Elijah Clayton, a 22-year-old who grew up in West Hills, excelled at football on the field and online.
The former high school athlete made a career out of playing the “Madden NFL” video game at high-level tournaments. He was at one such tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., on Sunday when he was shot by David Katz, a fellow gamer who had been eliminated from the competition, authorities said.
In a video that was livestreamed by the network Twitch, Clayton can be seen playing with a smile on his face. A red laser dot appears on Clayton’s sweater. He scores a touchdown. Then the video feed switches to a kickoff return — and 11 gunshots can be heard.
“Those were his last actions: a touchdown and a smile,” said Damon Kirk, one of Clayton’s gaming friends. “Then the guy started shooting.”
Clayton died of his wounds, as did another competitor. Katz then killed himself, according to witnesses.
It only took a few years for Clayton — better known by the handle Trueboy — to make himself known to fans of the “Madden NFL” game, thanks to his creativity and warm personality.
“If you knew the competitive ‘Madden’ scene, you knew him,” said Dayne Downey, a fan of Clayton’s and an “NBA 2K League” player.
Before Clayton rose to the heights of the competitive “Madden” scene, he played football at Chaminade College Preparatory in West Hills in 2012 before transferring to Calabasas High School in 2013.
Teammates said even then they could tell he had a great football mind.
Brad Kaaya, a quarterback who is on injured reserve for the Indianapolis Colts and who played with Clayton at Chaminade, said Clayton could mimic other teams’ defensive squads so well, he thought Clayton could have become a defensive coordinator.
But playing the “Madden” video game was always in Clayton’s future.
“For as long as I could remember, he’d play Madden every day and even during class when we weren’t supposed to,” Kaaya said. “A lot of us had Madden on our school computers and would still play. Eli was always the best.
“He’d always be playing somebody else in class on the laptop. Anytime any of us got caught, they’d take the laptop to the computer lab and wipe it away, but we’d always find a way to get back on. He found a way to make a career out of it, which not many people get to do.”
Clayton’s football mind seemed destined for a bigger stage.
“He was always good at games and he felt like he could go somewhere with it,” said Jojo McIntosh, who also played football with Clayton at Chaminade. “I know he was at the top of what he was doing.”
Clayton was a creative “Madden” player who made swift progress, Kirk, a fellow gamer, said. He placed second at a recent “Madden” tournament called Muthead, earning a share of the $20,000 prize.
“He really was the best ‘Madden’ player this year,” Kirk said. “He probably would have walked away with a half-a-million dollars.”
The Florida Times-Union profiled Clayton in 2017 after he took the local team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, to the Madden finals. Clayton told the newspaper he first started playing Madden when he was 5 and started playing competitively about two years ago.
“It’s about fighting through adversity, just like real football,” Clayton told the newspaper.
For some fans, it didn’t take much for Clayton to make an impression. He was quick to reach out to fellow online gamers with a kind word of encouragement.
Downey said it was a single message on Twitter that left him with a sense of Clayton’s genuine personality. After Downey, who is relatively new to the gaming world, won prizes for playing in the NBA 2K League, Clayton left a simple congratulatory message that included the words “never change.”
“He was one of the first people to reach out to me,” said Downey, whose gaming handle is One Wild Walnut. “He took time out of his life to do that.”
Kirk described Clayton as “super funny, super cool, always joking, always laughing.… He was just a carefree person.”
When one gamer tweeted that he was having a “bad mental breakdown” one day, Clayton tweeted: “It happens to all of us at some point. Keep ya head up g. You’ll get through it.”
Catherine Jo Foss, the principal at Calabasas High School, said Clayton had a kind heart. She recalled once he walked into her office to help a friend who had gotten in trouble, promising to talk to his friend and keep him in line.
“He was a leader,” she said. “He stuck up for other people.”
Tom Fahy, principal of Chaminade College Preparatory, remembered Clayton as a respectful, mild-mannered young man.
“He was a dedicated student, doing his best in the classroom while being a great teammate to his football family,” Fahy said in a statement.
Clayton kept in touch with his teammates after leaving high school, and they watched online as his gaming career took off.
Days before flying to Jacksonville, Clayton indicated in a tweet that he was unsure whether he would attend this year’s “Madden NFL” competition. But he had a change of heart.
The competition seemed to have been going well. On Saturday, he tweeted: “Won every game by max no one crossed the 50 or scored a point. Waiting for singles for tomorrow.”
Garrett Scarpace, one of his Chaminade teammates, said he spent much of Sunday refreshing his screen over and over again, hoping to learn that the news was not true.
“The hardest part for me is he was a young guy,” Scarpace said. “His family … will never get to see him grow old, get his first house, get married, have kids. For that to be taken from him over a video game — it leaves me speechless.”
Los Angeles Times staff writers Melissa Etehad, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Eric Sondheimer contributed to this report.
A previous version of this story said Clayton was 21 years old. He was 22.