BOISE -- Many know him as "The Emmett Eliminator," a renowned boxer known for winning. But in recent years, Kenny Keene has dealt with some major challenges stemming from repeated injuries while he was in the ring.
Thanks to therapy at a local hospital, he's overcome those setbacks. Kenny was in a dark place for a while: He battled depression and serious neurological problems related to his traumatic brain injury. He came to psychologists at the Saint Alphonsus Rehabilitation Clinic (STARS) for help, and now, he says he's made a 180.
Today, Kenny Keene has a new outlook on life and a message for others about healing.
The cruiserweight boxing champion fought for 23 years and lost just four out of 55 professional fights.
"Even now, I don't regret it. I'd do it again," Keene told KTVB. "It's the best thing that ever happened to me."
But that winning record didn't come without consequence; in a sport known for its brutal aggression, hitting is its nature.
"We all know the risk when we go in. It shouldn't be a shock," Keene added.
He says he's had over 100,000 blows to the head.
"Things are gonna happen when you do it like that," he said. "I didn't expect it to be like this."
His wife recognized signs of declining mental ability before he did. He remembers the moment it really hit him: Kenny heard his own voice on the answering machine and didn't recognize it because his speech was so impaired.
"I thought: it got me. I always thought I would be the one to escape without the injury, but it got me," he said. "I thought, man, I got some problems. I better nip it in the butt and not wait until it's too bad."
Keene was dealing with memory and other cognitive issues, and battling depression as he tried to transition out of the boxing world and out of the spotlight.
"You're lost," Keene added. "You become this identity that you created."
He didn't think he needed therapy until last summer when it got worse.
"His depression had been relatively longstanding but it had been triggered more recently by this whole adjustment," STARS cognitive psychologist, Dr. Molly Brady, said.
Dr. DeBoard, a neuropsychologist with STARS, initially evaluated Kenny.
"Noticing that maybe he was more impulsive," Dr. DeBoard said. "Kenny was having memory problems."
She found Keene possibly had early signs of dementia pugilistica - brain damage caused by multiple concussions or other traumatic blows to the head.
"I do think we caught it early enough to really slow down any process that might be going on that would be worse and worse over time," Dr. DeBoard added.
DeBoard says he had difficulties with visual memories and some verbal memories, as well as weaknesses with other executive skills. But it wasn't so severe to the point where he couldn't function.
Kenny then underwent extensive therapy with Dr. Brady, for about seven weeks.
"If we are able to do things like manage his depression, it may have neurobiological effects on his brain," Brady told KTVB.
Outside his sessions, Kenny really did his homework and worked to improve.
"He had some real breakthroughs," Dr. Brady said.
"All indications are he's doing better than ever," DeBoard added.
Dr. Brady says in walking her patients through recovery, education is key. She teaches them common symptoms, how depression and concussions interact with one another, health practices and sleeping routines, and she discusses psychological stressors and how to manage them.
"It was so amazing. She picked me apart and found out all my problems because, you know, I had a lot of pride, I didn't want to talk about it," Keene said.
His message now: get help as soon as you recognize any sign of brain damage.
"The important thing is to do like I did and jump on it right away and get to it," Kenny said. "I want to help out the next guy."
Doctors' message for athletes, motorcyclists, and everyone else: protect your brain. They say be aware of any risks and evaluate whether it's worth it. Dr. Brady says if you've had one or multiple concussions and you're noticing a difference in your day-to-day, get checked out.
"If you're a high school athlete and you've had some of those concussions and school has been more difficult because of it, then working on stress management, and helping your family understand where you're coming from and helping them get on the same page can make a big difference," Brady said.
DrBoard says the repeated nature of concussions poses a higher risk for neurological problems, but doesn't necessarily mean you will get dementia or chronic traumatic encepholopathy (CTE). She says it's key for athletes, parents and coaches to know when someone should take a break and sit out.
She adds that there still is a lot of work to do with awareness surrounding brain injuries, and that it should be instilled in kids at a young age that hitting harder is not always better.
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