TAMPA — A coach once called Rex Ballenger Jr. the leader of his football team.
At 5 feet 9 and 150 pounds, the East Bay High School quarterback was also the heartbeat, coach Brian Thornton said Monday.
"He was one of the toughest individuals, pound for pound, I have coached," Thornton said.
Ballenger, 18, died Monday, two days after his Saturn slammed into the rear of a stopped semitrailer truck, the Florida Highway Patrol reported.
He would have graduated next week.
More than 200 students visited Ballenger in the hospital over the weekend and were crushed to learn of his death, said East Bay athletic director Scott Tipton.
"He was a good, vibrant kid, a very positive person," Tipton said. "Kind of like what you would expect your starting quarterback to be."
Ballenger was a three-year starter for the Indians who proved that athleticism is not only about size, but about drive and competition, his coaches said.
He was mulling over five scholarship offers from small schools, Tipton said.
"He single-handedly beat us this year," said Dan O'Regan, former coach for rival Riverview High. "He was a good player and a heck of a competitor."
News of the Apollo Beach teen's death spread rapidly throughout the school community.
Patti Thornton, the wife of Ballenger's coach, said late Monday that her husband had been on the phone with their pastor for hours.
"He's pretty devastated right now," she said. "It's like losing one of our own."
She was on her way to work Saturday morning when she unknowingly passed the accident that left Ballenger hospitalized.
It happened at 7:55 a.m. on U.S. 41 and Big Bend Road in Gibsonton. Ballenger was driving his 1997 Saturn west on Big Bend Road when he ran into the rear of a semitrailer truck stopped at a red light, the FHP reported. He was not wearing a seat belt.
Ballenger was taken to Tampa General Hospital. The truck driver, Joseph Ciavarella, 40, of Port Richey was not injured.
Despite the tragic news, the Indians huddled in practice Monday, praying, crying and telling stories about their friend, coach Thornton said.
Ballenger got his start at quarterback as a sophomore in 2005 in the fifth game of the season against Bloomingdale, a game East Bay dominated, 24-0.
"That was a big win for us," Thornton said at the time. "They were one of the favorites to win the district, and to beat them on the road was the biggest victory for us."
He said he plans to retire Ballenger's jersey number. "No one will ever wear No. 10 as long as I'm coaching here," he said.
Friends have established a fund to help the family. Donations to the Rex Ballenger Jr. Memorial Fund can be made at any area SunTrust Bank, Thornton said.
Athletes from Brandon, Riverview, Bloomingdale and East Bay high schools also expect to honor Ballenger with a moment of silence Thursday as they gather at Brandon High School for a four-team jamboree.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3383. Keith Niebuhr can be reached at (813) 226-3458 or firstname.lastname@example.org.