AUBURN — Vyonne Elliott remembers playing a pickup football game in the rain when he was 14.
He was running with the ball. Suddenly he slipped, fell and slid across the grass. When he got up, he had a 4-inch gash on his left knee. I didn’t notice it. But his older brother, Andre Mackniel, did.
Andre immediately took off his letterman jacket and wrapped it around Elliott’s bloody knee. He then scooped up his younger brother and carried him, on his back, four blocks to their Buffalo home.
Forty years later, Vyonne still has a scar on his knee. It reminds him of Andre, and the bond they shared. But the pain Vyonne felt that day pales in comparison to the pain of losing his brother from him.
Andre, 53, of Auburn, was one of 10 Black men and women killed in a racist mass shooting May 14 at a Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo. He was buying a birthday cake for his 3-year-old son, Andre Jr.
“I’m torn up,” Vyonne told The Citizen on Tuesday, his voice raspy with heartache, in the living room of his Pulaski Street home. “I just want my brother back.”
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Sons of Lynda Mackniel and James Elliott Jr., Andre and Vyonne grew up “churchgoing children” on the east side of Buffalo, he said. They and their younger brother, the late James “Bay-Bay” Elliott, didn’t just go to services but also Bible studies, dances and other church events. That makes Andre’s death, and the hateful motive behind it, even more difficult to accept, Vyonne said.
“We were not raised that way,” he said. “We liked people for who they were, the person that they are. What was in them. Not because of their skin color.”
Andre took his mother’s last name because his father, a Marine, was on duty at the time of delivery, Vyonne said. The birth certificate wasn’t changed, but Andre sometimes went by Elliott anyway.
The family didn’t have a lot of money, Vyonne said. So, being one year Andre’s junior, he often got the clothes his older brother from him outgrew. But Vyonne could never fit into Andre’s shoes, he said with a laugh. His brother of him grew to be about 6-foot-3. That’s what made him able to carry Vyonne home that rainy day in Buffalo, and that’s what made Andre’s most defining feature hard to miss.
“He had the biggest smile in the world,” Vyonne said. “He could walk into a room and light it up.”
Andre’s height also made him a force on the basketball court. Playing for South Park High, he could have gone straight to the NBA if that was as common then as it is now, Vyonne said. Once, his brother dunked on future Dream Team member Christian Laettner, who attended Nichols School in the same city. Some called Andre “Ralph Sampson” because of his resemblance of him to the 7-foot-4 star.
As adolescence turned to adulthood, Vyonne started to split his time between Buffalo and Auburn, where their grandparents lived. But he and Andre stayed tight. Vyonne eventually settled in Auburn, and in 2007 his brother joined him. He wanted to improve his life from him, Vyonne said, and Andre worked hard at it. I have cooked for a living and continued basketball, playing and coaching in summer leagues.
Andre also enjoyed playing guitar and writing poetry. He wasn’t much of a talker, Vyonne said, but he was popular. Eventually he met and proposed to Tracey Maciulewicz, and with her he had Andre Jr. three years ago. Andre “devoted everything” to raising his son, his brother said. He was a beloved uncle as well, making TikToks and sharing big hugs with Vyonne’s daughters Lynda and Alex Elliott.
Alex told The Citizen her father and uncle were like best friends, together almost every day.
“He was always joking, always funny, always had a smile on his face,” she said. “That big, cheesy smile. I remember that most about him.”
Vyonne will eulogize his brother Friday in Buffalo. It will be hard for him to return to the city, he said. Andre’s death happened less than five years after their brother James’ from kidney failure, which itself happened three weeks after their father’s. Their mother has also passed away. Buffalo, Vyonne believes, took his family away from him. With Andre gone, he feels alone.
But Vyonne knows he has to be there for his children, and Andre’s. The brothers lived by the code of being each other’s keeper. That means helping each other when they’re hurt, as the scar on Vyonne’s knee shows, and looking after each other’s family. Vyonne has a girl, Sorayna, who will turn 3 in July. He hopes she and Andre Jr. can be as close as he was with his brother de ella.
“We shared everything. The same mother, father, house, bed,” Vyonne said. “The same pain, the same tears.”