De’Kayla Dansberry imagined herself sprinting down the deep-blue track at Eastern Illinois University later this week.
Her small track team — seven girls total — from Johnson College Prep in Englewood qualified for state last week to run three relay races.
“The track is painted this pretty blue, and it feels like going to the Olympics,” Johnson Prep track coach Latrise Muhammad said Sunday. “And I just kept telling these girls, ‘This is a big deal,’ and especially De’Kayla, because she’s a freshman.’
“It turned out she was the missing piece we needed. We qualified to go downstate for all the relays because we had her,” Muhammad added.
But on Saturday, the 15-year-old was fatally stabbed in the chest during a fight with another girl outside the Parkway Gardens housing complex in the 6500 block of South King Drive, according to Chicago Police.
She was stabbed about 7:30 p.m. and was pronounced dead a short time later at Stroger Hospital.
“It was some type of dispute that turned physical, and it turned into a large group watching them fight. And the other girl pulled out a knife and stabbed her,” police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said Sunday. Several people have been questioned, he said, but no one was in custody Sunday night.
De’Kayla was just starting to hit her stride.
“She was finally realizing that she could do some things that she couldn’t do before and starting to embrace things and not be afraid of things,” Muhammad said.
De’Kayla joined the team toward the end of March, late in the season. Her first race was a 100-meter sprint. She won.
“And she was just like, ‘No big deal.’ She didn’t even know how special she was,” Muhammad recalled, tearing up. “She was really just a silly kid.”
In addition to helping De’Kayla with her running form, timing and baton exchange technique, Muhammad also served as her lip gloss caddie.
“When she got finished running, every time she’d be out of breath, but she’d ask for her lip gloss. I’d be in charge of holding it when she ran. She said when she ran, the wind would take all the gloss off her lips,” she said.
“When her mother came came to a meet, I’d tell her, ‘You can be in charge of it today,’ ” Muhammad said with a laugh.
Corey Brooks, pastor of New Beginnings Church of Chicago, 6620 S. King Drive, said the fatal fight was a “neighborhood skirmish, a fight between some of the girls who grew up together.”
The church organized a vigil Sunday afternoon where friends, classmates and teachers, and family members supporting De’Kayla’s distraught mother prayed together and released white balloons into the sky.
De’Kayla, who had grown up in Englewood at the Parkway Gardens complex but had moved with relatives to the area of Ashland Avenue and Taylor Street, remained a regular at the church on Sundays as well as at a Friday night program for teens, known as Refuge.
Brooks urged the mourners, most of them teens, to circle around De’Kayla’s mom, who had already lost a son to gun violence.
“It’s up to us to stop fighting and killing each other,” Brooks said.
De’Kayla’s childhood friend Shanice McCoy brought a photo collage she had made of the two together. They both ran, though for different schools. Once, after a meet, they both crossed the finish line and started dancing, “clapping hands and jumping around,” she said. “She was cool and funny and she played a lot.”
Shanice was with De’Kayla on Saturday evening but her mother stopped her from describing what had happened.
Staffers from the church’s youth programs described De’Kayla as polite and respectful.
“Problems happen when you have 200 kids in one place,” Christal Wilson said. “She was not a kid we had problems with.”
Johnson Prep Principal Matthew Brown also called De’Kayla a strong student.
“At present she was getting B’s and A’s in all her classes and had above a 3.0 GPA,” Brown said, adding that she was on track to finish the year on the honor roll.
“She was just a good kid,” Brown said. “She was just that kid who was at school doing what she needed to do. . . . As a principal, you don’t find enough time to tell her what a great job she was doing.”
Shaudae Carter, 15, broke down the first time she tried to tell reporters about her friend and fell shrieking into her girlfriends’ arms.
“You OK, baby?” her mother asked her. “No,” came the reply.
“She was a real friend, like she was fun. She wanted to do track, she wanted to be a model, she wanted to be everything like, she was just so cute and cool,” Shaudae managed to say.
“They’ve been knowing each other since they were 4 years old,” said her mother, Karen Washington. “So that’s why she’s taking it so hard.”
“They hung together, did schoolwork together, everything together,” she said. “People used to mistake them because they dressed alike.”
“It’s kind of hectic around here. They need to get rid of all this violence,” said Washington, who worries about the safety of her own children. “Every day and every night when they leave out the door, I tell them I love them, have a good day. Even when they come in, I tell them I love them.”
Contributing: Daniel Brown