Tampa Bay Downs trainer Leon “L.J.” McKanas describes himself as “the wayward kid who tries all different things to see what challenges me.”
Since his college days, the 35-year-old McKanas has been a fan of the CBS-TV hit Survivor, the blockbuster reality show in which 16-to-20 contestants – designated as “castaways” – are delivered to a remote tropical setting where they are required to brave the elements, construct shelter, build fires, locate food and water and avoid being voted off the island by the other castaways.
“I always thought, ‘This is amazing. I’m a person who loves to be outdoors in the wild, and I want to do this,’ ” McKanas said earlier this week outside Barn 26, where he conditions 12 Thoroughbreds.
But his active, adventure-seeking lifestyle always resulted in him missing the show’s application deadline or putting his dreams of television stardom on the back burner – until last year.
McKanas and his 17 fellow castaways will become a weekly staple for millions of vicarious thrill-seekers starting Wednesday at 8 p.m. on CBS on Survivor Cagayan: Season 28 from the Philippines. He isn’t permitted to divulge any results, but McKanas’ face lights up every time someone asks him about his involvement.
“It was a 100-percent, life-altering experience,” McKanas said. “Until you do it for yourself – where everything is stripped away from you, and you have to survive on your wits and your life skills and your ability to interact with other people and work as a team – you don’t realize how many things you take for granted.
“It gave me a whole new appreciation for my existence.”
McKanas’ cup of memorable life experiences had already filled to the brim before Survivor. As a senior running back at Northeastern University in 2001, McKanas rushed for 1,756 yards and 14 touchdowns. He received the Harry Agganis Award as the Outstanding Senior Football Player in New England and is a member of the Northeastern Hall of Fame.
After graduating with a degree in media arts and design, McKanas worked in modeling before quickly realizing he wasn’t cut out to sit all day in front of a camera. He dabbled in graphic design and worked as a bartender and in financial services before the economic recession six years ago.
“I always have to be challenged, no matter what it is,” the eligible bachelor said. ‘If I’m not challenged, I feel I’m not living – no matter how much money (the challenge) costs me.”
Two years ago, the Boston native finally applied to Survivor, and the show’s producers were suitably impressed to ask McKanas for a videotape revealing more personal information. “So I sent them something really fabricated and they said ‘This isn’t you. You produced a short film,’ ” he said.
A year later – after taking out his trainer’s license and going 0-for-16 in the latter part of the 2012-13 Tampa Bay Downs meeting, with two third-place finishes – McKanas reapplied. “I took a little flip-cam, put it on a post on the side of the track at Innfields (training center) and just explained who I was and what I did,” he said. “They called me and said ‘You nailed it this time.’ ”
After flying to California to meet with Survivor host Jeff Probst and show executives, McKanas learned last June he would be part of the 18-member cast departing July 4 for the province of Cagayan on exotic Luzon Island in the Philippines. He returned home Aug. 22. McKanas’ mother Leona, who has trained Thoroughbreds since 2002, handled his stable in his absence last summer at Suffolk Downs, sending out three of his 10 winners.
The season premiere of Survivor Cagayan: Season 28 is Wednesday at 8 p.m. on CBS. The Sole Survivor wins a cool $1-million. McKanas will fly to Boston next week to attend a private viewing at his former place of employment, Strega Waterfront. “The owner and my good friend, Nick Varano, is hosting it, and all my family and friends up there are going to be there,” he said. Assistant Ozzy Rivera will handle barn duties during his short absence.
For the upcoming season, contestants were divided into three tribes: Brawn, Brains and Beauty. McKanas was surprised, though not offended, to be placed into the Beauty Tribe.
“It’s one of those flattering things, or can be,” he said, laughing. “When I look in the mirror, I automatically think I’m brawn. There are many people more intelligent than me, whether it’s book smarts or having more experience, but I can fit in and learn as I go.
“But you can be beautiful and have a brain and be brawny at the same time. So I took it as a compliment.”
On his show biography, McKanas opined he will be the sole survivor because “My athleticism will carry me through the early stages, my charm through the middle, and smarts to play through to the end.”
His Survivor Beauty Tribe-mates included an attractive female Northwestern University student, a former San Francisco 49ers cheerleader and a Miss Kentucky Teen USA. How do you spell T-E-M-P-T-A-T-I-O-N?
“Fortunately, I was blessed to work in the restaurant industry, which gave me exposure to some of the most beautiful women in the world,” he said, “and I came to learn when you meet somebody and are attracted to them right away, that is just instinct.
“You have to let the new-car smell go away because once it does, it’s just a car, and I tried to put that in my head. They are beautiful girls, but once the new-car smell went away, their true personalities were going to come out and we were going to have a sense of reality.
“It’s a difficult thing to start right off the bat not doing everything you can for a beautiful woman,” McKanas added. “But I had to take that step back and look at it very subjectively. It’s an amazing social experience to see how people interact and see how their core comes out when things start getting raw and rough.”
Other well-known cast members for the upcoming season include former NBA All-Star Cliff Robinson, a member of the Brawn Tribe, and Miami Marlins President David Samson, a member of the Brains Tribe.
The million-dollar “Sole Survivor” prize, which has not been determined, will have a lasting impact on its recipient. But McKanas says his short involvement training Thoroughbreds is a big enough challenge to last for the foreseeable future.
“Tampa Bay Downs is the best place to get some experience, and once I started to get hands-on with horses I realized that it’s a challenge every day,” McKanas said.
“”They can’t tell you when they’re hurt, they can’t tell you when they’re hungry, they can’t tell you when they’re happy and feeling good. The challenge is figuring it out. And I’m addicted to it. Whether that is fortunate or not, I’m excited to find out,” McKanas added.