High School Sports

If you haven’t heard of this 13-year-old football phenom you will soon

Local 8th grade football player showing potential

Jaylon McKenzie, a 13-year-old, who attends Central Junior High in Belleville, Illinois, competed in the 8th Grade All-American Football Game as part of NFL Hall of Fame enshrinement weekend in Canton, Ohio.
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Jaylon McKenzie, a 13-year-old, who attends Central Junior High in Belleville, Illinois, competed in the 8th Grade All-American Football Game as part of NFL Hall of Fame enshrinement weekend in Canton, Ohio.

Jaylon McKenzie probably doesn’t have many memories of watching former NFL wide receivers Terrell Owens or Randy Moss streak across the middle of the football field. And he will never know the pain inflicted by bone crushing hits from the likes of Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher

But competing on a field just a short walk from the National Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, 13-year-old Jaylon McKenzie might have reminded spectators of those aforementioned inductees.

The Eighth-Grade All-American from Belleville caught five passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns as he helped lead the East team to a 48-14 victory over the West at the NFL Hall of Fame All-Star Game. McKenzie, a 5-foot-7, 143-pound student at Central Jr. High, also was credited with two tackles as a cornerback.

“I just tried to go out and give my best effort, which I always do,’’ McKenzie said recently. “This was a tremendous experience to be around all of these great athletes and coaches. I’m going to try and take what I learned to help me become a better player and person.’’

The NFL Hall of Fame All-American Eighth Grade All-star Game was held as part of NFL Hall-of-Fame Induction weekend, Aug. 2-5 in Canton.

Moss, Owens, Lewis and Urlacher were part of the 2018 Hall of Fame Class which included NFL Administrator Bobby Beathard, linebacker Robert Brazlile, safety Brian Dawkins and offensive lineman Jerry Kramer.

The son of Otis and Sukeena Gunner of Belleville, McKenzie competed at the USA All-Star Game, also in Canton, in early July. With that performance, he was selected by the Hall of Fame committee to take part in the Hall of Fame Academy, July 13-15 in Canton.

More than 60 of the top eighth grade players in the nation were selected to take part in the academy which was conducted by NFL coaches and Hall of Fame players, including former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Rod Woodson. From that academy, the final 15 players were chosen to compete in the All-American all-star game.

McKenzie was one of the first players notified.

“The tryout was skills, mostly catching the football, running pass routes. etc. ... one-on-one drills,’’ McKenzie said. “I think I did pretty good at the tryout.. I think I impressed some of the coaches there. I just tried to do my best.

“I was one of the first people they called to let them know we were chosen. I was really excited. It was a great experience.’’

For being on the winning team from the East All-Stars, McKenzie and his teammates will have their names inscribed on the Rod Woodson trophy, which will be placed in the New High School section of the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame.

McKenzie has been a sensation with shoulder pads since first playing the game as a member of the Belleville Little Knights Football organization when he was 7 years old. Since that time, he has played cornerback, running back, quarterback, and wide receiver.

One person who has seen the development of McKenzie over the years is longtime Knights coach Brian Buehlhorn. Associated with the Little Knights for the past 13 years, Buehlhorn said McKenzie excels at several positions on the football field.

“How good is Jaylon? Well, there are times when we have to take him out because there have been games where every time he touches the football he scores and we want to give some of the other kids a chance,’’ Buehlhorn said. “And he has never not done what he said he would do. A few times during a game, he’s come up to me and said, ‘Coach, give me the football. I’ll score.’ And every time he has done that, he’s scored.’’

McKenzie comes from an athletic family. His dad, Otis Gunner, played football and was a track star at East St. Louis High School. His mom, Sukeena, played volleyball at East St. Louis and later went on to play college volleyball at Jackson State University. His older brother, Brandan Jenkins, is member of the Belleville West track and field team.

The family along with Buehlhorn and a few other Little Knights coaches make the eight-hour trek to Canton to watch Jaylon make an impression on a national stage.

Otis Gunner wasn’t surprised by what he saw from his son.

“To be honest, everytime he is put on a stage, he performs, no matter how big or what the stage is,’’ Gunner said. “So I’m never surprised any more. I just sit back and enjoy watching my son have fun playing football.’’

Already, McKenzie is being compared to some of the top players who have played football in Belleville.

Among them is former Belleville West standout and current University of Texas at El Paso running back Kriston Davis, as well as Tennessee Titans cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, who grew up in Belleville.

“At this stage of his development as a player, Jaylon is right there with the top players I’ve coached or seen when they were his age,’’ Buehlhorn said. “First of all, Jaylon has great family support and is very coachable with a strong work ethic

”But Jaylon has tremendous athletic ability and speed. You can’t teach those things. I know that when some people watch him on film that they think he’s playing against competition which isn’t very good. The truth is that in most cases, we’re playing against very strong opponents.’’

Both his parents and McKenzie are unsure where he will attend high school beginning in the 2019-2020 school year. He is currently a member of the East St. Louis Jr. Flyers Club Team and will play basketball and run on the track team at Central Junior High this year.

McKenzie’s future is football and he knows it.

“I like basketball and track, but football is my No. 1 sport. It’s what I’m best at and what I think my future will be,’’ McKenzie said. “My favorite position is running back though. I can see the field much better.’’

College is still five years away and while the scouts may have already taken notice of McKenzie, both of his parents have more immediate things of which take to attend.

“No, the college coaches haven’t talked to us,’’ Otis Gunner said with a smile. “We’re just concentrating on him being in the eighth grade and having fun being a kid.’’

But where will Jaylon go to high school?

“We haven’t decided yet,’’ Sukeena Gunner said. “We’ll sit down and talk about it. Academics come first and Jaylon will go to the school we feel will be the best fit for him both academically and athletically.

‘”Right now, we’re just trying to keep him humble and hungry.’’