Rising Football Star Jaylon McKenzie, 14, Recently Featured in Sports Illustrated, Shot Dead

By Mimi Nguyen Ly

A 14-year-old rising football star, Jaylon McKenzie, died after he was shot at a party in southern Illinois on May 4. The boy had been recently featured in Sports Illustrated as one of six teens “who will rule the future in sports” and had hoped to “make the NFL.”

McKenzie’s mother told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that witnesses said that her son was killed by a stray bullet after a fight broke out at a house party. Illinois State Police said that the shooting happened around 11:40 p.m. in Venice, Illinois, near the Missouri border.

Illinois State Police said that a girl, 15, was also critically injured by the gunfire. No arrests have been made, the Post-Dispatch reported.

According to the regional newspaper, a Facebook Live video showed that gunshots were still being fired even after police arrived at the scene to try and save the young teenagers.

McKenzie died shortly after arriving at a hospital.

“It’s so hard to fathom that someone took my baby from me because he dreamed so big,” the boy’s mother, Sukeena Gunner, told the Post-Dispatch.

“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 MacKenzieeee.’ And he would run into the room after his name was called.”

McKenzie played running back, receiver, and defensive back. Sports Illustrated reported that he had risen to national attention when he caught five passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns, helping his team to win at the NFL’s 8th Grade All-American Game in Ohio.

According to Sports Illustrated in a November 2018 article that featured the boy, McKenzie hoped to follow in the footsteps of Adoree’ Jackson, who played for the Titans and was a star at USC. When Jackson learned of McKenzie’s death, he sent out a message on Twitter saying: “You Was Next Up and taken too soon! We have to do better.. Rest Easy.”

McKenzie was a student at East St. Louis School District 189. The district confirmed that a number of its students were shot in a statement early on May 5.

“Few details are clear at this point. 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,” the statement read.

In 8th grade, McKenzie had already received scholarship offers: one from the University of Missouri back in December 2018, and another from the University of Illinois about a week prior to his death.

Illinois State Representative LaToya Greenwood (D) posted a tribute on Facebook about Jaylon: “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love. #JaylonMcKenzie”

There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten…

Posted by State Representative LaToya Greenwood on Sunday, May 5, 2019

Earl Bennett, a former NFL wide receiver, sent out condolences on Twitter.

“My heart and prayers goes out to Jaylon McKenzie family and friends. Matthew 5:4,” he wrote.

The scripture he cited reads: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

Anyone who witnessed the shooting was asked to call Illinois State Police Investigations Case Agent Scott Wobbe at 618-381-1467.