Asmussen | Teen football star's death hits Illinois hard

Asmussen | Teen football star's death hits Illinois hard

Senseless.

Tragic.

Sad.

Use any word you want to describe what happened to Jaylon McKenzie late Saturday night. They all fit.

About to enter his freshman year at East St. Louis High School, McKenzie was shot and killed at a party in Venice, Ill. He was 14 years old.

Checking in at 5 feet, 8 inches and 150 pounds, McKenzie figured to have a huge future in football.

He had college scholarship offers already from Illinois and Missouri. Even before he ever set foot on a high school campus. There were many more on the way.

"When you start talking about potential, not only the athletic ability, but the potential of the football savvy that he had, the people he had surrounding him, the experience of the people around him, the sky was the limit for him," Illinois running backs coach Mike Bellamy said. "There was no question he was going to be the next Jeff Thomas, Terry Hawthorne, that type of guy. He was in that direction for sure."

Bellamy got to know McKenzie way early in the recruiting cycle.

Illinois offered McKenzie in late April, before his freshman year with the Flyers was set to begin.

Just as it had with Thomas, The News-Gazette's All-State Player of the Year in 2016 with East St. Louis who went on to Miami and briefly transferred to Illinois this offseason before deciding to head back to Miami.

McKenzie, who also had an offer from Missouri, wanted to build a better life. Football was an avenue, one many past Flyers have done under veteran coach Darren Sunkett.

"Coach Sunkett has done a great job of giving guys opportunities to be successful," Bellamy said.

Often when the phone rings early in the morning, bad news follows.

At 6 a.m. Sunday, Belamy got a text message from former Illinois teammate Julyon Brown, McKenzie's godfather.

"He's crying tears," Bellamy said.

Brown is a firefighter in East St. Louis, who helps coach at his alma mater.

"He's attached to all of them," Bellamy said.

Different times

The old saying goes, "It takes a village to raise a child." Today? Not so much.

"A lot of times, these kids nowadays are growing up and trying to be so independent," Bellamy said. "They are so resistant to other people."

Other adults are reluctant to interfere. They don't want to overstep. They don't want to hear "you are not raising my kid."

It's a change from when Bellamy was young. The entire neighborhood got involved. And shared in the kids' success.

"Even the bad kids, who might have been in gangs and stuff like that," Bellamy said, "would tell the kids, 'You need to get away from here. This is not made for you.'"

Feel their pain

The East St. Louis community lost much more than a talented athlete.

"It's more of missing a kid from the neighborhood, a family member," Bellamy said.

On social media, there was an outpouring of support.

"These are 13-, 14-, 15-year-old kids who were crying about missing a friend," Bellamy said. "The sad part is a lot of that has become normal for kids also. If that's your normalcy, that's sad. That's the same thing as seeing an 18-, 19-year-old kid going to war."

McKenzie gained national notoriety in November when he was featured in Sports Illustrated. He was named one of six teens "who will rule the future in sports."

"Everybody knew about him," Bellamy said. "And he was a great kid."

McKenzie wasn't out looking for trouble. It was a freak thing. Wrong place, wrong time.

Bellamy expects McKenzie's family and friends "will be there for each other."

You hope lessons will be learned. And another team or community won't have to suffer a similar loss.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

-