Not a Hollywood Version
11/01/1993 at 01:00 AM EST
MIKE SHINGLEDECKER WAS HAVING a good time. Earlier in the day the 18-year-old graduate of Franklin (Pa.) High School had watched his alma maler lose its Oct. 15 homecoming game to Greenville. Afterward he and several friends went out to have some fun anyway. Then sometime around 1 a.m., they decided to do something stupidly dangerous. Shingledecker and three buddies lay down head-to-foot along the freshly painted double yellow line of Route 62 as it passed through tiny Polk, Pa. (pop. 1,267). When a white Ford zoomed by, swerving to avoid them, the teens jumped up, and the four began hugging and high-flying each other, laughing, "We did it! We did it!"
Two of the boys decided they had had enough, but Shingledecker and his friend Dean Bartlett, 17, wanted to try again. While their friends watched, they got back down on the centerline and wailed as a Toyota pickup came over a rise in the road, straight toward them. This lime they weren't as lucky; the truck ran over them both. Shingledecker was killed instantly. Bartlett survived but suffered severe liver and kidney damage. "I should have gone out there and scared them away," says Chris Anderson, 29, who heard the accident from his home nearby. "I feel very naive. I didn't think things like this happened to kids."
Apparently other young men don't think so either. In the last month, at least five daredevils have been killed or injured lying in the middle of roads in four states. The stunt was inspired by the movie The Program, an R-rated film in which a beer-swilling, devil-may-care college quarterback swaggers out to a highway and lies lengthwise along the divider. He shouts to his teammates, "If you can't take the heal, gel off the highway," and they lie down too. While the others cross their arms and scream as cars whiz by, their leader nonchalantly crosses his legs, chuckles and reads aloud a SHORTS ILLUSTRATED cover story about himself. No one gels hurt.
After first trying to defend the film, which was released five weeks ago to little fanfare and modest success at the box office, Disney's Touchstone Pictures made the virtually unprecedented move of culling the scene. They shipped new prints to 1,122 theaters nationwide last week. "While the scene in the movie in no way advocates this irresponsible activity, is impossible for us to ignore that someone may have recklessly chosen to imitate it," the film's writer-director, David Ward, said in a joint statement with Touchstone. Hollywood executives applauded the move. "I think it's amazingly noble," says producer Brian (Parenthood) Grazer. "It's a very expensive thing to do."
Cowriter Aaron Latham said he got the idea for the scene from accounts taken from interviews with college football players across the country. Critics say such scenes only reinforce unrealistic role models. "For a boy, it is not at all a stretch to imagine himself a football hero," says Dr. Robert E. Gould, a Manhattan psychiatrist who is president of the National Coalition on Television Violence, a citizens' watchdog group. "If the football hero in The Program had been killed, with five cars running over him, you wouldn't have these boys imitating him. It is scary when movies and television don't portray the reality of dangers."
On Oct. 3, two weeks before the tragedy in Pennsylvania, Jeremy Wayne Hebdon, 16, of Leander, Tex., was killed by a newspaper de-liveryman. Nine days later former high school athlete Marco Birkhimer, 24, after a night of carousing with friends, lay down on New Jersey's Route 206 and was fatally run over. And on the same day that Shingledecker was killed, a Long Island boy, Mike Macias, 17, captain of the Syosset (N.Y.) High School football team, was dragged about 30 yards by a motorist and paralyzed from the chest down. "It was terrible," says a witness, Nadine Pacifico, 17. "All you saw was his feet sticking up under the car."
Mike Shingledecker's parents admit their son was a thrill seeker but say there was always a limit. "What made Michael's adrenaline pump was winning a football game or shooting a buck," says his mother, Patty, 37. "Was he rowdy? No, he was adventurous. He liked a challenge."
SARAH SKOLNIK in Polk, KRISTINA JOHNSON in Los Angeles, and bureau reports