Jaylon McKenzie dreamed of becoming a star NFL player and he had the talent to make it happen, Sports Illustrated wrote last year. But the 14-year-old’s life was cut short Saturday when a stray bullet struck him outside a party in Illinois.
The eighth-grader was shot as he was leaving a house party in Venice, near the Illinois-Missouri border, police said. A 15-year-old girl was wounded in the incident. Both teens were transported to a local hospital, where McKenzie later died, officials said. The female victim reportedly remained in critical condition.
McKenzie’s mother, Sukeena Gunner of Belleville, Illinois, told The St. Louis Dispatch her son had attended his school’s dance the night of the shooting before heading to another school’s post-prom party. She said witnesses told her a fight broke out at the party, prompting McKenzie to leave.
“It’s so hard to fathom that someone took my baby from me because he dreamed so big,” she told the Dispatch.
McKenzie drew national attention for helping his team win the NFL’s 2018 8th Grade All-American Game, in which he caught five passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns.
He was featured in the November issue of Sports Illustrated as one of “six teens who will rule the future in sports,” and already had offers to play college ball from the University of Missouri and the University of Illinois. He told Sports Illustrated that as a pro he wanted to play for the Los Angeles Rams or the Los Angeles Chargers.
“It’s still like a bad dream,” Gunner told CNN of her son’s death. “Like I’m gonna wake up in the morning and my baby’s gonna be smiling at me asking for something to eat like he always does.”
Gunner described her son as soft-spoken with a “beautiful smile.”
“He wasn’t a man of many words,” she said. “He had a humbling personality. He wasn’t very outgoing, but everybody knew him and loved him.”
There have been over 4,700 gun deaths in America since Jan. 1, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research group on gun violence. McKenzie is one of more than 800 teenagers reportedly shot this year.