KENTON, Ohio – It was intended to be a prank: steal a decoy deer, place it on a country road and watch as motorists swerved to avoid it.
It ended with two teenagers suffering serious injuries when their car hit the decoy and rolled into a ditch.
When a judge ruled this week that two boys — both high school football players — can complete the football season before they serve 60-day sentences at a juvenile detention center, it caused a division in this northwest Ohio city.
On one side are those who say allowing Dailyn Campbell, a 16-year-old quarterback, and 17-year-old teammate Jesse Howard to play shows that football players get preferential treatment.
On the other are those who say either the boys deserve another chance or that they will stay out of trouble if they're part of the team.
"I've never seen anything that has been so much an issue in the community," said Arch Rodgers, principal of 670-student Kenton High School. "The worst part is this has drug out so long and the longer it drug out, the more it created friction in the community."
Robert Roby Jr., one of the injured teens, said he believes Campbell and Howard received special treatment because they're football players.
"They could have killed me and my friend so easily over a stupid prank. For me it feels like they got a little slap on the wrist," said Roby, 19, who graduated from Kenton High in 2005 and played baseball and golf.
"Kenton is a big football town and a lot of people don't look past that to see what really happened," he said.
The Wildcats, which won state championships in their division in 2001 and 2002, draw about 4,000 fans for games in this city of about 8,000.
Howard's father, C.J. Howard, said members of the community have made crude remarks when his family shops at a nearby Wal-Mart store and that his younger children are taunted by older youth when they play in the yard.
He said his son would not be the focus of such attention if he didn't play football.
"I don't know why it's about football players. Why isn't it about student council or track?" Howard asked. "He admitted what he did and he faced the consequences like a young man should."
School Superintendent Doug Roberts said the crash has drawn attention because the emphasis the news media and the community placed on football.
Authorities say a group of teenagers stole the two-legged decoy deer from a yard, rigged it so it would stand and placed it in the road on Nov. 18. The decoy was at the top of a hill on the curving road, Roby said, and he didn't see it until it was right in front of his car.
"I panicked and swerved to go around it," he said. Roby's seat belt gave way, his head broke the car's sun roof and he fell to the ground. He heard his passenger, Dustin Zachariah, hit the ground. Prosecutors say Zachariah, now 18, suffered brain damage.
Investigators say Howard, a senior, was among the boys who watched the cars. He and Campbell, a junior, pleaded no contest in juvenile court to vehicular vandalism, possession of criminal tools and petty theft.
Campbell's mother, Donna Deisler, declined to comment on the case. Messages seeking comment were left for her son's attorney, Mike Hood. Zachariah's mother, Kathy Piper, did not return calls seeking comment.
Roby is recovering from broken bones in his neck, arm and leg. He spent about three months in a neck brace and has had 10 surgeries. He faces one more surgery on his leg and said he hopes soon to return to the University of Northwestern Ohio.
"It's been a long tunnel, but it's getting shorter," he said.
Howard and Campbell are to remain on house arrest once released, pay fines, perform community service and each write an essay titled "Why I Should Think Before I Act." Trials are pending for three other defendants.
Howard's mother, Valerie Berry of Ashland, Ky., said her son has a strong support system and will be able to move on.
"With this stunt he was a child," she said. "He's an adult now."