by | Dec 22, 2004 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

How could they go that fast? You turn your vehicle at the blinking yellow light and you come off Northline Road to Murray Street, a straight line of asphalt into a working-class neighborhood. How could they go that fast? On this street? A dusting of snow covers the yards. It is dark and quiet and cold, early evening, about the time when families wash the dinner dishes, about the time when the TV sets go on, about the time when two young men, who grew up here in Taylor and were top hockey prospects, left a high school basketball game, headed for practice and decided, for some reason, to turn a black Chevy Blazer onto this road to nowhere.

How could they go that fast?

You do what the driver did.

You hit the gas.

You accelerate past the first low house with the dark shingle roof — 10 m.p.h. — past an empty lot of frozen grass — 20 m.p.h. — already you feel as if you are going too fast for this narrow street, past the telephone poles and the candy canes on a lawn — 30 m.p.h. — you are over the speed limit now and the mailboxes are whizzing past, and so is the house with the covered white porch — 40 m.p.h. — too fast, your instincts tell you, too close to the curb, what if a car is parked in the street? — 45 m.p.h. — a blur of a fence, a trash can, a Santa Claus — too fast! What if someone steps out? — you hit your brake because your instinct for danger has taken over, but that instinct never kicked in that night, the Blazer kept accelerating — 60, 70, 80 m.p.h. — clipping a mailbox, just missing a car, flying down the road, which curved sharply to the right, but when that road curved the Blazer did not, it kept zooming straight like a ground-based missile, no skid marks, no stopping, perhaps as fast as — 85 m.p.h. — over the curb, over the lawn, sideswiping a tree and plowing into a yellow brick ranch house where a mother and her baby were about to step into the living room.

And someone was about to die.

BAM! As if a bomb went off, an eruption of glass, bricks, wood, drywall, furniture, lights, tables, shards and shreds and dust and destruction. The electricity blew out, and in the darkness the mother and baby were knocked to the floor, even as the Blazer mowed through the house, through what used to be the living room and the dining room, what used to be the halls and the shelves, what used to be the clocks and the furniture, pulverizing the rear wall and stopping only when the hood protruded two feet onto the deck, as if taking a peek at the backyard.

In the sudden silence, the driver of the car, 17-year-old Rodney Stewart, was amazingly still alive, reportedly moaning, refusing help, at one point actually trying to start the car as if to pull away. The mother, 23-year-old Rachel Nicita, and her 18-month-old son, Angelo, were alive, too, though shaken up, having missed certain death by a few seconds and feet. They were all, as witnesses whispered, “so lucky.”

But there was one more.

The passenger, 18-year-old Shane Simmons, a smooth-skating forward with blond-streaked hair and a fetching smile, was in the front seat of that Blazer, as lifeless as the wreck that had delivered his destruction.

He was not so lucky.

How could he go so fast? From childhood, speed was part of Shane Simmons’ world. He put on skates when he was 3 years old, and the folks at Southgate Ice Arena gave him a chair. “Here, hold onto this and push,” they said. He didn’t need it. By the end of the day, Shane was skating on his own. So fast!

By the time he was 5, he was playing hockey, zooming past the other Downriver kids his age. By the time he was 9, he had played all over Canada. By the time he was a teenager, he was a promising forward, traveling to Europe and Russia, playing in tournaments and turning heads. He played for Viktor Fedorov, Sergei’s father, on the Belle Tire teams. Everyone talked about his professional promise.

“He was phenomenal,” says Larry DePalma, coach of the Detroit Trackers. “He could see the entire ice, he had unbelievable hands and was such a graceful skater. He was NHL potential for sure.”

So Shane’s family — father, Tim; mother, Debbie, sisters Summer and Shannon — did what hockey families do; they sacrificed. They lived around his life. They worked around his schedule. They sold pizza kits, bowling nights and lottery tickets to raise money for Shane’s trips and equipment.

“We were the best fund-raisers,” Tim says, “because we were the poorest family on the team.”

They pooled their vacations; they went where Shane went. They got up ridiculously early and came home ridiculously late, always driving back from some rink, some game, some tournament. When Shane moved up a level, they felt as if they had moved up, too. When Shane won an MVP award, they felt as if they had shared in it. When Shane scored a goal, made a deft move on the ice or was glowingly touted — like the scouting service that wrote “Shane has all the tools to be an NHL player, and could be one of the most skilled players in the United States” — they glowed a little, too.

Maybe if Shane had been more selfish, they wouldn’t have embraced all this sacrifice. But the kid embraced them back, from the time he was a tyke to his fully grown 6-foot-1, 170-pound frame. He loved his family, he loved hanging around the house, he loved challenging his father to a pizza-eating contest or taking his grandfather to the movies. He wasn’t shy about kissing his parents. He never held back a hug.

“His friends would call and want to go out, and he’d say, ‘Nah, I’m gonna have family time here,’ ” his mother recalls. “How many 17- or 18-year-old boys say that?”

In his senior year at Taylor’s Kennedy High, Shane moved to Montana to play Junior A hockey for the Helena Bighorns. The family missed him, but they understood. Part of the journey. Other NHL players did it.

And this past October, when he returned, looking for more ice time with a team in Michigan, they were happy to have him back, happy to see his face. Shane was in the house again, scarfing food, watching TV, knocking around with his sisters.

He had three good weeks of his beloved family time.

And then he was dead.

Why so fast? How could we lose him so fast? The last day of Shane’s life gave no clue as to its ending. Debbie, 41, a lab technician with straight chestnut hair and sharp, pretty features, came home from her midnight shift, and Shane wandered downstairs. Debbie asked him about a country song she had heard that she had liked, something by Brooks and Dunn.

“I know that one,” Shane said, “It’s called ‘That’s What It’s All About.’ “

He downloaded it from a computer, and his sister Shannon joined them and they were eating a little breakfast and dancing to the song:

Hey, that’s what it’s all about

Hey, this is the life

I couldn’t live without

A few minutes later, Debbie went to bed.

That morning was the last time she saw her son.

Tim, a 43-year-old printing pressman, came home that evening and raked some leaves into a huge pile so that his youngest child, Summer, could jump into it. They were outside when the black 2002 Chevy Blazer pulled up, Rodney Stewart driving. Shane hopped out to grab some clothes and his hockey equipment. They had a practice that night with the Trackers, a AAA team Shane planned to join.

“Maybe we’ll pop up later and watch,” Tim said.

“OK,” Shane answered.

He waved so long, got in the Blazer and drove away.

As the Simmonses would later learn, Shane and Rodney stopped at Kennedy High to watch part of a girls basketball game. When they left, they took a turn off of Northline onto Murray Street. Why? No one knows why. The road was not en route to practice. The road was not a shortcut. The road, like much of this story, remains a mystery.

Tim knew none of that the night of Oct. 26. He only knew that the hour was growing late, and he put Summer to bed. At 10 o’clock, the phone rang. It was DePalma, the Trackers’ coach.

“Hi, Larry, what’s up?” Tim said.

“Is Shane around?”

“No, I thought he went to practice.”

“Well, he never showed up.”

“He was with Rodney.”

“Rodney never showed up, either.”

Tim was puzzled. He called Shane’s cell phone. He got the voice mail, so he hung up. That’s not like Shane, messing up like that, Tim thought. He was bothered. His son was too old to be horsing around and missing practices. So he called back again. This time he left a message.

Fifteen minutes later, he got a call back. He thought it was Shane.

It was the police.

Too fast! Too much! Why him? Why now? When Shane’s parents learned of their son’s death, they were in different places, but their reactions were the same: They fell down. Tim, informed by the police that “there’s been a fatality,” began to shiver uncontrollably, his body in a frozen spasm, “like it was 30 degrees,” he says. Debbie, who was at work, collapsed when she got the phone call. A friend drove her home. She burst from the car and ran past a ditch where Shane used to jump his bicycle. Her daughter Shannon ran to meet her, and Debbie yelled, “Just tell me I’m going to see Shane again!”

Shannon hugged her. Debbie fell to her knees.

Tim went to identify the body. He went to that yellow brick ranch house where Murray Street turns to Emmett Street — that sharp right curve. The house was, as Tim remembers it, “a wreck. Like when a bomb goes off and there’s rubble everywhere.”

The Blazer, smashed, had Shane’s hockey equipment in the back. Neither player had been wearing seat belts. Rodney already had been taken for medical treatment, but Shane’s body was still there, out of the vehicle, on the dining room floor, dead from what police told Tim was “extensive damage to the right side of his head.” His skull was, essentially, crushed.

Were you able to identify him? Tim is asked.

“From the left side,” he says.

Not from the right?

The father shakes his head no.

Why was he going that fast? Rodney Stewart was taken to Heritage Hospital. A Taylor police officer questioned him about the crash. According to the preliminary examination, this is what was said.

Officer: “He asked me, ‘What did I hit?’ “

And what did you reply?

“I said he hit a house.”

And what did he say when you asked him who he was with?

“He said he couldn’t recall.”

Did he say anything about how the accident happened?

“He stated that they were just driving around.”

Did he use the word “they”?


Rodney Stewart, a strapping, dark-haired defenseman — only a senior in high school — had been friends with Shane for several years. Last summer, Rodney joined the Simmons family on a Fourth of July camping trip. He had eaten with them, laughed with them, gone canoeing with them. In the weeks Shane was home before his death, the Simmons family saw Rodney “almost every day,” Tim says. They planned to be teammates on the Trackers.

Which is what makes this all so strange. At first, Debbie thought both young men were victims of a terrible accident. She felt sorry for Rodney, and Rodney’s mother came over on Halloween, a few days after the crash.

“We sat and talked and cried,” Debbie says.

But as details began to emerge, the Simmonses’ sympathy chilled. Police discovered that Rodney had been issued a ticket in Dearborn two nights earlier for driving on a lawn and hitting a tree — with the same Chevy Blazer. The initial toxicology report of Rodney’s bloodstream showed traces of THC, the primary intoxicant in marijuana, and benzodiazepines, a central nervous system depressant such as you would find in Xanax.

“Then,” Debbie Simmons says, “I started to get angry.”

Rodney was arrested. He was taken to Wayne County Jail. The prosecutor charged him with second-degree murder, citing the “willful and wanton disregard for the result of one’s actions.”

The sentence carries a maximum of life in prison.

Communication between the families stopped. There were no more visits. The Simmonses said they received one letter from Rodney but were disappointed that “it didn’t explain anything and didn’t show much remorse,” Tim says.

The families used to see each other at the rink. Now they see each other in court.

“I know (Rodney) didn’t try to kill anybody,” says Pat Muscat, a Wayne County assistant prosecutor, “but the evidence will show he willfully drove that car ignoring the effects of what that driving would be.

“If you willfully fired a gun into a crowd but had no intent of killing anybody, you’re still willfully discharging, ignoring the risks. And it’s still a potential second-degree murder.”

Rodney’s lawyer, Marvin Barnett, insists his client is a victim, too.

“The young man has no memory of the incident,” Barnett says. “That was his best friend. This is a tragedy.”

As to why Rodney was driving that fast, Barnett says: “The experts could not determine if he was conscious or not.”

On Tuesday, a judge lowered Rodney’s bond, allowing for his release from jail, provided he remains tethered, essentially housebound, and doesn’t drive. The case is scheduled to go to trial next spring. Barnett likely will argue that somehow Rodney passed out, that his foot pressed down on the accelerator and never came up. Is it possible? Is it far-fetched? What did Shane do as it happened? Why were there no skid marks? Why didn’t the Blazer swerve before hitting the house? Who knows? Who’s to say? The Simmonses want justice for their son, but should it come at the expense of his friend — or must it?

“Have I ever sped before? Yes,” Tim says. “Have I ever gone down a side street at 85 miles an hour? No.”

“What was his motivation?” Debbie says. “It couldn’t have been fun.”

“If you’re driving a car,” Tim says, “it’s like carrying a loaded gun. You’re responsible for people in that vehicle.”

“It’s not normal,” Debbie says.

“Accidents happen,” Tim says, “but this was totally uncalled for.”

“It’s not normal,” Debbie says.

Tim sighs. Then he says what they have been wrestling with for months. “We don’t know what was going through his head.”

All they do know — all anyone knows right now — is that two young friends will never spend another minute together. And two neighborhood families that once shared the bleachers at hockey games will now share benches on opposite sides of a courtroom.

Hey, that’s what it’s all about …

The funeral home, Risko-Ferguson-Obarzanek in Detroit, made a lovely video to that Brooks and Dunn song, a montage of Shane photos — in various hockey uniforms, in his blue graduation robe, on the couch clowning with his sisters. The service was attended by more people than you could count, family and friends and former teammates from all over the country, including a group from Montana that flew in just for that.

“Some of his friends have gotten tattoos in his memory,” Debbie says. “Some have had his number put on their cars. …”

She smiles at their kindness. But she could barely handle the funeral. She goes to Shane’s room sometimes and lies in his bed. Holidays are pretty much a disaster. She tried to have people over for Thanksgiving, but as soon as they came, they were talking and laughing and it began to throb in her head — Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! — and she had to leave.

“It was like, everybody seemed to be OK, like, ‘We’re going on now.’ They could laugh and be happy. But Thanksgiving was Shane’s favorite holiday, and I’m not laughing and happy. …”

She wipes back tears.

“I’m not ready to be OK yet.”

Christmas is this weekend. In the Simmons home, it will be shrunk to a minimum. What used to be a three-day holiday feast will be quiet and small now. “We’ll hold on to our family and try to get through it,” Debbie says.

There are no hockey trips to plan anymore. No hockey clothes that need washing. No Shane to speak about his hockey dreams, his travels, his future. When the crash occurred, it made the TV news. Many people saw the images.

What they didn’t see is how that vehicle keeps crashing through the lives of the survivors, day after day.

You pull in the drive

And you hit the chair

And the one that you love

is waiting there

And hey, that’s what it’s all about

Hey, this is the life

I couldn’t live without …

It’s a wonderful song, but it plays differently now, because they do live without it, they have to, every day. The sisters have to live without their brother, the defendant has to live without his good friend, the mother — who by her own words has “just started getting out of bed” — has to live without her son. And the father, who stands now in the driveway of his Taylor home, hands in his pockets against the winter cold, has to live without the promising athlete, the pizza-eating pal, the hugging child who would have carried on the family name.

“The thing is,” Tim Simmons says, “so much of our life was wrapped up around Shane, you know? I mean, all the things we did. The trips we took. And now …”

He wants to say more, but he can’t find the words. He doesn’t need to. A blind man could see it.

On your ride home, you turn again down Murray Street, at a slower pace now, and you look once more at the last things Shane Simmons saw, the modest houses, the mailboxes, the telephone poles, the straight line of asphalt that led to his funeral. You reach the yellow ranch house where it all came crashing down. It is dark. No one inside. The front wall is boarded up now, a huge piece of wood where a picture window once stood.

Let’s face it. A hole has been blown through this house, like the hole blown through the Simmons family, like the hole blown through the Stewart family, like the hole blown through the heart of everyone involved. Why so fast? Why them? Why him? The song is wrong. This is what it’s all about now, a car that didn’t stop and a heartache that never will.

Come back to the Free Press on Thursday for the next installment in Dreams Deferred 2004. Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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