Subscribe: $5 for 5 months!

EAST ST. LOUIS — Foil balloons huddled low, hugging the grave marker.

Dragged to earth by the cool rain that pinged off them, they mingled with a bouquet of blue and orange flowers. Individual red roses lay on the fresh sod where his friends carried him to rest.

Friday was Jaylon McKenzie's birthday. He would have been 15.

McKenzie was supposed to be finishing his freshman season with the East St. Louis football team. He was going to take the torch as the next dynamic standout for the “City of Champions.” He would have been the inspiration for the next generation of Flyers like the previous generation inspired him. A ball boy on East Side High's 2008 championship team, McKenzie watched his heroes take the field at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on his fourth birthday. They were larger than life.

“You know how states and cities have an NFL team and they're die-hard fans? This city is die-hard for the Flyers football team,” senior receiver/safety Antonio “AJ” Johnson said. “That's our team. (Going to state) was like going to the Super Bowl and seeing Tom Brady play. That's how it was (as a kid). It was big. It was crazy.”

Instead McKenzie and Jermaine Falconer's deaths have become a driving force for these Flyers. A sophomore at the time, Falconer died in March after he collapsed in the weight room at East St. Louis High and was taken to the hospital. McKenzie was shot and killed in Venice in May.

“Our purpose is a bigger purpose. It's for a cause,” Johnson said. “We have fallen brothers that would love to be here and take one of our spots but they couldn't because tragedy happened. They can't do it so we do it for them.”

The No. 1 large school in the STLhighschoolsports.com rankings, top-ranked team in the Illinois Associated Press Class 6A poll and a No. 1 seed, East St. Louis (13-0) will play one more game in their honor when it takes the field against fellow No. 1 seed Prairie Ridge (12-1) in the Class 6A championship game at 1 p.m. Saturday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

The Flyers had every intention of returning to — and winning — the program's ninth state championship game and first in three years with Falconer and McKenzie. When they were lost, it galvanized their teammates to carry out the mission in their name.

“They don't break a huddle without mentioning their names,” East Side coach Darren Sunkett said.

It's always the same when the Flyers break.

Family.

Hard work.

J Money.

Flats.

“J Money” for McKenzie. “Flats” for Falconer. Both of them gone but never far from the players minds. Senior receiver Dylan Appleton was on the sidelines with McKenzie at the 2008 championship game. The two of them tight their whole lives, there are days Appleton can't believe McKenzie is really gone. The grief pours over him from time to time.

“The first three games it was there all the time with me,” Appleton said. “I would text his phone even though he's not here.”

To honor McKenzie, Appleton asked for and was granted permission to wear his No. 6. When he was presented with the jersey for the first time, it took his breath away.

“It took me a minute to put it on,” Appleton said. “I know he would be out here dominating so I have to.”

East St. Louis has dominated its opponents this season. The Flyers have won their games by an average of 52-14. As he prepared for their semifinal win over Chatham Glenwood last week, Johnson was struck by how good they could have been with McKenzie on the field.

“I was going over plays and formations in my head and I thought about it, I thought how different the game would be with him here,” Johnson said. “It's hard. It still is hard.”

Appleton and Johnson joined four teammates as McKenzie's pallbearers. It was surreal carrying their friend to his final resting place as the community came to mourn a life lost too soon.

“It was an honor. This is our last play together, that's how I thought about it,” Johnson said. “It could have been anyone else and I had the honor to carry him out.”

The Flyers still carry McKenzie and Falconer with them. They will be sitting on their shoulders when they take the field Saturday afternoon. East St. Louis faces its toughest test yet in Prairie Ridge. The Wolves have won three Class 6A titles since 2011 and went back-to-back in 2016-17. Their preferred offense is an option rushing attack that controls the ball, the clock and uses misdirection to rip off chunks of yards at a time. They run a similar offense to Mount Carmel, which knocked East St. Louis out in the quarterfinal round the last two seasons.

“It's going to be one of those games. Who breaks first? Who bends first?” Sunkett said. “Whose will is going to take over?”

Appleton, Johnson and the Flyers haven't come this far and been through so much tragedy to not finish the mission. They have one more game to win and a belated birthday present to deliver.

“When (McKenzie) was here all he preached was he wanted a state ring,” Johnson said. “When we win state, we'll get him the ring. We'll have one made, take it to his house and put it in his trophy case. There's a spot for him ready for his ring.”

Sign up for our free newsletter for the most comprehensive digest of sports stats, scores and stories from any and all area high schools.