Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott offered to pay for the funeral of Jaylon McKenzie, a 14-year-old aspiring football player who was killed by a stray bullet as he left a party over the weekend.
McKenzie’s mother, Sukeena Gunner, told KSDK in St. Louis that Elliott had made the offer. She added that three other NFL players had reached out to the family as well. Elliott has ties to the St. Louis area, where he attended John Burroughs School before going on to star at Ohio State and later for the Cowboys.
“For him to reach out to me was unbelievable. Jaylon loved Ezekiel Elliott,” Gunner said, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “He talked about him all the time. When Ezekiel was playing, he would sit in front of the TV. His eyes were glued to the TV, watching him . . . Just for him to reach out to me and help me in this difficult time leaves me speechless.”
The paper reported that Elliott would indeed pay for the funeral, citing multiple sources. ESPN also reported that the Cowboys confirmed Elliott had made the offer.
McKenzie was a 5-foot-7, 148-pound eighth-grader from Belleville, Ill., a St. Louis suburb, and had already drawn the attention of college scouts. A student at Mason-Clark Middle School in East St. Louis, he scored two touchdowns and caught five passes for 161 yards in the Pro Football Hall of Fame all-American game for middle-schoolers this past summer. That also drew the attention of Sports Illustrated, which included him in a feature on “Six Teens Who Will Rule the Future in Sports” in November. Despite not yet having played high school football, he had drawn interest from the University of Illinois and the University of Missouri.
McKenzie was fatally shot and a 15-year-old girl was wounded at about 11:40 Saturday night when a fight broke out at a party that followed a dance, Gunner told the Belleville News-Democrat. McKenzie, according to the Illinois State Police, was struck by a stray bullet and the unidentified girl was hospitalized in critical condition. The shooting capped a weekend of violence in the region, with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporting that 16 people were shot in 10 separate incidents.
Gunner told the Belleville paper that her son was trying to leave the party in Venice, Ill., when a fight broke out. “Jaylon did everything right. If he did anything wrong, I didn’t know about it,” she said. “He got up every morning, went to school, did his work. He never rode with anyone else; I’d take him to school, or sometimes my husband, and we’d pick him up. Then the next day, we’d do it all over again.”
Darren Sunkett, the football coach at East St. Louis, a perennial Illinois powerhouse, called for an end to the shootings. “The senseless killings in our inner-cities across the U.S. has to STOP,” he tweeted. “I’ve known @jaymckenzie06 since he was toddler. I’m heartbroken.”
McKenzie and his family were considering which high school he would attend, a reminder of just how young he was. “Academics come first,” his mother told the News-Democrat last summer, “and Jaylon will go to the school we feel will be the best fit for him both academically and athletically. Right now, we’re just trying to keep him humble and hungry.’’
Al Lewis, a local AAU basketball coach who knew McKenzie, praised the teen. “You hear this a lot when something tragic like this happens, but Jaylon truly was a great kid,” he told the News-Democrat. “You know how you have star athletes? He was as naturally gifted as any I’ve seen, but if you were just hanging around him, you wouldn’t know him from the 12th man on the bench."
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