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Loss Teaches McKinley to Cope : Canyon Back Dealing with Death of Younger Brother


CANYON COUNTRY — Jeff McKinley sits in class each day at Canyon High and struggles to concentrate. His thoughts often drift elsewhere.

At practice, the Cowboys' leading rusher goes hard in drills as his team prepares for its final regular-season game tonight against Burbank with a playoff berth at stake.

But McKinley, 15, a sophomore accustomed to overachieving, is trying to cope with an overwhelming loss: the death of his eight-year-old brother.

Two weeks ago, on the morning of Canyon's game against Burroughs, Brian James McKinley died in his sleep. Jeff McKinley's only brother essentially had been bedridden since he was 1.

Brian had fallen into the family's back-yard pool and nearly drowned as a toddler. He suffered severe brain damage. Jeff never had a conversation with Brian. But the two boys had a relationship based on senses and emotions. Brian was conscious, and he often would touch his brother and two sisters, Kelly, 13, and Allison, 5.

McKinley now realizes how deeply he has been touched by Brian.

"I find it harder to concentrate (on football and school)," Jeff said. "I've been trying. I guess I understand more why they're there and why I should try harder and do better."

McKinley couldn't do much better as a 5-foot-11, 175-pound sophomore running back playing varsity football. He leads the Cowboys with 573 yards rushing and averages 5.2 yards a carry.

In McKinley's biggest game this season, he rushed for 137 yards in 25 carries to help Canyon tie Alemany, 13-13. The Cowboys were 0-3 at that point, but their fortunes have improved. The Cowboys (2-5-1, 1-2 in Foothill League play) have gone 2-2-1, losing only to Hart and Saugus. Canyon can qualify for the Southern Section Division III playoffs as the league's third-place team with a victory over Burbank (3-5, 0-2) at Burroughs High.

McKinley, however, has struggled the past two games, gaining 22 yards in six carries in a 14-13 loss to Saugus last week. On Oct. 21, the day of Brian's death, Jeff rushed for 34 yards in eight carries but fumbled three times in a 25-16 victory over Burroughs.

"I thought I had my mind on the game," Jeff said. "But I was sad. I was thinking about my brother, and I wanted to have a good game for him. I believe that was the first game (Brian) got to watch.

"I didn't understand why God wanted to take him, but I realized it was his time to go. And I know he's happier where he is. But I'm used to seeing Brian. It gives me a funny feeling that he's not there."

Doctors told the McKinleys that Brian could die at any time after the pool accident, and recommended permanent hospitalization for the boy. But the family insisted upon raising Brian at home, where he could roll around on the floor with his brother and sisters. He was given physical therapy and a teacher would read stories and play with puppets to stimulate Brian's mind. The McKinleys believed in miracles.

"We kept hoping that someday he would come out of it," said Linda McKinley, Jeff's mother. "He recognized us. He was still a person. And he got better at lots of things."

The idea that Brian might have someday been able to communicate is another reason Jeff now struggles with his death.

"I haven't been doing very well in practice, I'll admit," Jeff said. "But the past two days I'm doing better."

Canyon Coach Larry Mohr noticed in practice that McKinley wasn't explosive on his runs, that he was apprehensive. But Mohr had no long talks with his running back following the Burroughs game other than to remind him of his goals.

"I told him after the Burroughs game that I was proud of him," Mohr said. "What he did that night was admirable--the fact he played the game and tried to do something. Since then, I've kind of left him alone."

On Tuesday, the old McKinley resurfaced. He took 30 seconds off his previous best time in Canyon's daily mile run in the morning. In the afternoon he was hitting holes and driving through tackles.

"(Assistant coach) Paul Gomes turned to me and said, 'I think he's hooked up again,' " Mohr said.

Coaches and teammates have rallied to his support. Jeff said several Canyon football players attended Brian's funeral. For a 15-year-old who is growing up fast, that's important.

Said Jeff: "I've just got to do my best and deal with what comes along."

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