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Unthinking teens still play deadly, stupid game

It was a great night for Clearwater High School's homecoming.

The air carried a hint of fall and the sky was clear and starry. The crowd was big and enthusiastic. On the field, there was a challenge Clearwater High's Tornadoes could put their shoulders to: The Times had picked the Tarpon Springs High Spongers to win by 4 points.

The homecoming court sat at the side of the field on metal folding chairs, the girls in formal gowns looking lovely and confident, the boys looking like junior Bonds in their black tuxedos.

The icing on the cake was a big win by the home boys, who gave the Spongers a 42-14 trouncing. The happy spectators scattered after the game, with many of the students drifting off to the gymnasium for the homecoming dance.

I had worked a full day at the office, completed a busy shift at the stadium concession stand for the Band Boosters Club, and then dropped off my son at the dance before going home. At midnight I was westbound on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, headed back to the school to pick him up.

I was exhausted. When I saw something on the road ahead of me, I had to squint my bleary eyes to bring it into focus in the dim light. It was on the righthand edge of my lane, the inside westbound lane. It wasn't moving around, but seemed anchored to the spot. Just a large, billowed plastic bag, I concluded, probably stuck to the road by some kid's discarded bubble gum. I drove toward it unconcerned.

Then a face loomed up at me from down on the pavement.

The fool! I hit the brakes and swerved to the left. It was a boy _ a young man, really, though in years, not in maturity. He was stretched out on his back, the bottoms of his sneakers facing me, his fingers laced behind his head to lift it off the road and let him see the cars coming toward him.

As I swerved, I looked instinctively in the mirror and saw behind me three solid lanes of oncoming headlights, halted momentarily by a red traffic light. Then I heard on my right the jeering laughter from a group of young men gathered in front of a Checkers hamburger stand. They were laughing while their friend lay on the warm asphalt, daring cars to hit him.

I was scared and furious at the same time. I wheeled immediately into the school parking lot and drove straight to the gymnasium, assuming there would be a police officer inside. A man in a motorized cart was stationed at the entrance.

"There's a kid lying in the middle of Gulf-to-Bay over there!" I told him, pointing. I watched a look of dread slowly flatten his face, then he climbed out of the cart and moved swiftly through the door of the gym. In seconds he returned at a trot, trailed by a police officer. The two men said nothing to me, but ran across the parking lot toward the road.

There was nothing they could do, of course. The boys probably had watched the little scene at the gym from across the street. By the time the officer got there, no one was lying in the road. I watched the officer question the group of boys. They stood there, hands crammed in the pockets of their shorts, baseball caps pulled low over their foreheads. They looked about 17 or 18. The officer returned to the gym. I collected my son and drove home.

But two hours later I was still shaking and unable to sleep.

I had read the stories about this "game" that teenagers supposedly copied from the Disney Touchstone Pictures film, The Program. The movie is about the gritty, violent world of college football. In the movie, the drunken players tested their nerve by lying in the middle of a highway as cars passed.

Shortly after the movie's release last fall, two Pennsylvania teenagers playing the game were struck by a truck. One was killed, the other seriously injured. Another teenager in New Jersey was critically injured doing the same thing. Disney pulled that scene from the movie.

Those incidents were a year ago and far away. And the high school students I know seemed too smart to do anything so stupid. That's part of what shook me up so. I never expected to drive down heavily traveled, six-lane Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and come upon a teenager lying in the road. It seemed surreal that on a night like that one, with so much that was wonderful and life-enriching going on at the school, in the same block there was a teenager willing to risk his life for a macho game.

It made me angry that I valued his life more than he did. On the Clearwater High campus, just a few hundred yards from where he lay on the road, there is a memorial to students who have died in recent years. Their names are engraved on a marker. I fantasized about dragging the kid to the marker and, like one of the fearsome spirits in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, pointing a bony finger to show him his own name recorded there.

His whole life was ahead of him. But he put it all in the hands of the motorists driving toward him on the highway. He counted on them not being drunk (I've encountered many a drunken driver on that road on weekend nights). He counted on them having good enough vision to see him in the dim light. He counted on them not being distracted by something in their cars or something in their own heads. He counted on them driving absolutely straight down the lanes on either side of him.

What an outrageous gamble.

I was furious, too, that he felt he had the right to alter my life or that of any other driver. Had I hit him, I don't think I would have been the same ever again. I would have relived it in my dreams. I would have felt the sickening bump under the tires every time I drove a car. I would have been terrified to travel dark roads.

Fortunately for me _ and for him _ it didn't end that way. Life goes on. But still, I will not soon forget that seemingly disembodied face, young and smiling, rising up from the flat plane of the road just beyond the end of my hood.