East St. Louis athlete will be remembered at annual parade

In 2019, when she had the idea of ​​spending a day in East St. Louis named after her late son, Sukeena Gunner was elated. She felt the community understood her pain.

“It was just like wow, for your kid to have their own day, you think of President’s day, you think of MLK day, you think of Malcolm X Day, but you never think of a ‘JayDay’ Just to think about where your own child had the impact that other powerful people have, for him to have his own day, it’s breathtaking, ”Gunner said.

Last year East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern III issued a proclamation declaring November 29 Jaylon McKenzie Day in the city. Since then, Gunner, Jaylon’s mother, has hosted a “Jayday” celebration in East St. Louis on this day, which is Jaylon’s birthday. Jaylon, who died in 2019, would have been 17 this year.

The second annual parade in his honor will begin at East St. Louis High School at 11 am Monday.

“I just want people to remember who Jaylon was, his smile, the kind and caring person he was,” Gunner said.

Jaylon McKenzie, a sports phenomenon who attended Mason Clark Middle School, was fatally shot at a party in Venice in May 2019. He was 14 years old.

Although Jaylon excelled in other sports, he was primarily known for his prowess on the football field. The running back received scholarship offers from the University of Illinois and the University of Missouri when he was only in eighth grade. It appeared to be bound for East St. Louis High School in the fall of 2019.

Since Jaylon’s death, six men have been charged with his death and Gunner has filed a wrongful death complaint, which is still pending. Gunner said she had not been in her son’s bedroom since his death. However, she said she was taking everything “day to day”. His good days outweigh the bad.

“I’m doing really well,” said Gunner, of Belleville. “I’m doing better than last year around this time so I’m improving. I’m fine. Sometimes I feel deflated, but I always try to get up and keep busy. “

‘Now go finish’

One of the things that keeps 44-year-old Gunner busy is running the Jaylon “6” McKenzie-Rising Star Foundation full-time. Established last year, the foundation aims to ensure the success of the youth of the eastern metropolitan region, continuing Jaylon’s legacy.

The foundation held its first free football camp last summer and regularly hosts community service events in the area. For example, the foundation organized a collection of school supplies in September.

Gunner said she hopes the foundation will have a community center in the area that can be a safe space for children. This is what Jaylon would have wanted.

“I put Jaylon in running back skills training at an early age, and while I was sitting on the sidelines watching him play, I would always hear his coach say ‘Now go finish’ and whatever. either the exercise he did, his words to Jaylon were always ‘Now, go, done,’ “said Gunner.” Jaylon kind of built that into his head where when he was playing football. , when he played basketball, when he ran on the track, his goal was to go finish. Going to finish could have made a basket, won first place in a race, scored a touchdown.

“His mentality was to always finish. It has become my mentality. No matter how hard it can get, no matter how hard my fights are, I can finish. “

The foundation is organizing the parade on Monday. Gunner said the support from the community has been overwhelming.

“And I’m not exaggerating, I think it felt like 150 cars were lined up and we marched through the town of East St. Louis with the mayor of East St. Louis,” Gunner said of last year’s event. “The firefighters came. The chief of police escorted us and there was a biker club that came and kind of stopped the traffic for us. It was unbelievable. We had a tank, which I will do again this year. Last year was her 16th birthday, so it was like a sweet 16. ”

Jaylon’s godmother Andersyn Watts was also struck by the support from the community last year, especially since it was her idea to have a Jaylon McKenzie Day in town. She presented the idea to the mayor last year.

“I was happy,” Watts, of Belleville, said of the proclamation. “I was actually very happy because I didn’t think they were really going to do it. It brought a lot of joy to his mother and his family, like his father and also his brother, to feel like them and Jaylon. It was as if (the city) was there with them. It did me good to be able to help them do that.

An only child, Watts considered Jaylon to be his real brother. She was moved to tears as she spoke to the mayor about her idea.

“I’m still hurt, but I did something to try to give back to the community,” said Watts, 22. “I even started coaching the girls’ basketball teams at Mason Clark just to help the kids and start doing things that I know he would want me to do.”

Easter remembers Watts showing emotion. He said that’s what prompted him to issue the proclamation. He knew what Jaylon meant to the community.

“I was surprised,” Easter said. “It shocked me that the young people, his peers, wanted to continue to honor him. I just wanted to make sure I was doing everything in my power to help his legacy continue in a positive way. (Watt is) the only child, and they still have that sibling kinship. What made him so touching with her was that I know Andersyn. I’ve never seen her cry before, and she collapsed and cried and that’s what really touched my heart.

The impact of Jaylon’s death on the community remains in the mayor’s mind. He was elected about a month before Jaylon died. The mayor encourages people to continue praying for his family and others who have lost children to gun violence.

“It was the first tragedy that happened when I became mayor,” Eastern said. “It wasn’t in our town, but he’s from, his parents are from and his heritage is from East St. Louis. It just shook the city. It was hard. In fact, I still have on my desk right now his bookmark that was handed out at his funeral, so when I go to my office it’s one of the first things I do, and it’s a reminder. for me.

Monday’s parade will begin at East St. Louis Senior High School at 11 a.m. and end in the administration building of School District 189 in East St. Louis. After the parade, there will be a balloon release at Lake View Funeral Home and Memorial Gardens in Fairview Heights, where Jaylon was buried.

“Although he is not here physically present with us, we can still celebrate him and the legacy he left behind, the impact he left on the community (and) his friends and simply go out and have a good time, ”Gunner said. “Make him smile to show him that we are still here to do the job he started. He was always talking about making a difference. His ultimate goal was to reach the NFL and come back to give back to his community. ”

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DeAsia Paige joined the Belleville News-Democrat as a member of the Report for America corps in 2020. She is a community reporter covering East St. Louis and surrounding areas. DeAsia was previously an intern at VICE and The Detroit Free Press. She graduated from the University of Kansas in 2020.

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