Dallas Cowboys

‘Bright soul’ Ezekiel Elliott will pay for the funeral of East St. Louis football star

Multiple sources have confirmed that Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott will pay for the funeral expenses of Jaylon McKenzie, an eighth-grade football player who was shot and killed while leaving a party near St. Louis last weekend.

According to Illinois State Police, McKenzie, 14, was struck by a stray bullet while attending a party in Venice and died shortly after at an area hospital. A 15-year-old girl whose name was not released was also hit and remains in critical condition, according to a statement from the Illinois State Police.

McKenzie’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 a 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,” Gunner told the Belleville News-Democrat. “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.”

McKenzie lived in Belleville but went to school in East St. Louis. He had dreams of playing in the NFL. He was recently featured in Sports Illustrated’s Future Issue as one of six young athletes who would rule the future of sports and already had scholarship offers from Missouri and Illinois.

A GoFundMe campaign was started to help McKenzie’s family. It had raised more than one third of its $3000 goal as of Wednesday afternoon.

Asked about how she felt about Elliott reaching out to her and offering to pay for her son’s funeral, Gunner burst into tears.

She said she is so grateful to people in the community, actually people in the world, in the country who have reached out. Elliott’s generosity was very special to her because her son loved him.

“For him to reach out to me was unbelievable. 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,” Gunner said. ”Just for him to reach out to me and help me in this difficult time leaves me speechless.”

Elliott didn’t offer to pay for the funeral expenses for personal attention. He grew up in St. Louis and went to John Burroughs High School before playing in college at Ohio State and was moved by the senseless death of the football phenom from his hometown area.

Elliott’s act of kindness did not surprise the Cowboys.

“Zeke is really a special guy,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Wednesday at the team’s annual golf tournament. “He’s a great football player, obviously, but he’s a really good person. That doesn’t surprise me one bit. I think he’s just very generous. He’s got a great spirit about him. We see that every day as players and coaches. Anybody who’s been around him knows that, and it doesn’t surprise me one bit he’d get involved there. He’s someone that a lot of people look up to, a lot of people obviously in St. Louis and Missouri, Ohio State and all across this country. If you’re a fan of football, you know Zeke Elliott. Anybody who’s been around him on a daily basis knows what kind of person he is.”

It was a continuation of what has been a strong offseason for Elliott in terms of growth, maturity, and leadership.

There have been no negative headlines and Elliott has shown up to the off-season program in great shape with the right attitude, despite wanting a new contract.

He surprised the members of the Dallas Fire Department in early April by showing up at a local station. He bonded with the first responders and played ping pong.

He garnered headlines for consoling a young fan hit by a puck at a Stars hockey playoff game.

Those are little things but they are far cry from the previous perception of Elliott after his rookie season in 2016 when he was filmed playfully pulling down a woman’s top at a St. Patrick’s Day Parade, allegedly got into a fight at a night club and was the subject of TMZ headlines from parties from coast to coast all while being investigated by the NFL after being accused of domestic violence by a former girlfriend.

He was never arrested or even charged but was still suspended six games in 2017 by the NFL under the personal conduct policy.

None of it has been lost on owner Jerry Jones, who has backed Elliott from the beginning and was fined $2 million by the NFL partly for fighting their investigation.

“He’s a bright soul, I call him,” Jones said on Tuesday. “There really is no doubt that some of those things that, frankly, reflect his spirit of positiveness, his spirit of being alive — those kinds of things took some adjusting.

“I think that Zeke has always had a wonderful heart. These players can see through anybody, and all you’ve got to do is go in the locker room and you’ll see that Zeke is inspirational. He’s inspirational, not only with what he does on the field but what he does around the locker room.”

These are all things the Cowboys wants to see from Elliott as he contemplates a long-term contract extension for the two-time NFL rushing champion. It’s not just the play on the field but how he represents the organization, as well.

He certainly represented them the right way with his gesture in paying for McKenzie’s funeral.

“I think Zeke has a huge heart,” Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said. “It doesn’t surprise me. It goes to show me what kind of person Zeke is off the field. He is a caring person. We all know when you are young, coming out of school and you are 20, 21 years old…I know I didn’t do things exactly right. He stumbled. He certainly learned from some tough times. You see things like this. Like I said, it doesn’t surprise me. I know how big a heart he has. We are lucky to have Zeke Elliott on our football team. Our goal is to keep Zeke Elliott here for many years to come. He deserves everything he has coming.”

Clarence E. Hill Jr. has covered the Dallas Cowboys as a beat writer/columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram since 1997. That includes just two playoff wins, six coaches and countless controversies from the demise of the dynasty teams of the 1990s through the rollercoaster years of the Tony Romo era until Jason Garrett’s process Cowboys.