False Dreams Die Hard in Sports
But on Monday, McKinley, according to police and a coroner's report, was lying in his bed, when he held a semiautomatic weapon inside his pillowcase and shot himself in the head.
How could that be? The truth is, I don't know. Nobody does.
This spring, Penn football player Owen Thomas hanged himself, and a recent autopsy showed that he had the same trauma-induced brain disease that has been linked to depression, mostly among NFL players.
And this past weekend, Michigan State fans were ripping into football coach Mark Dantonio on fan chat rooms while the Spartans were struggling with Notre Dame. The team won, and chats changed to celebrations. An hour or so later, Dantonio suffered a heart attack, leading to care, concern, sadness for him. How many manic emotions surrounded him and that football team over a few hours?
So what is the message here? It could be that fame and glory are fleeting, that we should appreciate what we have and never take it for granted. It could be that there is no message at all, that suicide and heart attacks happen in all parts of society.
But I wonder if maybe the message is that we're after the wrong things. Why do so many thousands of people pack high school football stadiums around the country every Friday to cheer and go crazy over children who often shoulder the sense of pride for an entire community?
It's possible that these incidents aren't connected to our priorities at all. What hit me in seeing those stories, though, was the falseness of the football dream. Today, families are dreaming as they put their kids into football, treating it as if it's more important than, say, reading or writing.
This false dream keeps growing, the demands filtering down to younger and younger kids.
According to an investigator, when McKinley was told recently that he needed knee surgery, he said that he should just kill himself. That's what The Denver Post reported. The investigator also said that McKinley didn't know what he would do if he couldn't play football because football was all he knew.
All he knew.
Surely McKinley's case is not this simple. I don't know about his family situation, his personal life, or whether he might have just had faulty wiring. But it's not hard to imagine how much he was celebrated and loved for his fame in college in South Carolina. And now, depression comes in when he wonders if he can have that fame anymore.
Thomas, the Penn student, was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Think about that. A college kid, already banged in the head so many times that it possibly led to depression, suicidal thoughts and loss of impulse control.
These brain injuries are not just an issue among retired NFL players, walking around hearing bells ringing, but also with current players, college players and high school and younger kids, too.
The New York Times reported that football accounts for 22 percent of all concussions among kids 8-19 years old. And 27 percent of football players from age 12 to 17 have already had at least one concussion.
Meanwhile, NFL owners want to add two games to the schedule, because they know we'll all watch and cheer on these players banging their heads and living the dream.
And a fit-looking college coach in his highest moment suffered a heart attack. Michigan State will play its rival, Michigan, in three weeks, and people around Dantonio say you will have to tie him down to keep him away.
Football is the American Dream. At one point, football -- and sports in general -- was supposed to be about building character and learning about teamwork, personal responsibility and sportsmanship.
Oh yeah, it also was about health. Are those the reasons now? Or is it the Tiger Woods Syndrome, the football equivalent of fathers cutting down golf clubs for their 4-year-olds? When families strap a football helmet on their young kids, is it about promoting physical fitness or becoming the next star?
I thought it worked this way: You start to play a sport, enjoy it and are good at it. Those who are particularly good at it get some attention. Now, too often, the goal is the attention. The stakes are escalating, and while football players keep getting bigger and faster, it takes bigger and faster kids to keep up. The hitting is getting harder at a younger age.
I know of one football coach who filmed the upcoming opponents to scout the team's tendencies and weaknesses. (On finding out, the other team changed jersey numbers for the big game).
The players on those teams were nine years old.
No, it's not just football. If you watched the Little League World Series on ESPN, you saw the classic sellout of ideals. Little League is now about little kids being played up as rock stars on national TV, given nicknames. At one point, a manager was complaining that they were using replay. Once, a pitcher was on the mound, crying with a mic nearby.
The dream is upside down.
Again, that doesn't mean it led to the recent suicides and heart attack. But even without cause and effect, the dangers are still more true than the dream.
McKinley's agent, Andrew Bondarowicz, tried to understand what had just happened, telling The Denver Post that "Kenny had a big heart, a love for life. It's just very shocking.
"These guys, they're made of steel on the outside, but for a lot of them, the challenge of being at your best and living up to all the expectations is a difficult situation. Some people are better equipped and have the support system.''
McKinley will not be one of the lucky few retired NFL players walking with a limp or hearing bells ring. He touched a football just 10 times in the NFL.
He lived the dream. It ended with a gunshot Monday, the NFL Network playing on his TV.
Email me at email@example.com; Follow me on Twitter @gregcouch.