Sports have a way of being the great economic equalizer as talented kids from areas such as Compton, California; East St. Louis, Illinois; and the backwaters of rural Mississippi escape the crime, violence and poverty of their youth to dazzle audiences on a national stage for millions of dollars when they grow up.
But sometimes, all that promise can be cut short in an instant, hope turning to tragedy in as much time as it takes a trigger to be pulled.
Jaylon McKenzie, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Mason Clark Middle School in East St. Louis, was shot to death at a house party in Venice, Illinois, Saturday night following an altercation of which he appears not to have been a direct part, KSDK-TV in St. Louis reported.
The report said Jaylon was trying to leave the party when he was struck by a stray bullet.
The Illinois State Police, who are handling the investigation, said in a news release that they responded to a “report of a disturbance and shots fired at a large party” and found two shooting victims: Jaylon and an unidentified 15-year-old girl. Jaylon died shortly after arriving at the hospital, while the girl remains in critical condition, the release said.
East St. Louis School District 189 said in a news release that “a few” students were shot Saturday but provided no further details.
We learned that a few of our students were shot on Saturday night. Crisis teams will be present at schools to provide counseling and support to students & staff during this time. We send our prayers to the families impacted by this violence & hope for healing for the victims. pic.twitter.com/SeLFPDUlZm
— ESTL Schools 189 (@estl189) May 5, 2019
Jaylon was a major star in the making as a football player, having come to prominence at the NFL’s eighth-grade All-America game in Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He caught five passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns, leading his team to victory in the exhibition and earning national media attention.
Sports Illustrated featured Jaylon last November in a feature on “Six Teens Who Will Rule the Future in Sports.”
He hoped to follow in the footsteps of Adoree Jackson, the Tennessee Titans cornerback who is also from Jaylon’s hometown of Belleville, Illinois.
Jackson, upon learning of the teenager’s death, tweeted his condolences.
“You was next up and taken too soon!” Jackson said, before condemning the inner-city violence endemic to places like Jackson’s and McKenzie’s hometown and saying “We have to do better.”
You Was Next Up and taken too soon! We have to do better.. Rest Easy ?? https://t.co/t5r0PC72vr
— Adoree’ Jackson (@AdoreeKnows) May 5, 2019
Jaylon told SI he dreamed of being an NFL star in Los Angeles for the Rams or Chargers, and he had already received scholarship offers from Missouri and Illinois.
Rising football star.
Already recruited to Mizzou and University of Illinois D1 football teams.
Jaylon McKenzie was shot and killed.
This young man was robbed of his life! ??
— Justin Andrews (@Justin_EAndrews) May 5, 2019
As a seventh-grader, he rushed for 1,546 yards and 21 touchdowns for the East St. Louis Jr. Flyers, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“If you were to be with him, you wouldn’t know. You wouldn’t know that Sports Illustrated was covering him, you wouldn’t know that he had offers from Illinois and Missouri. Because that’s just the smiling kid he was, the jokester, the prankster,” Al Lewis, Jaylon’s coach, told KSDK.
Jaylon’s mother, Sukeena Gunner, said he “didn’t say much, but he just drew people to him with his smile, with his personality.”
“My baby had just such a promising future, and for his life to just end in just a senseless killing with someone else that had no regard for life,” she said. “Just prayer — prayer is all I can really ask for right now.”
All that remains of that promise now is the hope that police can find out who fired those shots and bring some measure of justice to those mourning the loss of a promising young football star.
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