football, Ian struggled with anger issues and found himself struggling to cope. Here’s his story:
“The twins were 16 months old when we found out they were deaf. The second we started to use sign language we unlocked a door. Subtle things meant the deafness brought a frustration and we had to learn a language that could break that down very quickly to give them their natural language.”
“It was terrifying. I thought ‘I don’t know how I can educate these kids’. You get one chance to educate your children and most parents know their kids will go to school, get some exams and then they might get a job. We had no idea what they could understand and how they would use it. We luckily found a school that understood how we felt about it all.
“I don’t know any parent in the world who would not feel like they let their kids down if they didn’t even know they were deaf.”
“The Bristol Rovers job was the worst time for everyone. I wasn’t in the right place there, I was still playing and still learning. Straight in the deep end. That was the hardest time for my family. I had one season where I lived away from my family at one week at a time.”
“If you’ve got negative thoughts, think about what it is, think about two ways to solve it and think about the best one to do it. Speaking to other people in the football world, I would say; If you have a sore knee or ankle you go and see a physio that knows more about it than you and that's no problem to get help with that. So if you’re not thinking straight and can’t cope then it’s not a weakness, you need to go and get help from someone, like I did with my anger.”
Footballers are normal people and if a listener could take something from this it would be to seek help.
Former Manchester United and Northern Ireland footballer Keith Gillespie has overcome gambling, marriage breakdowns, drinking and depression. Here’s his inspiring story on why seeking help is so important:
“At 16 I left home and was scouted by Manchester United football club. It was difficult as an apprentice. I was still a child so you’re always going to miss home. Every six weeks we’d go home for 5 days and you looked forward to going home. I had to learn to adjust to a new life and being away from home. I chose the career and it was the sacrifice that needed to be made.”
“I find it hard to express feelings which is why my second marriage broke down and part of the reason my kids live in England now. It’s my mistakes and I’m the one that has to suffer. And rightfully so. I had already had a breakup of a marriage and my two children had moved back to England from Northern Ireland. That hit me hard and I struggled to come to terms with it. When my second marriage broke down, I found myself verbally bullying her because I was scared of losing my son this time round.”
“The most important thing for anyone suffering from depression is admitting it to themselves. And maybe if I’d had admitted a long time ago things wouldn’t have got so bad for me. It’s an illness to try and get to the bottom off. Footballers are normal people and if a listener could take something from this it would be to seek help.”
“It’s important not to bottle things up. I’ve always been one to do that and it can lead to all sorts of things. You have too much going on in your head. It’s important you have someone you can talk to. As a father you want to be there for your children and I would tell my kids that if they were ever struggling, they can come to me.”
You think sharing struggles is a sign of weakness, but it’s actually a sign of strength.
Welsh international rugby union referee Nigel Owens is the current world record holder for most test matches refereed. Nigel struggled to cope with life when he was in his late teens as a result of confusion around his sexuality and then consequently suffered from eating disorders when he was struggling to cope. Here’s his story:
“When I was in my late teens, I started experiencing something I hadn’t experienced before. I was 19 and had a girlfriend at the time. I felt attracted to men and it was an alien feeling. I was taught you get married and have a family. I felt differently and I was starting to think something was wrong with me and I was becoming a person I wasn’t mean to be.”
“I started comfort eating and I would eat five, six or seven times a day and then puke it all up. I went to the gym and wanted to create this ‘perfect’ body image and then I got addicted to steroids.”
“People say ‘Life is what you make it’ but I think life makes you. I went to Sunday school and chapel and they all have influence on you when you’re growing up. Things were very different 23 years ago. I thought ‘I can’t have people finding out, my parents wouldn’t accept me’. I didn’t want to be that person.”
“One night I left a note for my parents and if I hadn’t had been found and taken to hospital I wouldn’t be here, and it would have been too late to save me. That’s why this Samaritans campaign (Real People, Real Stories) is such an important thing. In the macho world of men and rugby, you think sharing struggles is a sign of weakness but it’s actually a sign of strength.”
“My mum said to me at the hospital ‘If you every try and do something like that again you may as well take us with you.’ That is when my life was saved. I didn’t have a choice and I couldn’t choose my sexuality and accepting that was my biggest challenge.”
“Accepting who I was as a person was more difficult than refereeing the Rugby World Cup final. When I tried to take my own life there were issues in my life I needed to deal with. I got help and I was fortunate to get a second chance. When you get that second chance you realise that the people you would leave behind when you’re not here would be far, far worse off. “
“We all have to do what we can to let the people in that dark place know that their life can be better when they get through the tough times. If you do sense someone isn’t their usual self, you can ask them “Are you ok?” and sometimes just asking them and letting them know you're there can be enough. Most of the time it’s a temporary thing that you can deal with and get better.”
It’s alright to have a bad day. But talk to someone and hopefully the next day you will wake up feeling better.
Former Norwich, West Ham and England footballer Dean Ashton had a catastrophic ankle injury that ended his career when he was training for England. He found life tough and struggled to cope as his future looked bleak, he was sofa-bound with a baby on the way and a family to support. Here’s his story:
“When you have an injury, the first thought that jumps into your head is ‘how long am I going to be out’. I did get back to football, but I knew it wasn’t for very long. It feels like a whirlwind when your career first finishes. Everyone wants to hear your story, especially the media.”
“You have a lot to deal with; family, financially and the physical injury itself. I couldn’t walk for three months so I just had to sit on the sofa and my wife was pregnant. That part of my life was incredibly difficult to get things sorted in my mind about what was next. I didn’t talk to anyone properly for about two years. I took memorabilia down, I didn’t watch football and just focused on the fusion and change I had to get through.”
“Speaking from my experience, the only way I’ve dealt with it was talking to people. When I first started talking to my wife, family or friends, I felt like people were saying one of two things. Either the ‘but you’ve achieved all this, how can you be sad?’ or the other side were people who are concerned and all they want to do is help you. They make it into a big deal, when actually when I woke up and had no motivation, I would just accept that it was a bad day. All I wanted to do was just talk to someone and offload what I was feeling. Luckily for me, the people close to me understood. I almost had to say to my wife “I don’t need your opinion, I just need you to listen”. That worked for me. The next day I would feel great after offloading. It’s alright to have a bad day. It’s alright to have a day with no motivation. It’s ok. But talk to someone and hopefully the next day you will wake up feeling better and more motivated.”
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