By: Lindsey Young
Bryant McKinnie had the idea in 2019, but then COVID-19 shut down the world.
The Vikings Legend navigated the global pandemic along with everyone else, but he never let go of his inspiration to hold a gala and panel for his B-Major Foundation.
Last month, he finally saw everything come to fruition.
McKinnie hosted "Cocktails & Conversation" in Hollywood, Florida, where he not only raised money toward his foundation but also focused on mental health awareness and care.
He was inspired by former NFL receiver Brandon Marshall, who over the past decade-plus has been open about his borderline personality disorder diagnosis.
"Brandon Marshall was one of the first people I heard, NFL-wise, speak on his mental health," McKinnie said.
His unique event included a panel of guests that included Lathosha Alexander, licensed clinical social worker; and Dr. LaTasha Russell Harris, doctor of clinical psychology, among others.
"People were very open and vulnerable, and I feel like it allowed the room to open up," McKinnie said.
He noted that friends of his who attended the event shared the next day about some of their own struggles they've dealt with or currently are facing.
"I feel like by me being on that stage, being vulnerable and open, and they saw that – maybe being a person who seemed closed off, they feel like nothing ever fazes me, but I opened up and was like, 'I've dealt with this, and I've actually seen Dr. Tasha … I went to her and received therapy to make sure I'm getting better and correcting things instead of letting things linger on," McKinnie said. "I think by them hearing that, they now share things with me … By hearing me speak, I think it showed them, 'Oh – it's OK to not always feel OK.' And that's true. Nobody feels OK all the time."
Helping others has been important to McKinnie from a young age.
An only child growing up in a single-parent household, McKinnie watched his mother Michele work two jobs – and three during the holidays – to ensure he had what he needed.
"I was growing every year, so every year had to be new clothes, every summer. I was never keeping on the same things because I'm constantly growing. So I'm growing and eating – I was kind of expensive," quipped McKinnie, who stands 6-foot-8. "To see how hard she had to work, I was like, 'I'm sure there are other families out there [who need extra support].'
"I wish I would have had people to take the burden off my mom, so I thought, 'Why don't I try to be that person to somebody?' " he added.
McKinnie gave back in various ways throughout his NFL career, but he kept his community work largely under the radar.
A publicist at one point encouraged him to streamline his efforts in a more visible way, and the B-Major Foundation was born.
McKinnie worked largely to support single-parent households, coming alongside high school students who needed extra support and even choosing two students each year for which to fully fund their evening at prom.
He also has emphasized physical activity and nutrition, initially using the motto "healthy kids, healthy living" for the foundation.
But a year or so after retiring from the league, McKinnie added the mental health awareness piece.
The topic became important to him, McKinnie explained, when he saw first-hand two of his close friends and fellow NFL alumni struggle with their mental health. He made sure to spend time supporting them both, including visiting one in a hospital's mental health ward when the situation became dire.
"They felt comfortable talking to me and not really their family. They felt comfortable talking to me because they felt like I came from the same space as them, definitely have an idea of what they may have been through," McKinnie noted. "That's when I kind of realized, 'This [is a space I want to be involved in].' I would always hear people mention mental health, but now it was like, 'Oh, this is real.' Because now I was dealing with it head on."
McKinnie spent time speaking with the NFL Players Association and NFL Legends Community, which now provides and promotes mental health resources, to learn additional ways to help his friends and their families.
"I really just started getting really into this space because I feel like it's been overlooked for so long that a lot of people will say, 'Oh, you'll be OK.' And it's like, 'No, they might not be,' " McKinnie said. "There are different things that people need … Some people can't deal with it by themselves. They need somebody to talk to – to let it out, or give them a hug, to feel like they have some type of support."
It's anecdotally supported that men, and particularly athletes and/or men of color, are less likely to seek out mental health support from a professional or even their peers.
"Stop waiting for your check-engine light to come on to see a doctor," McKinnie said. "Get your tune-ups, get your check-ups. Take care of yourself. Just get it done."
He's passionate about emphasizing physical and mental health for youth because the two go hand-in-hand. McKinnie is a proponent of nutrition, mindful eating and exercise because he believes those things impact not only one's body but also one's mind.
"It's just like a car," he said, returning to the auto analogy. "When you put in good gas, it's going to run better. So being able to put in good sources of food and even what you drink, it will put you in a better space mentally."
McKinnie's journey in the mental health space has been one of learning, sharing and self-reflection.
"I'm a very proactive person. It's like, 'I'm not going to let this linger around too much. Let's get to the source.' And some people will run away from it," McKinnie said. "And when I say run away from it, they might want to drink more, do whatever they want to do to escape their emotions, but then you sober back up and it's still there. And that's how people end up having substance abuse problems – because they're trying to escape reality."
On an individual basis, McKinnie has realized it's crucial that he not burn himself out.
"And I've also come to understand why I may react to certain things. Because a lot of stuff stems from childhood. A lot of things that you do as an adult stem from learned behaviors from childhood," he explained. "And when you get a chance to really talk … a therapist [helps shine a light on some things]. They don't tell you anything that you haven't said yourself; they just point it out and help you realize it.
"By doing that, it makes me excited to go a little deeper – 'OK, this is why' – and I'm starting to learn more about myself," McKinnie added. "And now that I know 'this is the reason,' I'm better able to correct it."
He's learned to set aside days to relax and recharge, though it's not his natural instinct, and he also makes plenty of room for music in his life.
Most know McKinnie's skill on the football field; fewer know his ability in the field of music.
McKinnie is a three-time Grammy-nominated co-executive producer. He's part of the Players Choir, made up entirely of current and former NFL players, which competed last year on America's Got Talent.
While McKinnie has experienced the high notes and low notes of life, music has been a constant.
He recalled first receiving a small Casio keyboard from his mom, on which he took piano lessons.
"Then I tried to make beats on my Casio machine. Then I graduated to the karaoke machine, and then singing and rapping, then being in the choir in high school and in the marching band," McKinnie said. "It's always played a part. I went to the University of Miami and wanted to get into the music space there."
McKinnie and three college teammates who also made it to the NFL – Ed Reed, Vernon Carey and Jarrett Payton – started a record label together, and in 2008, he was able to tackle a solo project with American R&B singer-songwriter Pleasure P.
"I've been around music for a little minute," he laughed.
"I've always looked at music as a form of therapy. Like, you know when you get up in the morning, you're going to listen to something to get you going and get your day started. Or when you're cleaning the house, you're going to listen to something to keep you motivated," McKinnie said. "When people are sad or going through a breakup, they listen to certain songs. Music is therapeutic."
Whether it's music, exercise, opening up to friends or seeing a therapist, McKinnie encourages others to check in with themselves and others and to prioritize their mental health. And after holding the "Cocktails & Conversations" event, he doesn't plan to slow his efforts anytime soon.
"To have something you'd spoken about years ago, to see it come to life and see the reaction I got from people, it's inspired me to do more," he said.
He's brainstorming on future events, possibly even hosting a "mental health and fitness retreat."
"I realized a lot of people are open to have these conversations, but they don't know where to go to have them," McKinnie said. "Even if you don't say anything, even if you come just to listen, you might hear somebody's story who's very similar to yours, and you can hear how they got through it, and that might inspire you. … Sometimes it's good just to listen."
To learn more about McKinnie's B-Major Foundation, click here.
May is Mental Health Awareness, and the Vikings are "Getting Open," having important conversations and breaking down stigma around mental illness. Remember, it's OK to not be OK.
To read more Getting Open stories, click here.