It has been a little over day since we heard the news of former USC star Kenny McKinley’s death and it is still hard for most of us to process. The Kenny McKinley we knew was always happy, smiling and full of life. The Kenny McKinley we knew always worked hard and played hard and never quit. Why and how could he quit on himself and his life?
“It is hard for us to comprehend how all of this happened.” That is what Steve Spurrier said Tuesday. Spurrier, like everyone else doesn’t understand how or why this happened. How can you ever understand? Death, especially when it involves a young person in the prime of his or her life, is a tough pill to swallow. Suicide takes it to another level.
Had McKinley died in a car accident, succumbed to a lingering illness, or been murdered it would have been a tragedy, but it would have been easier to comprehend and easier to process. We still would have asked “Why?” and “Why Kenny?” and “Why so young?” but deep down we would have understood that life at can be cruel and, as sad as it may be, these things happen.
People ask me all the time if I know certain people. They will ask if I know Steve Spurrier or if I know C.J. Spiller or any of the other athletes I cover. My response is always the same: I don’t know any of those guys.
Yes, I talked to Kenny McKinley countless times. Yes, he was great to talk to. Yes, he was one of the best players I covered at South Carolina. Yes, I liked him. Yes, I thought he was a good guy.
No, I didn’t know him.
I’m not sure who really knew Kenny McKinley. Fans adored him, but they didn’t know him. All they really knew about McKinley was his great smile, his great catches and the bubbly aspect of his personality. All of that is part of what Kenny McKinley is and was, but that’s wasn’t the only part.
We know now that McKinley had a side of him that few, if anyone, ever saw. We know now that McKinley was so emotionally unstable after his knee surgery he said that he should “just kill himself.” Not one knew McKinley owned a gun. Not many would have suspected McKinley as a drug user, but there was marijuana and the smell of freshly smoked marijuana in the room where his body was found.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that McKinley, like every other human on earth, had a dark side. Everyone is flawed and that doesn’t make them a bad person. We all understand this. Yet, for some reason, we still refuse to acknowledge that athletes, even superstars, have the same issues as the rest of us. We somehow think their ability to amaze us with a great catch or pass or shot makes them immune to rigors of everyday life that affect all of us. Some of us don’t even realize athletes like McKinley could be more at risk for suicide than others.
There is nothing wrong with remembering all the wonderful things about Kenny McKinley. His many great accomplishments are worthy of remembrance. He deserves to be remembered as a great teammate and one of the all-time greats to play at USC.
But we should also remember that McKinley was no hero, despite how bad so many people wished he was. He left behind a one year old baby boy that will now never know his father. He left his family and friends a mound of unimaginable pain and guilt and has forced them to pick up the pieces he shattered when he pulled that trigger.
Kenny McKinley was a flawed person, just like the rest of us. McKinley was also blessed as a gifted athlete. For reasons only he knows, McKinley chose to give up that gift and end his life.
That’s tragic, not heroic.
Kenny McKinley’s death reminds us that great athletes are never as great as we want them to be. They aren’t immortal the way we wish they were. His death reminds us that mental illness is an issue that too often goes unnoticed or undetected.
More than anything, Kenny McKinley’s death reminds us that we don’t ever really know some people.
The NFL Players Association has set up a trust fund for McKinley’s son, Keon. If you would like to contribute:
Kenny McKinley’s Trust Fund, c/o NFL Players Assoc., 1133 20th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036
Also, for more information on depression and suicide please check out the links below. It could save a life.