Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott will pay for the funeral expenses of Jaylon McKenzie, an eighth-grade football phenom who was shot and killed near East St. Louis, Illinois, on Saturday night.
“For him to reach out to me was unbelievable,” McKenzie’s mother, Sukeena Gunner, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Jaylon loved Ezekiel Elliott. 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.”
JAYLON MCKENZIE: I spoke to Jaylon’s mom, @sukeena5, who says that someone on behalf of @EzekielElliott reached out to pay for her son’s funeral costs. That’s so incredible, since Jaylon used to watch Ezekiel to improve his own skills. @ksdknews pic.twitter.com/W0j6Yxatqa
— Justina Coronel (@JustinaCoronel) May 8, 2019
While Elliott, who grew up in St. Louis, hasn’t publicly commented on his gesture, the Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and owner Jerry Jones reacted to the news.
“Zeke is really a special guy,” coach Jason Garrett said Wednesday. “He’s a great football player obviously, but he’s a really good person and that doesn’t surprise me one bit. He’s just very generous. He’s got a great spirit about him.”
Jones added: “Zeke has always had a wonderful heart. All you’ve got to do is go in the locker room and you’ll see Zeke is inspiration. He’s inspirational not only what he does on the field but what he does around the locker room. He’s a bright soul, I call him.”
McKenzie, who already had football scholarship offers from Missouri and Illinois despite not yet having entered high school, was struck by a stray bullet while attending a party with friends after an eighth-grade dance, according to Illinois State Police. McKenzie’s mother explained to the Star-Telegram that she was told her son was trying to leave the party when a fight broke out.
He was taken to a local hospital, but died shortly after. A girl, 15, also was critically wounded in the incident and remains hospitalized, police said.
McKenzie previously was featured in a Sports Illustrated story along with about a half-dozen young athletes across different sports as one of the country’s future stars. He played at Mason-Clarke Middle School in East St. Louis as a running back, receiver and defensive back.
“He wanted to attend a Division I university, no specific one, but he was excited about the offers coming in. … He wanted to walk across the stage to accept his contract in the NFL,” Gunner said (via St. Louis Post-Dispatch). “He told me, ‘We’re going to make it, Mama; we’re going to be good, Mama.’ That was his dream. And I believe it would have come true if someone had not taken my baby away from me.”