Ex Norwich striker Leon talks football and faith
Former Norwich City striker, and now masters boxing champion, Leon McKenzie talked about his sporting career, his battle with depression and his faith in God at Soul Church in Norwich on Sunday night (April 26). Keith Morris reports.
Leon told a 480-strong audience of making his professional debut for Crystal Palace at the age of 17 as a YTS trainee and the highlights of his Norwich City career -scoring twice on his debut in a derby game against Ipswich Town at Portman Road and the winner against Manchester United.
“It was a dream debut come true,” said Leon. “I fell in love with the club and played with my heart – what a fantastic time I had at Norwich.”
He also revealed that he used to pray before every game. “I used to take my Bible in the changing room and sit in the corner and just pray – not that I would score lots of goals and we would win, but that I would not get hurt and I would just go out and have fun,” said Leon.
“I was very privileged to play professional football and earned fantastic money. But if you are not careful you can lose your identity and yourself along the way,” he said.
Retiring from football in 2013, he followed his father Clinton McKenzie and uncle Duke McKenzie into the boxing ring.
Last month, Leon won his first boxing title by beating Ivan Stupalo to take the international super-middleweight masters belt. And on July 4 he has another big fight, a British title eliminator.
But the biggest fight of Leon’s life has been with depression, which he wrote about in his 2012 autobiography, My Fight With Life, which led to a suicide attempt while playing for Charlton.
“Towards the end of my career I lost my way and had injuries – it was a nightmare. When I went to Charlton, I was not playing and I had serious depression. I pulled a hamstring. I called my mum after training that day and just burst into tears. For about a month I had just wanted out and to end it all.
“I had collected about 60 pills sleeping pills and other tablets and took them all, one after the other with a bottle of Jack Daniels. I don’t know why but I called my dad. He rushed around and burst into the hotel room and I just collapsed in his arms. I woke up next day in hospital.”
In February 2012, Leon’s life hit another low when he was jailed for six months for trying to avoid speeding convictions.
“When the guard shut the cell door, the reality hit me in the face and I burst into tears. When things are taken away from you it really defines your character,” said Leon.
Leon became a born-again Christian at the age of 20 and was baptized a year later, but he admitted he often struggles with his faith, while retaining a belief in God.
“I believe God sometimes lets things happen in your life so that you can really appreciate where you are and what you have,” he said.
“Some days when I open my Bible I get it and some days I don’t. If I am honest, sometimes the whole religion thing gets on my nerves. I don’t go to church every Sunday or pray every day, but I know my heart and I know God sees that.”
Leon has been married and divorced twice, and has five children, whom he clearly adores.
“Sometimes I come home and sit there by myself and I see all memorabilia and man of the match award and the boxing belt and I can still feel alone,” said Leon. “I appreciate them but they don’t really mean anything – I would much rather see my kids running about me any day. But that is down to my issues and my demons.
“All I can do is try to correct certain things that have happened in the past and move forward with faith and try and be a better Leon McKenzie.”
Pictured above is Leon McKenzie speaking at Soul Church in Norwich and, top, with senior pastor Jon Norman.