UNION, NJ — Kean University graduate student Kareem McKenzie played NFL football for 11 years and won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants, but he says a more challenging career is ahead of him as a licensed professional counselor.
The former offensive tackle, who has worked with teens struggling with substance use, will receive his doctorate in counseling and supervision and said he is looking ahead to his next move off the field.
“From a mental standpoint, I’d say counseling is more difficult,” said McKenzie. “Football, it’s just a matter of doing the work and making sure you’re prepared on Sunday. With counseling, you can’t actually prepare for who walks through that door. Football is pretty simple; either you win or lose. As a counselor, every day you’re dealing with someone who’s in crisis.”
McKenzie, the first person in his family to earn a doctoral degree, took part in Kean’s Graduate Commencement at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, May 16.
This summer, he plans to defend his dissertation and, pending committee approval, will complete his degree. He successfully defended his dissertation proposal in March.
McKenzie, who grew up in Willingboro, played football for just two years in high school, because his mother didn’t want him to play.
With his size and ability, football became an opportunity to go to college. He won a scholarship to Penn State University, graduating in 2001 with a degree in business administration.
A third-round NFL draft pick for the New York Jets, he joined the Giants in 2005. He was key to the Giants’ offense, blocking for players such as running back Tiki Barber and quarterback Eli Manning. He won his first Super Bowl ring in 2008 and the second in 2012.
“It was a surreal experience to make it to that level of play,” McKenzie said. “The first distinct recollection I have of the Super Bowl is the opening ceremony and kickoff. I remember watching Super Bowl kickoffs on TV as a kid; to see it in person on the sidelines was like a dreamscape, to realize you’re really on this world stage.”
As for the championship rings, he said, “They’re too heavy to wear with any frequency.”
McKenzie left football after the 2012 Super Bowl, his last NFL game. He began studying for graduate school admission exams, and earned his master’s degree in counseling at William Paterson University in 2016. His next step was Kean.
He said he discovered counseling when dealing with some personal issues and found it provided “the opportunity and space to reflect on things.”
Initially, McKenzie planned to counsel military veterans who transition to civilian life, seeing similarities between their regimented work and his structured life in football.
But he applied for work at a nonprofit counseling center in Irvington and learned about a new program there working with teens. Hired as a group facilitator, he found his calling.
“I think they felt a former professional athlete had relevant experience to speak about discipline and give an honest viewpoint,” McKenzie said. “I liked giving my clients an opportunity to talk about their issues – to be someone who would advocate for them, have conversations to figure out ways to overcome issues, and not look at them as victims of circumstances.”
In his dissertation, McKenzie is interviewing clinicians to gain perspective on the substance use assessments of Black teenagers.
Kean assistant professor Jane Webber, who started the doctoral program in counseling and supervision at Kean, is McKenzie’s faculty advisor. She said he is a “passionate advocate for the unique mental health needs of black teens in today’s stressful adolescent culture.”
“Kareem brings so much of his life experience to his work and studies,” she said. “Pro football is part of his formative development and a past career for Kareem. His present career is professional counselor and a scholar as a doctoral student. Kareem never brought football up in class. He is a student here at Kean, and we all respect this and live in the present with him.
“I see his incredible qualities — perseverance, dedication, integrity, empathy and passion in his work to help African-American male teenagers find their voice,” Webber said.
At commencement, McKenzie’s sister, brother-in-law and possibly other family members may have been watching.
The day will be somewhat bittersweet. McKenzie lost both parents during the past three years, and the anniversary of his father’s death is May 16, the same date as commencement.
“It gives new meaning to that day,” McKenzie said. “This will be the first time I’ve ever graduated from anything without my parents attending. Ultimately, it’s a great way to honor them both, walking in the ceremony and wearing my doctoral regalia.”
Photo Courtesy of Kean University