GIBSONTON — East Bay High School is reeling from the death of Rex Ballenger, a popular quarterback who died Monday following a rear-end crash.
"This is a mind-boggling event, how his life could be over at 18," said coach Brian Thornton, who said he thought of Ballenger as a family member.
The 18-year-old senior drove his Saturn into the back of a stopped semitrailer truck Saturday morning on Big Bend Road and U.S. 41, leaving his car lodged beneath the truck, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Larry Coggins said.
The 7:55 a.m. accident happened as he was driving home from a friend's house after spending the night clubbing, Rex Ballenger Sr. said. The young Ballenger died Monday afternoon at Tampa General Hospital after his family removed him from life support.
The elder Ballenger exhorted kids to buckle up.
"I don't condone nobody going out and drinking and going to clubs," the elder Ballenger, 48, said Tuesday. "If you're a kid, man, make a decision. Think about Rex. Put your seat belt on, be careful."
It's been a tough year for East Bay. A December bus stop shooting following a verbal confrontation put two East Bay students in the hospital. East Bay graduate Jeffrey Brian Argo was one of two young men charged with attempted murder.
Principal Sharon Morris said that "three or four" East Bay seniors would not be attending graduation due to personal misfortunes. When asked to elaborate, Morris said, "Other accidents. That's all I'm going to get into."
Authorities are awaiting toxicology results to determine whether alcohol might have been a factor in Ballenger's crash, the FHP's Coggins said.
But people who knew Ballenger said he might simply have been drowsy when he plowed into the semi.
"He was just tired," said his sister Jennifer Watson, 24.
More than 200 students visited crisis counselors, Morris said.
He was the scrappy quarterback in the red No. 10 jersey who pushed himself and his teammates to play better football. That was how East Bay High football players and coaches remembered Ballenger on Tuesday as they gathered at the Gibsonton school to talk about the small-framed quarterback.
Teammate Matt Brown solemnly recalled the atmosphere among Ballenger's friends on Monday.
"Everyone was just waiting in silence," Brown said. "Then we got a text (message)."
Junior Geoff Hayes praised Ballenger's team leadership.
"He could tell you what to do and how to do it," said Hayes, 17.
At 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds, Ballenger was smaller than the average player. But his ability to read defenses and make split-second decisions earned him respect from teammates and rivals.
Nicknamed "Scooter" for his speed, Ballenger was also an honors student, Morris said. Next Wednesday, graduation will go on as planned.
Whether a buckled seat belt would have saved Rex Ballenger Jr. may be impossible to know.
But his father hopes other young people will learn from his son's death.
Though Ballenger won't be among those making the walk, his father will be seated in the audience to honor his son.
Meanwhile, the elder Ballenger is planning a public celebration of the boy so many loved.
The public is invited at 6 p.m. Friday to Vance V. Vogel Park, 13010 Bullfrog Creek Road in Gibsonton.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at 661-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.