By Lisa Zimmerman | Engagement Insider
Within a year of his retirement from the NFL following the 2011 season, Kareem McKenzie knew he needed a new purpose in life.
“[The question] was, what to do with my free time,” he said. “You can only go to the gym so many times, visit family and friends. You have to find something to do with your time, if not everything becomes very chaotic and dangerous. An idle mind is the devil’s playground.”
It is often difficult to walk away from something that has been an integral part of your life for a long time. This is certainly true for many players when they retire from the NFL. Most have been playing since childhood and the game, and everything that goes with it, both good and bad, have become ingrained parts of their lives. As a result, it is not uncommon for players to struggle with their transition from being an NFL player to a retired NFL player.
After 11 years in the NFL McKenzie too was faced with this transition. But then, the former right tackle, who was drafted out of Penn State University in the third round of the 2001 NFL Draft by the New York Jets and played the last seven years of his career with the New York Giants, had an epiphany; he would help others going through what he went through.
After he found counseling helpful with his own transition as well as some other life issues, McKenzie decided that with his NFL career behind him, he would become a psychologist. He is on track to earn his Masters of Education in Professional Counseling in 2016 from William Paterson University’s College of Education, after which he will pursue his doctorate. His ultimate goal is to provide counseling to professional athletes as well as retired members of the military for whom he sees similarities when it comes to the rigidity of their schedules and unrelenting performance expectations.
“I’d been in counseling prior to my retirement,” McKenzie said. “I saw how beneficial it was. To have that support, to have someone to talk to about different things I thought was very healthy. I thought if I could do the same thing in a similar capacity helping other players as well retired armed services members, I wanted to that.”
McKenzie’s hope is that he can provide the guidance and foundation many former athletes need and are seeking when they retire and find themselves adrift in their new reality. In this capacity his plan is to assist them in developing plans for the next stages of their lives.
One piece of advice he gives now, based on his own experience, is very specific.” Ideally, in my mind, if I would do it all over again I would make sure I took some form of higher education, some kind of classes every year. I would stay in school and continue to work toward something so that when I retired I would have something viable to transition into. Something that kept me grounded in terms of real world experience. The NFL is a lot different than what is typically experienced by others and that’s a shock to some people when they come out of the NFL.”
McKenzie pointed out the various types of education opportunities that are available – everything from local community college classes to the various programs offered by the NFL.
“You don’t know how long your NFL career will last,” he said, “and at the same time you want to make sure you are taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you in the NFL to form those relationships, to form those partnerships with other people who are like minded and want to see you continue to be successful.”
He is also aware that while the stigma is lessening, there continues to be embarrassment surrounding mental illness or even the idea that one’s problems might need outside assistance and that men especially may resist. However he is optimistic that this will continue to abate especially because he sees how advantageous counseling can be.
“I think it’s changing in terms of more individuals are realizing the importance of mental health,” he said.
“Being able to talk to someone and analyze the issues you are going through or potential issues you may go through and being more aware of yourself. Now I believe that with sports psychology and different avenues of preparation, it’s an important aspect that needs to be attended to.”
While lineman Kareem McKenzie has retired from the NFL, Dr. Kareem McKenzie may one day have just as important of an impact.