That smile. Every Bronco asked about McKinley spoke of his smile that seemed permanently pasted to his face. "If you had to pick anybody out of the whole team to [take his own life]," Denver kicker Matt Prater said, "he would be the last person you'd expect to do what he did."
Amid the blur that is the NFL lifestyle, all the grandiose glitz and girls and glory, it's hard to fathom that anyone would want out. And so, Kenny McKinley's suicide on Sept. 20 was a blindside sack. The Broncos' receiver didn't leave a note the night he shot himself in the head, leaving those close to him to piece together the impossible. Just what made him take his own life?
"A lot of people think that because you play professional sports, everything is fine and your life is great," said Broncos tight end Daniel Graham, seated at his locker, two down from McKinley's, which will remain untouched this season. "But we're humans just like anybody else. We have issues just like anybody else does. And you can't take life for granted."
The signs were subtle, almost whirs, missed by everyone. At 23, McKinley was no longer the pride of South Carolina, where football stars are revered. Instead, he was just a guy, another injured player trying to hold onto his career. In an eight-month span, McKinley suffered two knee injuries, the latter requiring microfracture surgery in August, ending his second NFL season before it began. It was soon thereafter, while playing dominoes with some buddies, when McKinley suggested he should just kill himself.
But how could he be serious? There were rumors of debts for child support for his 1-year-old son, but surely he'd get past that. Bumps in the road. No one believed he was suicidal, according to the report from the Arapahoe (Colo.) County Sheriff's Office. Not Kenny.
"Everybody's thinking he's a happy-go-lucky guy because he's got a big smile, but as high as [NFL players get] get, they also get low," said Dr. Stephen Walker, a sports psychologist whose family has kept Broncos season tickets since their inaugural season in 1960. "People often times expect athletes to either not be bothered by stressors or to be operating at a level that these things, somehow, won't affect them. It's a major, major thing that people often misconstrue. And it can be a big problem."
The Broncos cradle McKinley's legacy in their chiseled arms. They share their stories, wear his No. 11 helmet decal and stare at his name in their cell phones, uncertain when or if they should erase it.
And now his legacy lives in others who otherwise might have died. Upon McKinley's death, the reality that a happy athlete suffered from depression reverberated across the country, via talk shows and texts, e-mails and ESPN. Twitter was atwitter. Then, three days after the suicide, a poignant Denver Post column featured the headline: "We must learn from McKinley's death."
On Denver's Mount Rushmore of sports, alongside Elway, Helton and Sakic, is The Denver Post's Woody Paige -- the longtime columnist and lovable loon on ESPN's Around The Horn. Coloradoans read Paige for breakfast, and on Sept. 23, he wrote that Colorado typically has one of the nation's higher suicide rates, topping the country with 940 last year. "Break your leg, and you can tell. Break your brain, and it's not so evident," he wrote. "Fifteen percent of the population in this country suffers from depression."
He wrote that eight years ago, he himself was "committed to committing suicide," stunning his readers.
Paige had been saved by a friend and a doctor. In the column, he urged readers to "mourn McKinley's death ... but learn from his suicide."
That day, e-mails piled up in his inbox. Thousands. Paige clicked on them, one by one, each a tale of depression or despair, salutations or salvation. He began to bawl and could not stop. Tears soaked the front of his shirt.
"I couldn't stop crying but I couldn't stop reading, because it was so mesmerizing," Paige said. "Maybe we'll all learn something from Kenny's death. He didn't realize -- he cost himself his life, but he saved a lot of others."
Sent: Thu 9/23/2010 1:19 PM
Subject: Your article about Suicide helped me.
I have been really contemplating suicide over the last month or two. Nothing has seemed to go right in my life. ... Slowly my self worth and confidence in myself crumbled beneath my feet, til I got to the point I wished I was dead. Then I read your article today and it floored me. It dawned on me -- if it can happen to somebody I look up to, who appears to have everything, then I'm just as vulnerable. I have felt alone and unable to talk. Thanks so much.
At South Carolina, where Steve Spurrier, the ol' ball coach, loves to air it out, McKinley was seemingly predestined to sprint down the sidelines, helplessly chased by Bulldogs and Tigers and Gators. The kid showed up on campus as skinny as a Delta Gamma, but he could run like Usain Bolt and had great hands. He won a starting job as a freshman and by his senior year had broke numerous receiving records held by Sterling Sharpe.
"The slant and fade routes, he could run them as well as any receiver I ever coached," said Spurrier. "Kenny was always a wonderful team player, well-liked by everyone, and never complained if he didn't get passes."
The Denver Broncos drafted McKinley in the fifth round of the 2009 draft and new coach Josh McDaniels personally made the call. Sixteen months later, speaking about his player's death, the coach suddenly paused for 15 long seconds -- his lips quivering, his nose sniffling, his eyes watering -- before saying, "I'm not sure any one of those children [we've ever drafted] enjoyed the phone call as much as Kenny did."
As a rookie in 2009, McKinley was soon reunited with an old pal from South Carolina, basketball player Renaldo Balkman -- "Two down-South guys in Denver," said Balkman, a forward for the Nuggets -- and McKinley would swagger into Balkman's home wearing a gold chain and Coogi clothing, prompting Balkman to dub him "Lil' Boosie," after the down-South rapper. The two would play Madden, game after game, Balkman losing to McKinley every time.
Each morning during the Broncos' training camp, players sauntered in wearing sweats and T-shirts, but the new guy would show up dressed to the nines. The vets would cackle and ask this cool customer just where he was planning on going while dressed like that? McKinley just smiled and became the little brother in the locker room. Guys liked hanging around the kid with the smile. It was infectious. They liked his grit, too. During practice, linebacker Wesley Woodyard would catch himself gazing at the rookie receiver, the feisty fresh-meat, baiting and battling the cornerbacks in one-on-one drills.
"He always wanted to beat guys, and that's something a lot of guys really don't have these days coming out of college," said Woodyard, an undrafted, self-made NFL player. "He had it in his heart."
Yet McKinley was the fifth receiver on the crowded depth chart, a rookie relegated to special teams duty. Then, he injured his knee. And then, the other.
But that smile still beamed. Just nine days before he pulled the trigger, there it was, on the big screen at Williams-Brice Stadium, shining down on the South Carolina faithful. Standing on the sideline on crutches, McKinley was introduced at the USC-Georgia game, and the cheers were intoxicating. For a few fleeting moments, once again, he was a hero. He mattered. And then, it all faded away.
Sent: Thu 9/23/2010 12:48 PM
Subject: THANK YOU FOR THE ARTICLE ABOUT SUICIDE
I suffer from depression and know if there were a gun in the house, I probably wouldn't be here. My dad committed suicide when I was 5. My dad gave me his addiction to alcohol, also. I know if I mix alcohol and guns, I'm a dead man. The news about McKinley hit me right in the stomach. The demon of depression caught him vulnerable and drove him to deeper valleys than he'd ever known better. If he hadn't had a gun.
His stick is over at Kenny's house. They shot so much pool, Matt Prater decided just left to leave the darn thing over there. The buddies would play and play and the goofy McKinley would talk smack the whole time ("I was way better at pool," Prater said).
Sometimes, the kicker and the receiver would invite over dates and have a cookout. The two close friends talked on the phone on Sunday night, Sept. 19, after the Broncos beat the Seahawks. They made plans to have lunch on Tuesday.
"And I got the phone call on Monday," Prater said, quietly.
Imagine calling your friend to see if he were dead. Balkman did it. So did Woodyard. Neither would accept the news.
"It was just ringing and ringing and ringing," said Balkman, who plans on getting a tattoo of McKinley's number 11. "I pinched myself. You come to reality. It's done. It happened. ... The happiest person in the world can be upset by something -- depressed -- and you never know."
What shakes Balkman, and so many others close to Kenny, is the heartbreaking misconception that, surely, you can spot a depressed person when you see one. But the demons hide inside.
"The point about Kenny McKinley, based on what I know, was he had debts and issues with his kid and he was no longer a star," Paige said. "But he was practicing. He had football every day. But then -- he got hurt again. He begins to wonder. He was one of the greatest players in South Carolina history, goes back to a game and they give him a standing ovation when he's introduced. Then he comes back, and he's alone. He's thinking about not playing football, the money, his kid. I'm not a doctor, but when I was hearing and reading these things, that's what I thought -- he was alone. [He must have thought], I don't have any way to get around this, except to get out of this."
Tears dripped in Denver. McDaniels, at the podium in the media room, explaining the inexplicable. Balkman, in the quiet of his home, where he and Kenny used to laugh. And Paige, at his computer, reading e-mails of hope from the hopeless.
Sent: Thu 9/23/2010 10:00 AM
Subject: Your article on the Kenny McKinley death
In the last two years, I have tried to kill myself twice, and thankfully someone was able to catch me in the act and save my life. Your article is so correct in that it does not matter whether you are a professional with a handsome salary or just an everyday hard-working individual. Depression is a very difficult illness to overcome.
I know that the courage you have displayed in coming forward with your battle with suicide will truly help me -- and hopefully many others who have those terrible thoughts.
The bright smile illuminates memories. McKinley's teammates catch themselves staring at his locker, memories stirring. Prater and some other Broncos have a photo of No. 11 in their own lockers. On YouTube there are an array of videos of McKinley, some highlighting McKinley catching passes you're not supposed to catch, others with teary-eyed Broncos fans giving a testimonial about how they lost one of their own. There's also an old college football show, in which Kenny invites a camera crew to his Spartanburg apartment for a barbecue. He wore an apron at the grill, explaining that his daddy and uncles taught him how to cook, "and they passed it down to me, so hopefully I'll pass it down to my children."
After burgers and brats, he exclaimed to the camera, "It ain't a real cookout until someone cranks it up!" At which his buddy indeed cranked up the music, and a smiling McKinley danced to the rap song, "Walk It Out," bouncing around the living room in glee.
Then Kenny said, "It's been like heaven since I got down here."