IN MEMORY OF A HUMBLE EIGHTH-GRADE STAR, AND A BRIGHT FUTURE TRAGICALLY UNFULFILLED
HIS SMILE is what you noticed first. It was wide, bright and inviting—Jaylon McKenzie had the looks of a star. "His smile would break you down," says Darren Sunkett, the football coach at East St. Louis (Ill.) High and a family friend who has known Jaylon since he was three or four years old. "How could you deny that?"
His talent is what kept you watching. Jaylon's first word was ball. He spent hours every day practicing his football moves in front of a mirror, dashing around his house in Belleville in a helmet and pads. When local product Ezekiel Elliott was playing on TV for Ohio State and then the Cowboys, Jaylon tried to mimic him. He excelled in track and basketball, but his athletic skills were most evident in football. Though just 14, an eighth-grader, he had received scholarship offers from Missouri and Illinois.
Last November, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED featured Jaylon along with five other athletes, aged 13 to 17, on the fast track to stardom. Jaylon had earned national attention after a performance at the 8th Grade All-American Game in Canton, Ohio, last August, when he caught five passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns, and had two tackles at cornerback. "A phenomenal athlete," says Sunkett. "An uncommon individual."
Jaylon was the type of kid who would sit quietly by himself before games. "And then you see him [play] and you're like, Is that the same kid?" says Harith Mitchom, his youth coach. Jaylon made plenty of noise on the field—1,546 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns on 108 carries, along with five receiving scores for the East St. Louis Jr. Flyers during the 2017--18 season. He was humble but determined to realize his goal of playing in the NFL.
His dream ended way too soon. Around 8 p.m. on May 4, Jaylon left a dance at his school, Mason-Clark Middle School in East St. Louis. After stopping at home, he went with a group of friends to a party in nearby Venice. Around 11:40 p.m., according to Illinois State Police, Jaylon, along with a 15-year-old girl, were struck by stray gunfire at the party. His mother, Sukeena Gunner, says Jaylon was leaving to avoid a fight that had broken out. He was taken to Gateway Hospital in Granite City, where more than 75 people joined his parents. By midnight he was pronounced dead. (The girl, whose name has not been made public, remains in critical condition. No information about a suspect has been released by Illinois State Police.)
"Everyone's in shock," says Sunkett. "You're talking about an eighth-grade phenomenon who didn't have a chance to tap into his potential. Didn't have a chance to show the world." The news of Jaylon's death spread far beyond Belleville. Elliott volunteered to pay for the funeral, scheduled for May 18. Markus Golden, an outside linebacker for the Giants and a St. Louis native, has also pledged financial support. Adoree' Jackson, a Titans cornerback who grew up in Belleville and was an inspiration for Jaylon, reached out to the family to offer his condolences. The response from the wider football community has been, says Gunner, "amazing."
"It's beautiful to know he touched that many people," adds Mitchom. "Beautiful personality. Beautiful soul."
Before Jaylon left for the dance, his mother took a photo of him. He was wearing a blazer, a black shirt and white sneakers, plus a silver chain with the letter j hanging from it. Of course, he was smiling wide and bright, just like his future. How could you deny that?