The boys one by one began to cry, collapsing into a team huddle like they had countless times at practices and before games. But this time, loud moans replaced cheers.
The Friday funeral for Davon McNeal, an 11-year-old who was fatally shot at a Fourth of July stop-the-violence cookout in Southeast D.C., spotlighted the remaining members of the Metro Bengals, Davon’s teammates who are struggling to understand that their friend is gone forever. The event took place at Anacostia High School’s football field, where representatives from a funeral home wore referee uniforms and handed out programs that showed Davon as Sports Illustrated’s “sportsman of the year.”
Centering the memorial around his former team helped mourners understand the life they had lost — an avid student, a competitive “Fortnite” player, the last one to fall on the football field — and also served as a reminder of a generation scarred by gun violence.
“I’ve got a whole football team in front of me, and I don’t want to go to one of their funerals,” said John Ayala, Davon’s paternal grandfather, to the hundreds of mourners.
During the service, the team sat in the aisle between rows of family and friends on the football field, most of them trying to avoid the sight of their deceased friend a few feet away. They buried their heads in their knees, leaned onto each other and occasionally held up three fingers, in reference to Davon’s jersey number, as they listened to speakers share stories of their friend’s 11 years.
“I ran down the football field with him. I yelled so loud everyone can hear me. I am his number one fan and he knew it,” said Crystal McNeal, Davon’s mother, who works as a “violence interrupter” in the city. “They took my baby’s dreams away.”
His teammates watched her buckle with emotion and leave the area in a moment of overwhelming grief.
“It is crazy that Davon is gone because we used to talk to each other every day,” his cousin, 12-year-old Jarrell Tyer, told mourners. “I still want this to be a dream, but I guess I have to come to reality.”
For Davon’s friends, the threat of violence is familiar. Homicides have increased by 24 percent in the District this year, with the majority of deadly shootings occurring east of the Anacostia River. In 2019, a year that also saw rampant violence, the neighborhood lost Karon Brown, an 11-year-old who would have been in Davon’s middle school class. On Friday, religious leaders and local politicians urged mourners to channel their grief into determination to end gun violence in their community.
Trayon White Sr., councilman for Ward 8, looked at the boys in their football jerseys as he made a plea for the gun violence to stop. “If this doesn’t shake the community and wake us up to do better for ourselves and for our children, we may be lost forever,” he said.
Rev. Thomas Lee Cardwell Jr. called for the city to pour more resources into Southeast Washington, echoing previous sentiments from those close to Davon who have said that their community needs more law enforcement in addition to a reformed police system.
In a list of demands laid out in language to honor Davon, Cardwell said the city must “tackle truancy,” “intercept illiteracy,” “sack sexual predators” and find “touchbacks for these streets” to “stop criminals before they get out of the end zone.”
A group of moms who had lost their children to gun violence in D.C. rallied in support of Crystal McNeal on Friday and said they hope police find and arrest everyone responsible for Davon’s slaying. Davon died as a result of stray bullets fired between street gangs, police said. They have arrested two suspects and are searching for at least two other men on arrest warrants.
“It is like a nightmare you never wake up from,” said Catherine Young, whose 24-year-old son D’Quan Young was fatally shot by an off-duty police officer in 2018.
Kevin McGill, who was Davon’s coach, led his team through the four-hour service Friday, wrapping his arms around them as they cried.
“I am just trying to keep them together,” he said, holding a handwritten speech that he used to eulogize his lost player, who they called Day Day. “I hope they walk away knowing that they got to keep living for Day Day, in school, on the field, as a lifestyle. Now, it is all for him.”
Nyeem Woods, 11, took his coach’s words to heart. For the young football player, time has moved slowly since he learned on Instagram that his best friend had died.
“I am still in shock to this day,” he said. “But from here on out, it’s all for number three.”
When he first saw Davon on Friday, motionless in his clear casket, all Nyeem could think about was the moment the friends first met on their elementary school football field.
They had grown together in the years since, discussing their shared dreams of joining the National Football League and buying new houses for their moms.
Now, Nyeem said, he will buy two houses someday: one for his mom and one for Davon’s.
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.