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In East Bay High teen's death, perhaps a lesson

GIBSONTON — 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.

The 18-year-old East Bay High School senior drove his Saturn into the rear of 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 48-year-old father said Tuesday. "If you're a kid, man, make a decision. Think about Rex. Put your seat belt on, be careful."

Authorities are awaiting toxicology results to determine whether alcohol might have been a factor, 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 sister Jennifer Watson, 24.

More than 200 students visited crisis counselors, principal Sharon 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 Rex Ballenger Jr. 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 Geoff, 17.

At 5 feet 8, 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 arch-rivals.

Nicknamed "Scooter" for his speed, Ballenger was also an honor student, principal Morris said. Next Wednesday, graduation will go on as planned.

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 at Vance V. Vogel Park, 13010 Bullfrog Creek Road in Gibsonton.

In East Bay High teen's death, perhaps a lesson 05/20/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 26, 2008 8:11am]
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