Slain Simeon students used sports as refuge from violence: 'Sad to see great potential taken away'
CHICAGO - On the day he died, Simeon High School freshman Kentrell McNeal and a friend went to play some basketball at a gym intended to be a safe space for kids.
But it was filled to capacity, so they went to watch a football game instead and ended up in Hyde Park, where the boys were ambushed in a McDonald’s parking lot and shot Tuesday evening.
Kentrell, 15, died the next day. The 14-year-old with him was seriously wounded.
"They’re not wrong for going to a school football game. They’re kids being kids," said Carlil Pittman, executive director of the youth group Good Kids Mad City.
Just hours earlier, another Simeon student, Jamari Williams, also 15, was shot and killed minutes after school let out in Chatham. He was on the junior varsity football team and, like Kentrell, had used sports as a refuge from the violence around him.
"When we talk about safe spaces and opportunities for youth, this is exactly what we’re trying to prevent," Pittman said. "There’s not always the luxury in our communities for children to be children. And the space forces them to be in adult situations at such a young age."
Jamari Williams excelled at sports and dreamed of playing professionally.
"He was a good kid," said Darryl Smith, who coached Jamari for three years on the Ogden Park Vikings football team.
"He wanted to play a sport he loved. He was one of the fastest kids on the team. His aspirations were to get out, play football and make it to the next level," Smith said.
"That was his dream," he said. "But unfortunately his dreams were shattered."
Jamari lost his father to gun violence within the last year. Smith said the middle school football program was intended to help the children grow into adulthood.
Before every practice, he’d make sure the kids finished their homework before suiting up.
"It gives them a foothold in life," he explained. "We try to instill discipline in them, instill some kind of work ethic and get them ready for the next stage in their lives, which is high school."
‘A super group’
Kentrell belonged to a unique basketball program that combined an existing team, Geek Squad Basketball, with guidance from Good Kids Mad City.
"It was like a super group," Kentrell’s coach Ro Gordon said.
"People looked for [Kentrell] for advice and motivation. I have no doubts that he had a prominent future in coaching. He leaves behind a lot of little brothers in Geek Squad," Gordon said.
Pittman, the head of Good Kids Mad City, had a child in the basketball program in a younger age group and volunteered to mentor the other kids.
That mentorship extended beyond the biweekly practices and games that took them outside of Chicago. "On these trips, they not only played basketball and traveled the world, they were able to get educated," Gordon said.
Pittman said the program trained kids in solving problems and taught them building skills.
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"They’d always come to my house, or we’d go out of town for basketball games together," Pittman said. "Kentrell used to come over and play games with the other boys. It was just a pleasure to have him around and get to know him better."
Kentrell had celebrated his 15th birthday three days before the shooting.
"Around me, all he talked about was basketball. If he wasn’t playing and my son was playing somewhere, he’d call and say, ‘Can I go?’ For him, he was just enjoying his friends and embarking on his journey as a freshman in high school," Pittman said.
Pastor Charles Moodie provided the court used by Kentrell and his team at Chicago City Life Center, near State and Garfield. He said Kentrell as a "very funny kid" with a "huge heart."
Moodie’s church holds late night tournaments from 6 p.m. until midnight to give kids a safe place away from the streets.
"It was just a positive thing — a space for them to dream about college," Moodie said. "It’s just sad to see great potential being taken."