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Lake Fenton High's 'King Eli' loses fight with leukemia

Nine days after he was crowned homecoming king at Lake Fenton (Mich.) High School, Eli Florence died Sunday afternoon at his home. He was 15.

Eli became the emotional center of attention in the Flint, Mich., suburb and beyond when, on Oct. 5, five of his friends at Lake Fenton High -- four football players and a golfer -- opted to forgo their own chances to be the school's homecoming king and agreed as a group to honor the terminally ill sophomore and former teammate.

Eli had suffered from acute myelogenous leukemia for five years.

"He was a funny, outgoing kid," said Jake Kirk, one of the Lake Fenton football players who decided to give up his homecoming king candidacy so Eli could reign. "He loved to make you laugh."

Kirk spoke Sunday afternoon before an evening benefit at the high school, where about 700 community members raised more than $6,000 to help Eli's family pay some medical expenses. At the event, there were orange balloons -- the color organizations use to raise awareness of leukemia -- and music played by a DJ. Still, emotions were mixed, said Lake Fenton High principal John Spicko.

"We tried to keep it upbeat," he said. "In his last days, Eli was still very upbeat. But there were a lot of tears."

The spaghetti-feed gathering, catered from donations by area restaurants, began just a few hours after his death. Some who attended didn't know of Eli's passing until his mother, Trina Florence-King, arrived and broke the news.

Eli died at 3 p.m. (ET) surrounded by his parents, his sister, grandparents and close friends, said his grandmother Gladys Finch, who said her grandson was "a perfectionist with a big loving heart."

Eli was told in mid-September that no treatments could extend his life. He was a former junior high football player and longtime youth baseball player.

"Baseball, that was his life," his grandmother said. "That was his main goal, to be a pitcher."

King Eli

High school crowns leukemia-stricken classmate

• Photos of Eli Florence and the special night that five Lake Fenton athletes organized to honor him as homecoming king.
Photo gallery

The act of kindness by the five Lake Fenton seniors -- football players Kirk, David Bittinger, Lucas Hasenfratz and Matthew Tanneyhill and golfer Ethan Merivirta -- triggered many comments from across the nation on a Web site created by Eli's friends and family.

Eli was scheduled to visit the sideline at the University of Michigan's homecoming game Saturday and meet coach Lloyd Carr, running back Mike Hart and others. But Eli wasn't strong enough to make it or receive a football that had been signed by Wolverines players.

A university representative delivered the ball and an autographed Wolverines hat to Sunday night's benefit, Spicko said.

Kirk saw Eli on Saturday night.

"He knew I was there," Kirk said. "I told him goodbye before I left."

Funeral arrangements were pending.

ESPN.com correspondent Jay Weiner writes from St. Paul, Minn. He can be reached at jay@jayweiner.com.