By Alan Gionet

LAKEWOOD, Colo. (CBS4)– It was to be a big night for the unified kids at Lakewood High School. Their chance to shine.

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“We’re trying to be that support for all of the kids. It’s going to be hard to move forward for them,” said Jen Moriarty, a special education teacher and co-unified drama teacher.

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The kids are unified children with special needs and the Lakewood High Theater company. All miss Ezekiel McKie, known to them all as “Zeke.”

Zeke McKie (credit: McKie Family)

“He was just a fun loving, kind hearted, wonderful kid,” said LHS Theater Company co-director Jace Smykil.

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Zeke was a high functioning autistic boy of 16. He loved Lakewood High School. He loved it so much he ran for the bus on April 17 because he didn’t want to be late. He ran right into the path of a car. For a week, Zeke lay in a hospital bed, until, he lost his struggle to live.

Zeke McKie (credit: McKie Family)

It left all the students who loved him hurting. The unified kids were among those trying to understand.

“Have a death that’s close to home and of a peer is really troublesome for many of them,” said Moriarty. “And they honestly don’t know how to cope with it.”

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Zeke played unified basketball. He was athletic, said his dad Leland. Leland also loved theater. Lakewood is one of a few schools who have created an innovative program that puts unified kids on stage with the theater company. They are paired with student coaches for a spring production. This year, Zeke was to play the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.

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“He came very day with a huge smile on his face, he was ready to go,” said theater company student director Abby Spaeth.

Zeke added his own touches to his role on stage. He improvised a Michael Jackson move, when as the Tin Man, he got oiled to loosen his rusty limbs. The kids howled. Stick with it they told him. It was to be his signature moment in the play.

Ezekiel McKie (credit: GoFundMe)

As Zeke lay in a hospital bed near death, it was clear he wouldn’t make the play the following Wednesday. But the kids would be there for him.

“There was no doubt we were going to dedicate this show to him and his family,” said Smykil.

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Zeke’s mother Darlene (credit: CBS)

The night before the play was to open, Zeke died.

At the door Wednesday, the money came in at the ticket table.

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“The last 24 hours were hard,” said Zeke’s father Leland as the family took a seat in the front row.

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Seventeen unified kids and 21 coaches joined to put the production on. Spaeth rolled a video tribute to Zeke she put together. The school adopted the motto of “McKie Strong.” Eleanor Cooper was one of those with the statement on a t-shirt. They all missed Zeke.

“Once you hang around him for a long time you just consider him another friend.”

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Unified student Antonio Martinez played the role of the Wizard.

“He was a great person. We were friends since middle school. And he was just a great person to be a friend with,” said Martinez.

The crowd gave the students a standing ovation. Then more money poured into hats at the end of the show.

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“Just to see all the love from this school…” Zeke’s mother Darlene said. “To see the support from everybody at Lakewood and the community and knowing how much people care and love my son, it’s very comforting to our family.”

“Like I told the principal,” her husband Leland said, “I’m grateful for the school, I’m grateful for the community.”

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To the students, who came together to help the family, there was some comfort.

“The kids really rallied around this and it became their purpose for a week which they needed that during such and emotional time,” said Smykil.

“We’re always going to miss Zeke,” added Moriarty. “He truly is family here.”

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Alan Gionet is anchor of CBS4 This Morning and reports on a wide variety of issues and “Good Question” stories. He started at CBS4 in 1994. Follow Alan on Twitter @AlanGTV or on Facebook.