Jaylon McKenzie had a bright future. Last November, the eighth-grade football phenom was profiled in Sports Illustrated’s “Six Teens Who Will Rule the Future in Sports.” Soon after, he’d reportedly received verbal scholarship offers from The University of Illinois and the University of Missouri. McKenzie had big dreams: to earn a college scholarship, to make the NFL, and to move to Los Angeles and play for the Chargers or the Rams.
But those dreams were cut short Saturday night, police say, when the 14-year-old was shot dead while attending a post-prom party in Illinois.
“It’s so hard to fathom that someone took my baby from me because he dreamed so big,” Sukeena Gunner, McKenzie’s mother, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Sunday. “I can just remember him coming into my room and telling my husband to call his name. ‘We have a 5-6 running back, Jayyyyy-lonnnn McKenzieeee.’ And he would run into the room after his name was called.”
Gunner told the Post-Dispatch that the Mason-Clark middle schooler had attended an eighth-grade dance earlier in the night, before heading out to the after-prom party in Venice, Illinois with his friends.
Police said that at about 11:40 p.m., officers responded to reports of shots fired on the 600 block of 3rd street. When police arrived on the scene, they found McKenzie and a 15-year-old girl had been shot. McKenzie died shortly after arriving at a hospital. The girl is reportedly still in critical condition.
Gunner told the Post-Dispatch that she found out her son had been shot when she heard one of his friends was trying to contact her. She called her son’s phone, and a friend picked up and told her the news. She says witnesses told her that McKenzie was struck by a stray bullet while he was trying to flee a fight.
The Illinois State Police did not respond to a request for comment. No arrests have yet been made in the case.
The East St. Louis School District 189 confirmed in a Sunday statement that a “few” students had been shot over the weekend. Although the details remained unclear, the school said, “We do know that our youth, families, and school staff have dealt with a number of tragedies and incidents of violence this year. We request space and time for them to appropriately grieve and come to terms with this latest impact of violence.”
A week before his death, McKenzie announced that he’d received a verbal scholarship offer from the University of Illinois; in December, he said he’d received one from the University of Missouri.
“Outside of basketball, outside of football, he was just a great kid,” Al Lewis, who coached McKenzie for the Southwest Illinois Jets basketball team, told KSDK News. “If he walked up here—he can’t walk up here now, but if you were to be with him, you wouldn’t have known. You wouldn’t have known that Sports Illustrated was covering him, you wouldn’t have known that he had two offers from Illinois in Missouri. Because he’s just the smiling kid, the jokester, the prankster, that everyone grew to love outside of the sports.”
“He was a superstar in life,” Lewis added, “and somebody great that we’re gonna miss dearly.”
In the Sports Illustrated profile, the running back, receiver, and defensive back was described as drawing “national attention” when he caught 5 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns during the NFL’s 8th Grade All-American Game in Canton, Ohio. He’d also rushed for 1,546 yards and 21 touchdowns for his local football team, the East St. Louis Jr. flyers.
When asked about his dreams for his future, McKenzie told Sports Illustrated that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Adoree’ Jackson, a cornerback and return specialist for the Tennessee Titans who hails from the same St. Louis suburb. He dreamed of moving to L.A., and playing for the Chargers or the Rams.
“He wanted to walk across the stage to accept his contract in the NFL,” Gunner told the Post-Dispatch. “He told me, ‘We’re going to make it, mama, we’re going to be good, mama.’ That was his dream. And I believe it would have come true if someone had not taken my baby away from me.”