McKinley Suicide Sheds Light On NFL Player Mental Illnesses

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Today it was reported that Broncos wideout Kenny McKinley’s death was likely caused by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, a devastating piece of news for a Broncos franchise that can’t seem to escape tragic events. 

The Arapahoe County Sheriff's report quoted one investigator as saying McKinley had been depressed over a knee surgery he had a month ago.

"He had made statements while playing dominoes shortly after the surgery that he should just kill himself," the officer reported. "No one believed he was serious."…

The report also said McKinley had made statements about not knowing what he would do without football.

And that’s one of the real problems with anyone who suffers from serious depression. It’s a disease that constantly wants to disguise itself, a disease that always comes with healthy doses of fear, shame and guilt.

This is perhaps amplified by the sport McKinley played. You don’t need me to tell you that football, like most other sports, is that most macho of arenas, where pain and suffering are held up as character flaws.

There have been fantastic inroads made in the treatment of pro athletes suffering from non-physical ailments. Just this preseason, the Colts placed offensive lineman John Gill on IR for alcoholism after he got tagged for DUI. That’s a long way from the old “throw the bum out” mentality of yesteryear. While there are still plenty of fans who think athletes, given their relative fame and fortune, have no right to ever be depressed many other fans share those problems and sympathize entirely. I know I do.

But McKinley’s death is proof that, no matter what a league or a team will do to help athletes with serious depression or other mental illnesses, there’s still a limit. You can’t get inside someone’s head. You can’t possibly know what it’s like to be them. You can’t read every sign they give out, particularly when the person involved truly wants to die, and isn’t just using suicide as a means of begging for help. Here’s a quote from one of the women who found McKinley’s body: 

"Because of his personality, because of who he is, nobody would have ever believed he would have done it."

Precisely. Many seemingly obvious warning signs of suicidal depression can go unnoticed or ignored by virtually anyone. You’d never want to overreact to someone making a passing comment about suicide, for fear they’d find you crazy for taking them seriously. Worst of all, sometimes you don’t WANT to believe someone you love is suicidal, because it’s so hard to accept, let alone comprehend. It’s not wrong to think this way. It’s just human.

And so the Broncos are left to pick up the pieces of this tragedy, tortured by the idea that there was a way to prevent McKinley’s death. Counseling. Listening. A league program of some kind. But the hard truth is that there may not have been any way to foresee or prevent it, and that’s the most tragic thing of all.

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