TAMPA — Benjamin Francis was a teenager but lived more than most people do in a lifetime, his mother said.
Francis, a junior at Plant High School, celebrated his 17th birthday Thursday and the next day, he died from injuries he received when the motorcycle he was riding collided with another vehicle in South Tampa. Another Plant High student, a 15-year-old girl, was riding on the back of the motorcycle and remains hospitalized with injuries at Tampa General Hospital.
Police did not release her name.
Francis left school early Friday and was traveling east on Bay to Bay Boulevard at 12:55 p.m. when he collided with the side of a Kia Sorento headed north on Lois Avenue, Tampa police said. The Kia driver had stopped for a stop sign and was proceeding across Bay to Bay but did not see the motorcycle as it approached at a high rate of speed, police said.
The driver of the Kia also was injured and taken to a hospital. He is expected to survive, police said.
The crash remains under investigation.
Francis’ mother, Iris Rodgers, trusted her son on a motorcycle, she said. But she worried about others on the road.
Rodgers described her son’s life as vibrant, his interests broad. He traveled to Germany and Spain, spending time skiing and snorkeling. He played baseball and piano and rode motocross. But Rodgers will remember most his love of engines.
“He had an engineering kind of mind,” Rodgers said. “He was a brilliant kid. He would have done something special.”
Rodgers recalls going on Busch Gardens’ Cheetah Hunt with Francis, where he explained the mechanisms of the high-powered roller coaster.
Francis got the “mechanics” gene from his father, Gary Francis. The boy was given an electric bike when he was around 5 and wore out the tires before he got a gas-powered bike. Father and son had been riding together since Francis could walk.
“We used to always have helmet radios,” Gary Francis said. “So a lot of the thousands of hours we’ve ridden in the dirt or on the streets, we were always talking to each other on the radio.”
He said he’s sure his son and the teen’s passenger were wearing helmets at the time of the crash. He always did.
Francis devoured books, articles and videos on engines. His father took him to Barney’s Motorcycle and Marine in St. Petersburg for the first time at age 15, and Francis knew immediately he wanted to work there. A manager was impressed by the teen’s knowledge of engines but told him he had to be 16 to work there. A year later, he went back and got the job.
Friends held a vigil for Francis on Saturday night on Davis Islands, setting off fireworks, like Francis loved to do.
Connor Hanlon, a junior at Plant High, said Francis was a great friend and funny, without a mean bone in his body. Friends recalled the time he drove a lawnmower to school after the principal told him his motorcycle was too loud.
It has warmed his father’s heart to hear from his son’s friends that the teen sought out people who were lonely to offer companionship. As a child, Francis got a dollar from his dad for each friend he made during vacations that took them to RV parks.
“We’d pull up and Ben would ask, ‘Hey, you want to play manhunt?’ Every RV park it was $10, $20 worth of new friends.”
Gary Francis said he has begun writing down all the things his son told him over the years. He’s planning on taking to heart the words of advice the teen gave him.
He compared his feelings since learning of his son’s death to riding a roller coaster: “I’m going to have a lot of ups and downs. I’m just hanging on.”
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