Parents, players remember slain eighth-grade star at RCS St. Louis
EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. – Jaylon McKenzie was supposed to compete here at the Rivals 3 Stripe Camp presented by adidas this past weekend.
Instead, teammates and friends carried McKenzie in his casket to his final resting place during a service on Saturday at Lakeview Memorial Gardens Cemetery in nearby Fairview Heights, Mo. Many of those same players showed up to the Rivals camp on Sunday.
The star football player, a 2023 athlete from East St. Louis who had already landed offers from Missouri and Illinois, had the potential to be the next superstar from an area that has recently produced Adoree’ Jackson. But he was gunned down after a fight broke out at a house party following an eighth-grade prom on May 4. He was 14 years old.
According to reports, the shooting took place on 3rd Street in Venice, Ill., less than a mile from Venice Elementary School and right down the road from the camp’s location at East St. Louis High.
Four-star safety Antonio Johnson lives in this neighborhood, he goes to this high school and he was with McKenzie the night of the shooting earlier in May.
“It’s survival,” Johnson said of what it’s like to live in East St. Louis. “You have to survive at such a young age and it’s hard. At least you should be able to go to school and come home. No, it could happen on the way to school, on the way home, it’s crazy how at such a young age you have to fight to get out. I don’t feel like you should have to fight that hard to just get out of your own neighborhood.
“I was with him that night. Everything happened so fast. I had to be the one to call his people. It was… it was… crazy.”
McKenzie’s parents, Otis and Sukeena Gunner, found the courage and resilience to attend the Rivals camp on Sunday. So did East St. Louis High coach Darren Sunkett, who spoke to the campers at the end of the event about McKenzie and how East St. Louis remains a good community with its obvious challenges.
By Sunkett’s side, Otis Gunner wore a shirt with ‘J Money Heaven Sent’ on the back. He was clutching Sukeena, who hugged Sunkett after he spoke at the camp, two parents still reeling from devastating loss.
“It’s definitely hard because it’s a recurring event,” 2020 East St. Louis OL Javontez Spraggins said. “I already lost another one of my teammates in less than 90 days, so it’s been hard, but we’re going to put their weight on our shoulders and we’re going to play for them.
“It was hard. I was hurting. There really aren’t ways to describe it. Just one word: hurt.”
The statistics are striking, nearly worth a double-take. In a report by the Belleville News-Democrat, a person is 19 times more likely to be murdered in East St. Louis than any other U.S. city. From 2000-2018, there were 453 murders in the 14-square mile city. There are just 26,000 people who live in East St. Louis, the unemployment rate is high and the school system is ranked low in the state.
McKenzie, good enough to make a Sports Illustrated spread and pegged as one of the best young players in the Midwest, lived in this community. He was taking every step possible to beat the odds and make his life a huge success. Others have done it. Others – such as Johnson and Spraggins – are in the process of getting it done.
And it tears at them that they’re now facing a bitter reality: Their friend, their teammate, the future star of East St. Louis, has no future at all. It was senselessly ripped away from him, a story these kids know all too well.
“Definitely my little brother,” Johnson said. “Everywhere we went, he went. Everywhere he went, I was with him. That was like my little brother. I took him in and showed him the ropes and he was going to be great.
“He was that person that everybody wanted to be around. He didn’t talk too much but when you were around him you got this vibe about him. He didn’t talk too much about his accolades or that he was an All-American or he played in the Hall of Fame game. I could go on and on about his accolades and he didn’t really brag. At such a young age how humble he was and he was just that person.”
Spraggins said: “If I could describe him in one word it would be lit. He was lit. He would walk in a room and be lit. Jaylon McKenzie was lit.”
Maybe, just maybe, that light McKenzie exuded will live on as a path forward for a city that has seen far too much darkness.