An Illinois football player whose star was rising had his life cut short Saturday when a stray bullet struck and killed him.
Jaylon McKenzie was just 14 years old, but his prowess on the football field won him national attention and a feature in Sports Illustrated. He had hopes of ultimately making it to the NFL to play for the Los Angeles Chargers or the L.A. Rams. But a shooting nearby a house party he attended Saturday night abruptly ended those dreams.
Police said Jaylon was shot when he left the house party on May 4. He was accompanied by a 15-year-old girl when he left the bash, which KMOV.com reported occurred after a middle school dance. Jaylon, who was an eighth-grader at Mason-Clark Middle School, died of his injuries after he and the East St. Louis High School student were rushed to a nearby hospital.
Jaylon’s mother, Sukeena Gunner, told the news station her son had been walking away from a fight that broke out at the time he was killed. She said he was taken to Gateway Hospital in Granite City, Illinois, and said she was surrounded by classmates at the time.
The girl was critically injured in the same shooting. She is presently in stable condition.
There are no other known injuries, according to police.
“Always talked about playing in the NFL. Always talked about taking care of his mom. Always,” said Otis Gunner, Jaylon’s father, to KMOV May 5. “He had a bright future. He worked hard. Didn’t know how it would end. But I would have liked to see him give it a shot.”
Although Jaylon wasn’t set to begin high school until the fall, he had already received scholarships from the University of Illinois and the University of Missouri, according to high school sports prospect website 247 Sports. And in November 2018, the teen was featured in Sports Illustrated as one of the “Six Teens Who Will Rule the Future of Sports.” The article highlighted his skills as a running back, receiver and defensive back who drew eyes from across the nation on him when he caught five passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns. Those exploits helped lift his team to victory at NFL’s 8th Grade All-American Game in Canton, Ohio, that year.
Also in the profile, Jaylon cited Tennessee Titans cornerback Adoree’ Jackson as an inspiration. On Twitter, the Belleville, Illinois, native offered condolences for the promising young star.
“You Was Next Up and taken too soon! We have to do better.. Rest Easy 🙏🏾” he tweeted.
“His talent was unparalleled,” said Jaylon’s basketball coach Al Lewis to KMOV.com. “If you didn’t see him on the field, court or track you wouldn’t know he was a superstar.”
He added to the Belleville News-Democrat that Jaylon was a natural athlete who had potential in any sport he decided to take up.
A statement released by the Illinois State Police Investigations out of Collinsville said it’s assisting in the homicide investigation of Jaylon’s death as well as the shooting of the unidentified high school victim. The incident continues to be under investigation, and no other information has been released.
A statement from the local school district said grief counselors will be on hand to support students, teachers and staff in over the next few days.