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Watkins: Ezekiel Elliott helps his hometown heal from the loss of a budding football star

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  • Watkins: Ezekiel Elliott helps his hometown heal from the loss of a budding football star


    By Calvin Watkins 7h ago

    A public memorial service will take place Wednesday for Jaylon McKenzie, a 14-year old middle school football player from East St. Louis whose life was so much more.

    McKenzie was killed by a stray bullet last weekend in Venice, Illinois. It was the night of his eighth-grade prom, and after the dance, McKenzie stopped at a house party when a fight broke out. McKenzie left the party when the fight started and was shot along with a 15-year-old girl. McKenzie later died at the hospital, and the girl remains in stable condition. On the surface, he was another kid just trying to get home. Dig deeper, though, and you find an outstanding football player with a bright smile and quiet sense of confidence. McKenzie’s talent was recognized at an early age, with both Illinois and Missouri extending scholarship offers before he even enrolled in high school.

    His name resonated with many in the St. Louis area. One of them is St. Louis native and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.

    McKenzie was a big Cowboys fan; a Cowboys poster hangs on the back wall of the family room in his parents’ house. Elliott was one of his favorite NFL players. When Elliott heard of McKenzie’s passing, he donated funds to help with the funeral costs.

    “It broke me down,” Elliott’s mother, Dawn told The Athletic. “When his little league coach called me, I was at work. Whenever Rae Merriweather calls I pick up, so he rarely calls. I was hoping everything was OK. I automatically assumed it was [something else]. So I picked up, and it was totally different.”

    In East St. Louis, current and former pro athletes keep up with the next generation of talent.

    McKenzie was next.

    “You had to see him play,” said Carl Reed, the head football coach at Lutheran North, whose middle school team played McKenzie’s. “When somebody has it,you don’t know why they got it or where they got it from. But you know it when you see it. It was like when Zeke played, you knew that he had it. It’s the same kind of deal. Those great ones have that it factor.”

    Who was Jaylon McKenzie?

    Darren Sunkett spotted Jaylon McKenzie’s rare talent in a fittingly unusual place. He was getting his hair cut at a barbershop run by a man named Otis Gunner, but he couldn’t take his eyes off of Gunner’s four-year-old son, who was running around the shop with a football tucked under his arm, dodging imaginary defenders all over the place. It was Jaylon. Sunkett quickly struck up a bond with both father and son. He watched Jaylon grow up.

    “We always have get-togethers every Sunday to watch NFL games at his house,” Sunkett said. “I’ve known Jaylon pretty much his whole life.”

    Sunkett eventually got into coaching and wound up as the head football coach at East St. Louis Senior High School, a program with eight Illinois state titles. He was finally going to coach Jaylon this fall, a development he anticipated for years after watching Jaylon break out three years earlier.

    “He was in his sixth-grade year and he was doing things the average sixth grader doesn’t do on the field,” Sunkett said. “He was just starting coming into his own right at age 11.”

    Arlen Harris played for three NFL teams and is a renowned running back trainer in the St. Louis area. He trained Elliott when he was in high school, and knows what talented players look like. It wasn’t a hard decision when Otis and Sukeena Gunner asked them to train their son four years ago.

    “He was so little just running around, and he stuck out because he had a different skill set athletically,” said Harris, the head football coach at Lutheran St. Charles. “He was always a kinda quiet kid, and as he got older, you could see he got more confident in his abilities and started speaking out a little bit more.”

    Harris gave Jaylon one-on-one training, and watched him blossom into a dynamic running back-wide receiver hybrid. His YouTube highlights tell the whole story. Here’s Jaylon catching passes from the slot, running past defenders for first downs and touchdowns. There’s Jaylon lining up in the backfield and evading two, sometimes three defenders for scores. He makes it look easy. Last year, he scored 21 touchdowns for his middle school team, the East St. Louis Jr. Flyers.

    That led Harris to vouch for him after McKenzie wasn’t invited to the Under Armour eighth-grade All-American game in Orlando last year. McKenzie was added to the lineup, and Harris’ faith was rewarded after McKenzie scored two touchdowns in that game. For good measure, he also played in the NFL’s 8th grade All-American game in Canton, Ohio, catching five passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns.

    The whole package was enough for Sports Illustrated to recognize him last year as one of six teenagers representing the future of sports. But Jaylon was more than an athlete; he was also finalist for the Junior National Elite Student-Athlete award last year.

    “He had that type of talent,” Harris said. “We always talk education. He was a good student, he just carried himself differently. He had his little swagger but the way he interacted with other (people) and the way he got attention, I thought he handled it well.”

    “If anybody knows Jaylon McKenzie, they know Jaylon McKenzie was a jewel,” Sukeena Gunner told St. Louis television station KSDK.

    What happened?

    On May 4, Jaylon attended the Mason-Clark Middle School eighth-grade prom, where kids showed up in cropped pants, open collar dress shirts and dresses. After the dance, Jaylon stopped at a house party on the way home. According to the Belleville News-Democrat, Venice, Illinois Alderman Celestine Williams was hosting a house party for her grandson. The party was huge. A DJ kept things lively. Then the fight broke out. That’s when Williams, according to the News-Democrat, told everyone to go home.

    “That’s when everything started,” she told the News-Democrat.

    The gunshots erupted about 20 minutes to midnight. Two people were hit. One was an unnamed 15-year-old girl. The other was Jaylon. Chaos reigned. According to police reports, neither people at the party nor neighborhood residents knew where the shots came from or who fired them. Jaylon was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he died.

    “It was three or four in the morning when I found out,” Reed said. “One of my players called me who was at the party. It was a complete shock to me. He had to say it three times before I said what it was. It was completely unbelievable to me.”

    Harris received a text message about the shooting. He had to read it three times to process what had happened. Then he received a phone call from Sukeena McKenzie.

    “She didn’t say a word,” Harris said. “She just cried and that’s what kinda broke me. That’s when I knew it was real.”

    The violence in the East St. Louis area scares children and terrifies their parents. According to an April 2019 report, the murder rate in East St. Louis is 19 times greater than the national average. Oftentimes, those killings are anonymous: Per the Belleville News-Democrat, only 25 percent of the 453 murders in the area from 2000 through 2018 were solved.

    Conditions are improving. In December 2018, police officials declared homicides to be down 42 percent in East St. Louis, thanks in large part to community policing. It still doesn’t ease the pain of what happened to Jaylon or the fear of some citizens.

    “I’ve got a 13-year-old daughter and you want to stick to them like duct tape,” said Dawn Elliott, who still works and lives in the St. Louis area. “You don’t want them to go anywhere. It’s almost like no place is safe.”

    The connection to Ezekiel Elliott

    Athletes from the St. Louis area remember where they came from. Whether it’s through a football or basketball camp, former St. Louis area players often return to their hometown. And even when they’re far away from home, they call their youth and high school coaches to hear about the latest players coming up.

    “The guys from St. Louis are always going to take care of the St. Louis guys,” Reed said. “And the guys from the city who made it to the pros like Zeke and the Larry Hughes and Jayson Tatums that play in the NBA, it’s always something. They want to give back, and it’s a rite of passage. When you make it, you have a responsibility to open those doors for everybody else and give back… It’s not a surprise to me that a St. Louis guy stepped up immediately and took care of this.”

    Elliott didn’t know Jaylon personally but heard of his exploits on the field. When Elliott discovered Jaylon was killed, he called Merriweather, his youth football coach, and instructed him to reach out to the family. Elliott didn’t want publicity for his offer to pay for the funeral. He didn’t tell his agent, the Cowboys or his mother what he was doing. Elliott called the man closest to the community to where he grew up in to find out what happened.

    “He just made me extremely proud,” Dawn Elliott said.

    The connection between Elliott and Merriweather runs deep. Last year, Elliott hosted Merriweather’s youth football team from the Mathews-Dickey Boys & Girls club in St. Louis at the Cowboys; game against Tampa Bay last December.

    Now, the ties between Elliott’s and McKenzie’s families do, too. Dawn Elliott’s youngest daughter ran in some of the track meets as Jaylon. She didn’t know Sukeena McKenzie before the tragedy, but the two have since bonded.

    “I learned a lot from her, we’ve (attended the same) track meets together,” Dawn Elliott said. “I learned they were Cowboys fans and I didn’t know that (Jaylon) watched Ezekiel and I hopefully will meet his mother. I do plan on attending the funeral.”

    For Elliott, it represents another touching off-the-field moment this offseason after he recently comforted a kid at a Stars game who was hit by a stray puck. It’s a softer side that the wider public may not know exists for a player who has had public brushes with immaturity since entering the league.

    “It just goes to show you what kind of person Zeke is off the field,” said Cowboys Executive Vice President Stephen Jones said. “He’s a caring person. We all know when you’re young, coming out of school, you’re 20, 21 years old –I know I didn’t do things exactly right. You stumble. He certainly learned from some tough times.

    “You see things like this, it doesn’t surprise me because I know how big a heart he has.”

    Jaylon McKenzie legacy

    We’ll never know what Jaylon McKenzie could have been. The people who knew him are left to comfort themselves with memories. His parents’ house is filled with trophies of all sizes from football, track and basketball. On Mother’s Day last week, flowers were delivered with cards of encouragement.

    “He pushed us along to do things we never thought we could do,” Sukeena McKenzie, a fourth-grade teacher, told KSDK-TV.

    Wednesday is the public memorial at the high school he would have attended. Saturday is the memorial service. No one so young should experience such attention and not be alive for it.

    “It’s not real. I’m not looking forward to the funeral,” Harris said. “I see the pictures on social media. My boys are having a tough time with it. It’s … one of those things, the timing is so surreal.”

    A community has come together around the loss of one of their own. They’re united not to figure out the hows and whys of Jaylon’s death, but to enjoy what he was as a good football player with a bright future and a brilliant mind. As a kid who did the right things off the field.

    “You don’t expect this to happen, especially to a kid who is not part of that violent-type life,” Sunkett said. “He was out just trying to enjoy himself after the prom, and it just happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s devastating. You’re looking at a kid who has a chance to fulfill his dreams he created for himself, and he had a ton of potential that the St. Louis area never gets a chance to see.”
    2016 DCC LOTY Fantasy Football Champion
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