A promising middle school athlete, who was already drawing the attention of college football recruiters, was killed during a residential shooting Saturday night.
According to Illinois State Police, Jaylon McKenzie, 14, was struck by a stray bullet while attending a party in the 600 block of 3rd Street in Venice and died shortly after at an area hospital. A 15-year-old girl whose name was not released also was hit and remains in critical condition, according to a statement from the Illinois State Police.
Police were called to the home about 11:40 Saturday night to investigate a disturbance with gunfire at “a large party.”
Jaylon’s mother, Sukeena Gunner, of Belleville, said her son attended the party with friends after an eighth-grade dance and was told that he was trying to leave when fight broke out. She said the party was supervised by the home owner, who called the police and stopped the party as soon as the fight broke out.
“Jaylon did everything right. If he did anything wrong, I didn’t know about it,” Sukeena Gunner, Jaylon’s mother, 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.”
Jaylon hasn’t played a down of high school football, but already has scholarship offers from the University of Illinois and University of Missouri. In October 2018, Sports Illustrated featured him as one of “six teens who will rule the future of sports.”
Though he had attended Central Jr. High in Belleville as of last fall, there was some question about where he would play his high school football. Based on social media posts and college recruitment web sites like 24/7 Sports, however, it appeared he was bound for East St. Louis Senior High. He since transferred to Mason-Clark Middle School in East St. Louis for the spring 2019 semester.
“We haven’t decided yet,’’ Sukeena Gunner told the BND last August. “We’ll sit down and talk about it. Academics come first 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.’’
Jaylon was one of more than 60 of the top eighth-grade players in the nation to be selected to take part in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Academy, which was conducted by NFL coaches and Hall of Fame players, including former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Rod Woodson.
From that group, Jaylon was one of 15 players chosen to compete in the All-American All-Star Game in Canton as part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Induction Weekend. He caught five passes for 161 yards and scored two touchdowns during the national showcase game.
Jaylon has played football since joining the Belleville Little Knights organization when he was 7 years old and has since played with the East St. Louis Junior Flyers. A former coach, Brian Buehlhorn, told the BND last August that he would often have to remove Jaylon from games because he would score every time he was handed the football.
Jaylon came from an athletic family. His dad, Otis Gunner, played football and was a track star at East St. Louis High School. His mom, Sukeena Gunner, played volleyball at East St. Louis and later went on to play college volleyball at Jackson State University in Mississippi. His older brother, Brandan Jenkins, is a member of the Belleville West track and field team.
Al Lewis, a coach with the Southwestern Illinois Jets AAU basketball team, said Jaylon was a great natural athlete with potential in any sport he’d have chosen to play.
“I talked to his dad about this a lot. If he wanted to focus on basketball he absolutely could have played in college,” Lewis said. “He had a natural athletic ability you can’t teach, but he didn’t put in the extra work on basketball like he did in football because that was his focus. If he did, there would have been no limit.”
Lewis described Jaylon as “a man among boys” on the playing field, but a “quality young man” who “had a village behind him.”
“You hear this a lot when something tragic like this happens, but Jaylon truly was a great kid,” Lewis said. “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.
“You can ask any coach or teacher who knows him; I can’t think of a single negative thing that anybody could say about Jaylon.”
According to the East St. Louis District 189 web site, crisis teams will be present at schools to provide counseling and support in the upcoming days.
Anyone who witnessed the shooting or has any knowledge of the shooting is asked to contact the ISP Investigations Case Agent Scott Wobbe at 618-381-1467. Callers can remain anonymous.