As Hurricane Katrina floodwaters were about to fill the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Ken McRoyal, his mother and two sisters grabbed what they could carry and fled.
They made it to a hotel downtown, but when waters kept rising, they abandoned everything.
They walked through fetid water, past dead bodies, to a truck that took them to Baton Rouge, La., where they called relatives in Carson.
“They arrived with only the clothes that they were wearing,” said Allyson Manumaleuna, McRoyal’s cousin in Carson and a social worker who became like a second mother.
FOR THE RECORD:
Ken McRoyal: An article in the June 3 California section about the life of University of Idaho football player Ken McRoyal, who was killed two days after returning home to Carson for the summer, referred to his father as “absentee.” His father, who worked abroad for many years, raised McRoyal in his early childhood and had remained in touch with McRoyal. —
His sisters and mother later returned home, but McRoyal stayed to play football at Carson High, far away from the grim future his family feared awaited a young black man on the violent streets of post-Katrina New Orleans.
A kid known to be hilarious and loud, as well as angry and quick to fight, McRoyal was obsessed with football and desperately dreamed of a pro career in a sport that, at 5-feet-9 and 185 pounds, he seemed too small for.
“He always told my mom, ‘I’m gonna get you out the ‘hood,’” said his sister Keahsha McRoyal. “He was going to make it to the NFL, and we was all gonna be straight and never have to worry. There was no doubt about that. We just knew.”
Nurtured by an extended Samoan family filled with athletes, Ken McRoyal earned a walk-on spot on the University of Idaho football team and was named a starting receiver for the upcoming season with a full scholarship.
His friends say the anger that had defined the kid who waded out of Katrina floodwaters was starting to fade.
On May 11, he returned to Carson for the summer. Two days later, McRoyal, 22, was gunned down in East Los Angeles. Police don’t know who did it — or why.
Just as “he was growing up,” Manumaleuna said, he was cut down.
To Ken McRoyal, Carson was another world.
His aunt, Rhonda Austin, had married into the Manumaleunas, a large, extended family well known in Carson’s vast Samoan community. An uncle, the late John Manumaleuna, was a beloved community leader who ran football camps for at-risk kids. Another uncle, Frank, a former professional football player, now runs the camps.
McRoyal became especially close to his cousin, Brandon, who played 10 years as an NFL tight end. “Brandon was really more like his brother, and even his father,” said Pasadena City College track coach Larry Wade, who helped train the two, along with other pro athletes.
As a wide receiver, McRoyal wore 86, Brandon’s number. The relationship cemented his belief that his future lay in the NFL.
“It was real for him, not just on TV,” said Austin.
At Carson High, recruiters for Division 1 football programs scouted McRoyal, but his grades were dismal.
He was undisciplined and unfocused, and he carried a chip on his shoulder, sharpened by having had an absentee father and a childhood spent in poverty.
After high school, he enrolled in El Camino College in Torrance.
“He had a short fuse. A lot of kids want instant gratification,” said John Featherstone, El Camino’s head football coach. “I tell them, ‘You gotta work hard to get where you want to be. Football’s the easy part.’”
In 2009, McRoyal’s temper led to a confrontation with a police officer at the college that got him suspended, Featherstone said. He was forced to sit out the season.
Without football, he moped and pleaded with his mother to pay his way back to New Orleans. She refused. Too many of his New Orleans childhood friends were dead or in prison.
By the fall of 2010, the suspension had revived McRoyal. His aunt said she no longer had to nag him to do his homework. “He became more goal-oriented,” Featherstone said.
He had a daughter, Koi. He spoke of her incessantly and began to calculate a future that included something besides just football.
By the summer of 2011, his improved grades made him academically qualified to attend the University of Idaho in Moscow, where his friend, former Carson High School quarterback Dominique Blackman, had been lobbying coaches on his behalf. The school had no spare scholarships, but McRoyal went anyway — with the help of financial aid and his aunt — and earned a walk-on spot on the team.
But he almost blew that opportunity too.
One July night, he was shot in the leg at a party in Carson. No police report exists of the shooting, though McRoyal was hit in the calf and treated at a hospital. “I don’t know how that slipped under the radar,” said Los Angeles Police Det. Juan Chavarria, who, a year later, would investigate McRoyal’s slaying.
With a mostly white population of 23,000, Moscow — just 1% black — was a world away from Carson and New Orleans.
“Just being there opened his eyes to different things,” said Allyson Manumaleuna.
He practiced hard, studied hard. When his aunt and cousin visited, they were stunned to find a tidy dorm room, with his clothes neatly folded and his bed made. He was cooking for himself, made his first white friends. He even volunteered as a recess aide at a local elementary school.
At the end of his first year at Idaho, football coach Robb Akey offered him a full scholarship. Idaho was set to play both Louisiana State and Louisiana Tech universities this fall — in his home state — and McRoyal couldn’t wait.
“He said this was his year,” his sister Keahsha said.
He returned to Southern California for the summer, full of anticipation. The Manumaleunas planned a surprise barbecue to honor his accomplishments.
Two days after arriving home, he headed out for a night with friends.
“Wasup L.A I’m here show me sum luv!” he tweeted.
What happened after that, no one seems willing to tell police.
McRoyal was shot in the neck on Moulton Avenue near the Brewery Lofts in Lincoln Heights. Although the first patrol car found dozens of people running from the scene, no one has been willing to tell them what happened — not even McRoyal’s friends, including two who served as pallbearers at his funeral, Det. Chavarria said.
Days later, a standing-room-only crowd of 750 gathered at the Mission Ebenezer Family Church in Carson.
This was not the surprise party his cousins had planned.
McRoyal’s jersey, 86, was framed. His cousin, Brandon, placed a football in his coffin. His daughter, Koi, toddled the aisles in a white dress and braids. Teammates flew in from across the country. For a while, news of his death trended on Twitter. And it was reported on ESPN, to the awe of his fellow athletes. Keahsha, in from New Orleans, was startled by “how many people of different races” wrote to her as if he were their family as well.
The kid from New Orleans had come a long way.
“His story is the story of so many young boys who got through stuff,” said his cousin, Allyson Manumaleuna, “but for whatever reason their past life is still hanging on to them. How do you get away from it?”