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One year after tragedy, Connor Darcey's legacy strong as ever

Phil Garceau/ESPN

WELLESLEY, Mass. -- Drop a pebble in a perfectly still body of water, and for an instant there is a splash. An inflicted wound that is a direct result of a catastrophic event. But in the matter of a few seconds, the initial state of shock wears off and the surface returns to its previous glass-like state.

But away from the epicenter, spreading out in all directions is a series of ripples. There are hundreds of smaller waves that carry on, continuously impacting what lies ahead.

That was the theme of Penn State lacrosse coach Jeff Tambroni’s eulogy delivered on the morning of Monday, June 15, 2015 inside St. Andrew’s Church in Wellesley. It was tragedy that landed him in that position, speaking to a silent,capacity crowd from the altar.

The Darcey family, Wellesley community and the Penn State brotherhood alike had just lost an iconic figure. In the wee hours of June 12, on the narrow and winding roads of Boston’s historic North End, tragedy claimed a son, a brother and, to some, a superhero.

In a rollover crash on Commercial Street, just yards from the where the Charles River and Boston Harbor mix, former Wellesley lacrosse star and Penn State’s starting goaltender, Connor Darcey, was ejected from the black BMW convertible he was a passenger in. The BMW 430i was heading west, collided with a parked GMC Terrain at high speeds, and immediately overturned. Connor didn’t survive the crash.

At that second in time, the pebble was dropped, and the splash was devastating. The pain and suffering, the anger and torment all convened over the following 72 hours in Wellesley and far beyond.

“When you get to that point you are just running on emotion, stepping up onto that altar and you see [Bill] and [Penny] Darcey who just lost their son, and you see Will and Teddy who had lost their brother,” Tambroni said of the eulogy he delivered that morning. “[Connor] made an impact on all of us, and I thought it was important for the message to be, that those young men over time, they will grieve, but it was truly important for us to capture the spirit of Connor Darcey. To carry it on because the true tragedy would be if his legacy died at the moment we left the church.”

The outpouring of support was overwhelming. But Tambroni had a point, and it coincided with Bill Darcey’s biggest fear. In a few short days, the supporters that graciously voyaged from across the country would make the return trip home. Then what? Would the memory of Connor Darcey fade, or would the ripple effect that Tambroni spoke of continue to spread?

The Darcey family will forever be grateful for the sudden and comforting presence that was provided at the drop of a hat. Seemingly overnight, thousands flocked to Wellesley to pay their respects, provide assurance and spur the healing process. It got to the point where Bill Darcey began to wonder if there were enough hotel rooms in Wellesley to house the sudden rush.

Just over 48 hours following the accident, the wake was held at the George F. Doherty and Sons funeral home in Wellesley, and the Darceys were simply blown away. The services were slated to begin at 4 that afternoon, and run until 8. Bill and Penny Darcey got there at 2 to find a line already building. They stayed until 10 that evening, promising to meet with everyone who was there.

At times, the wait was over two-and-a-half hours. Outside, the line burst out of the florescent green door, traveled west down Washington Street, and ended at the Wellesley Public Library nearly a quarter-mile down the road.

The Penn State lacrosse team’s season had ended just three weeks prior, and at that point, they were spread out across the country for summer break. But in just two days, the entirety of the team managed to get to Wellesley for the services.

There they were, in their black tuxedos, sporting white Converse sneakers in honor of Connor. In the back of the funeral home, they celebrated Connor’s life in a way that was sure to gain his approval. Cases of beer were flowing in, country music was blasting and at the center of it all was Connor.

“It sounds disrespectful, but that is Connor, if he was looking down he would say ‘Oh my God, this is awesome, I’m so happy you did that,’” said Bill Darcey.

Connor was one of the best lacrosse goalies to ever come out of Massachusetts, but for as good of a player he was, he was an even better person. Youth players modeled their games after him, opposing coaches had nightmares about him, but that was an afterthought. He was humble, yet confident, and had a unique skill to bring everyone together and befriend everyone he met.

“The only reason everyone was hurt and everyone wanted to do so much, we don’t care about him as a lacrosse player, that is beyond secondary, the kid is a freak show human being,” Wellesley lacrosse coach Rocky Batty said.

Life Changing Night

A single ring of the phone pierced through the Darcey household in the middle of the night, and it was enough to wake Bill Darcey from his sleep. The clock read 2:40 a.m., but an uneasy feeling fell over him.

So he sent Connor a text message asking about his whereabouts, asking if everything was OK. He immediately received confirmation that everything was in fact OK.

“I assumed he was in town somewhere, for all I knew he was in bed,” Bill Darcey recalled of that night. “When you get the call in the middle of the night, you’re like ‘Oh, s***,’ it’s never a good thing.”

Rest assured, Connor was fine. At the time, he was on Commercial Street in Boston’s North End waiting for an Uber to take him to Charlestown, less than a mile away just across the Charles River.

Less than 10 minutes later, the Darcey family, and the Wellesley and Penn State communities lost an icon.

While waiting for the car service, Darcey and Harry James, a high school friend from the Wellesley class of 2012, popped into a 7-11. Inside, they we’re charging their phones, munching on late-night slices of pizza and trying on sunglasses. In essence, they were typical 21-year-olds.

Minutes later, a stranger walked into the convenience store looking to buy a pack of cigarettes, according to Bill Darcey. The man entered alone, but left as a party of three. The trio sparked up a conversation during their brief encounter, as Bill tells it, and he offered to drive them.

So they strolled out to the parked BMW convertible. Connor’s phone was buzzing, as the Uber driver had arrived and was searching for his late-night passengers. Darcey grabbed shotgun with James filing in behind him in the back seat.

The ride lasted 11 seconds. Less than a quarter mile from the convenience store, in front of Steriti Skating Rink and where Commercial Street takes a sharp curve in front of Boston’s Inner Harbor, the BMW struck a parked GMC and flipped over. All three passengers were violently ejected from the vehicle. The 27-year old driver and Darcey were pronounced dead at the scene. James was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital with serious, but non life-threatening injuries.

At 6 a.m., Bill Darcey was once again woken up by a phone call, this time from his mother asking about Connor. As time went by, the level of concern began to grow and panic began to set in. Will Darcey called area hospitals and police departments, but none would release any information.

Bill Darcey drove to the house of Connor’s girlfriend, Shannon. He searched every room, but found no sign of Connor. The feeling of despair was growing as he returned home.

Finally, the family was delivered the devastating news. A pair of Wellesley police officers showed up in the early morning to deliver the message they feared.

“I was getting a sinking feeling, it was like a movie, like in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ when the car pulls up, I got sick,” Bill Darcey recalled. “I saw the police car coming down the road, and I was hoping and praying that this wasn’t going to be my biggest nightmare, and the car pulled into my driveway and I just fell over.”

That moment sparked the beginning of an impossibly long day, a soul-searching week and a life-changing summer.

The first to receive word was Mike Jennings, a neighbor and best friend of the Darcey family. From there, word trickled out to the others, and Wellesley lacrosse coach Rocky Batty was one of the first to get the phone call.

He had just dropped his youngest son off at school and was driving home with his oldest son, Rocky Jr.. They were nearly 100 yards from his front door when his phone rang.

“He told me what happened and I fell apart,” Batty recalled. “The call was being played over Bluetooth on the speakers, and Rocky fell apart, and we couldn’t even get home.”

Tambroni was also among the first to receive word. At the time, he had just sat down at a tournament in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, a western suburb of Philadelphia, when he got the phone call from Bill Darcey. It took a few moments for the impact of the news to sink in, but he quickly gathered his belongings and piled into his car for the five-plus hour drive to the Darcey household.

“I knew there was no place I’d rather be than with that family and hoped I could provide some sort of support,” Tambroni said.

Batty added: “I’ll never forget, it felt like minutes later that a car pulls up at the Darcey house and coach Tambroni comes out, has a hat on, Penn State shorts, a t-shift and I believe he had a whistle on still. It looked like he got a call in the middle of a summer camp with a bunch of 9-year-olds having the greatest day of their lives and said ‘I’m leaving’, and teleported.”

Within 24 hours, Wellesley was the center of the lacrosse world. From Florida, California, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Canada, family and friends dropped what they were doing and made it to town.

But who was supporting whom? Those that made the trip felt they had to be there for the Darcey family to help them through most treacherous time of their lives. And the Darcey family was simply blown away for the support that came through in their greatest time of need.

But to some, it was the Darcey family that was the backbone to the community. For the brief period before the funeral, and the days that followed, Bill and Penny Darcey opened the doors to their house and invited everyone in. In that situation, some would push back, asking for solitude during a dark time.

“I was floored instantly by how [Penny] brought people in, Teddy, frankly the whole family did, as opposed to pushing everyone away and shutting everyone out,” Batty said. “A lot of healing went on because this family said a lot of people took a hit and somehow the Darceys said we could help them.”

While the wake over the weekend was the single-biggest showing of support, that morning’s lacrosse game was one of the most important. Pieced together by friends on Facebook, a pick-up game was scheduled at nearby Sprague Field. From across the state, young and old, players suited up to pay tribute. Youth lacrosse players were on the same field as 50-year-old men for the same cause. Teddy Darcey suited up to play goaltender, and on the sidelines was the Penn State lacrosse team.

“It gave me a little bit of happiness seeing all the Raiders flags in Wellesley that day,” Teddy Darcey said. “Seeing all of Connor’s teammates in different helmets, it was reliving to see them all playing lacrosse.”

Rivalries ceased to exist that morning. Team from across the state showed up to pay respects, including players from Walpole and Needham, the Raiders' two biggest foes in their league. But the biggest was Medfield, the Raiders’ chief rival from their years in Division 2. The Warriors knocked Wellesley out of the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, spanning from 2007 through 2011.

Medfield coach John Isaf took his senior captains Sam Hurley and Will Murphy to represent his team. The Raiders’ postseason run was still ongoing, needing just two wins to clinch their second consecutive Div. 2 State Championship. But for the remainder of that push, high above their sidelines, Medfield was flying the Wellesley flag.

“Connor Darcey was a great competitor and a great lacrosse player and a great kid, and something like that is tragic so we wanted to do something to honor his name,” Isaf said.

For a week straight, the Darcey household was the scene of late nights, deep talks and the sharing of everyone’s favorite Connor Darcey stories. It was the only remedy at that moment.

“You can’t be alone. Alone is bad,” Bill Darcey said. “You can’t sleep. I mean even now, you don’t sleep, your mind just goes into all these bad things.”

The week following Connor’s death, Will Darcey was set to move out to Chicago for a job, and after seven days, the once-boisterous household began to fall silent. Those who came to pay their respects slowly began to trickle home.

The family owns a cottage in Michigan, and they spent a majority of their summer in the Midwest. There, the healing process truly got underway.

Built Ford Tough

Long before Connor became a lacrosse superstar, his older brother, Will, paved the path. During his early grade-school years, Bill Darcey was looking to get him involved in a spring sport. The first attempt was a complete disaster.

The first crack was awarded to soccer, as Bill brought Will to “Kinderkick Soccer” in Wellesley. He lasted one day before the father yanked him out of the program.

“We’re not a soccer family,” Bill Darcey said. “I volunteered to coach, we tried it with Will and it was so bad, we got him out of there and never even tried with Connor.”

So now what? Mike Jennings was running the youth lacrosse program in Wellesley, and was looking for assistant coaches. So he turned to Bill, and by association, Will got his start in lacrosse. From there, he developed into a defensive long pole for the Raiders.

The path was blazed for Connor to follow suit. At the youth level of lacrosse, kids are typically introduced to all positions on the field and continue to rotate until the later stages of the program. From an early age, Connor showed advanced hand-eye coordination, so he spent a majority of his time playing goaltender.

Playing that position at the youth levels can be painstaking. It is often filled with countless minutes of boredom, as offensive players are still in their stages of infancy. It got to the point where Penny Darcey went up to Mike Jennings and asked why Connor was in net, fearing that he would leave the sport.

Jennings responded: “Penny, leave his lacrosse career to me. He’s good, trust me.”

With a statement like that, Connor had to back it up -- and he certainly did. For goalies, the Achilles’ heel, so to speak, is the thumb. It’s the equivalent of a basketball player’s ankle, or the elbow to a pitcher. The thumb is often the first thing that breaks, and needs added protection.

Connor was the first goalie in the family, and didn’t have the correct equipment to protect his biggest asset. At the time, Jennings was fixing up his 1951 Ford pickup truck, and saw an opportunity. He welded off a part of the fender of the vehicle and built it into the gloves. He spent hours of work building his custom gloves, but the steel from the ’51 Ford was virtually impenetrable.

“It’s beautiful, and it’s better than any goalie gloves he spent $300 on after that,” Batty chimed.

There was nothing conventional about his approach to the game, but it worked. He was always known for his wide stance while manning his post, something that drove the coaches crazy. Batty spent a month trying to change his positioning, before he realized that it wasn’t going to change, and that was for the better.

“He could see the future, he was superhuman,” Batty explained. “He knew how to bait a kid, knew where the pass would come from two passes ahead, he could move defensive players without telling them, and I spent a month trying to change everything I could about him.”

Remarkably, Connor’s path to stardom was aligned years before he emerged as top-caliber goaltender. In 2005, Mike Stone graduated from Wellesley High School. He was one of the greatest lacrosse players to ever come out of the Raider system, going on to star in Major League Lacrosse for the Boston Cannons.

But after he graduated, the Stone family sold their house in Wellesley, and Penny Darcey always had a keen eye for the property. When it went on the market in 2005, she turned to Bill Darcey, saying, “We are going all in.”

The Darceys bought the house. When Connor walked through for the first time as an 11-year-old, there was one room that stuck out from the others: Mike Stone’s room. The door was covered in lacrosse stickers, as was the interior of the room. Stone also left behind his Wellesley varsity jacket, something Connor wouldn’t let out of his sights.

“He just saw it and fell in love with it, he looked at us and goes, ‘this is my room now,’” Bill Darcey recalled.

Shortly after moving in, the Darceys had the house painted, but made one thing very clear to the contractors: leave Connor’s room alone. But somehow the message was minced, and Connor returned to his doorway with all the stickers removed and a fresh coat of paint.

“He was distraught for days,” Bill Darcey said with a laugh. “For a week he went out around crying ‘’What did you do to my room!’”

But the future was cemented from that point on, as the room was passed on from local legend to local legend. By the time Connor walked onto the varsity lacrosse field for the first time as a freshman he was not only the starting goalie, but also the leader, the heartbeat of the team.

The goaltender is the quarterback of the defense, barking assignments and sliding his defenders around. Taking orders from a freshman was difficult at first, but Dacrey backed it up with his play. Will and Connor played two seasons together at Wellesley before the elder graduated in the spring of 2010. Connor was instinctive between the pipes, and while the relationship between the two was always good, the duo would go at it during games.

“We are a very transparent family, we tell it like it is and they would never sugarcoat it,” Bill Darcey said. “Connor was in charge back there, he’s telling Will what to do, telling the defense what to do and they would get into heated arguments.”

Connor Darcey led the Raiders to the postseason each of his four years while manning the cage. During the first three playoff trips, Medfield proved to be Wellesley’s kryptonite as the Warriors eliminated the Raiders each season. During his senior year, Wellesley fell to undefeated Concord-Carlisle in the Div. 2 East Sectional in an epic 5-4 contest.

While his high school playing days may have come to a close, his career was far from over. Darcey was arguably the best goaltender to ever come out of the state, and it didn’t take long for him to garner the attention from Division 1 coaches at the collegiate level.

Penn State was one that drew immediate attention from Connor, and it didn’t take long for the stellar goaltender to make a verbal commitment to the Nittany Lions. At the time, they were a member of the Colonial Athletic Association, but were set to join the Big Ten in 2015.

From the first moment that Tambroni met Connor, he was immediately impressed by the then-high school student’s maturity. Darcey had the skill set to play at that level, there was no question of that, but it was the intangibles that set him apart.

“In our world, in the recruiting world, talent typically puts itself at the forefront of your interests,” Tambroni said. “I watched him play and he stuck out as a player, but also as a leader off the field. When I met him, I was impressed with his maturity and poise, and you like that in a goalie.”

The first year was not easy on Connor. For the entirely of his lacrosse career, he was the best player on the field, spent every minute of every game between the pipes and saw otherworldly success. But the hopes of touching the field his freshman season were dashed early as the coaching staff decided to redshirt him for the year. Instead, his life revolved around meetings, nutritionists, physical therapists, fitness trainers and practice time.

“Every stage was a little bigger as he grew up, but he always filled the stage wherever he was, and I think that first year was hard,” Bill Darcey said.

In his first season on the varsity roster, Darcey saw the field for the first time in the season opener against Michigan, but the season itself was a let down. Darcey only played twice that season, making another appearance against Towson two months later, and made four saves.

But his redshirt sophomore season is where he got the break he was hoping for. He was named the starting goaltender before the year began, and logged all but 90 seconds of Penn State’s 847-plus minutes. He stopped over 55 percent of his shots, allowed a hair over 10 goals per game and was named to the Big Ten all-tournament team after making 17 saves against top-seeded Johns Hopkins in the conference tournament. The Nittany Lions lost that game 14-9 ending their season, but it was arguably the best game of his collegiate career.

Darcey still had two seasons of eligibility remaining, and with the goaltending solidified for the foreseeable future, Penn State was hoping to be a top-five program over his final two seasons.

When Connor returned home to Wellesley in May of 2015 for summer break, Bill asked him if it was all worth it.

Connor was lying down on the couch, covered from head to toe in starburst bruises from that 17-save performance. One stop that came off the stick of Hopkins’ star attackman Ryan Brown embedded the screen-printed logo of the lacrosse ball within the bruise itself.

“He’s mentally and physically battered, but he laid there and told us it was all worth it,” Bill Darcey explained.

Waiting in the wings

In the spring of 2009, Teddy Darcey and Rocky Batty struck up a deal. Darcey was eight years old at the time, but was one of the biggest supporters of the team. He was at every game, watching his brothers play on the turf of Sprague Field with a lacrosse stick in hand, a stick that was taller than he was.

Before an early season game, Batty called over to the young supporter and he came sprinting over to the bench. The two made a pact that before every game, there had to be a handshake of some sort before the contest got underway.

“I remember yelling ‘Hey Teddy-Ted’ and he came running over and I made a deal with him,” Batty said. “You know, just something has to happen and all right, now we can go win a game.”

For four years that tradition carried on, as Connor Darcey’s Raiders went 54-23, but more importantly 37-5 over the second half of that span. But then there was a lull. Connor graduated in 2012, and Teddy didn’t come through the ranks until the spring of 2015.

But sure enough, during that three-year absence, Rocky and Teddy kept the tradition alive, finding a way to meet up before each game until Darcey made the varsity roster last March.

Teddy Darcey wasn’t always a goaltender. He came up through the youth program as an attackman, but admits he wasn’t very good at it. So thus began the transformation to the position of goalie, and who better to learn the game from than the best player at the position?

Connor was at Penn State at the time, but he found the time to teach his young brother the position and adapted nearly every aspect of his game, right down to the unconventional wide stance that still bothers Batty to this day. But it worked for Connor, so it stayed.

Both wore uniform No. 1, both had a wild mop they called a haircut and both utilized the same stance. But make no mistake about it, Teddy Darcey is blazing his own trail. Throughout his life, he’s been known as “Little Darce,” but now it is his time to shine.

“I don’t want to be Connor, but I want to be similar,” Teddy explained. “I want to go my own route, but I also know that Connor is behind me in all of this.”

His freshman season, he started the final six games when Tim Rahill, the starting goaltender, went down with an injury. Darcey’s Raiders went 4-2 during that stretch, and nearly upended No. 5 Xaverian in the opening round of the Div. 1 South tournament, ultimately falling by a goal.

The future looked bright for the freshman, but lacrosse immediately took a backseat. Less than two weeks after that crushing loss to the Hawks, Wellesley and the Darcey family was dealt the crushing blow that takes lifetimes to heal.

While the season didn’t begin for another nine months, Wellesley lacrosse changed that day. Batty has always respected the ancestral roots of the game, a sport than has been around for centuries, and the bigger picture came into view.

“There is a respect for its ancestral roots and what it can mean and has meant for a lot of folks who have played,” Batty explained. “If you look at a lot of the natives, it’s the creator’s game, there is a religious aspect of the game, so it’s played for bigger purpose. It’s a game that has a spiritual component and I think we often have lost that.”

It was a long offseason for Teddy. He played ice hockey this winter, but it was nothing like lacrosse. Finally the season came to a close and the spring season was just around the corner.

First came tryouts, and two weeks later after being named the starting goaltender, the first game on the schedule came into view. On April 2, Wellesley had their first game of the season against Melrose -- at Sprague Field, no less -- and it was an emotional day for all involved.

“My mom and dad were telling me to stay calm and just play my game, but it was emotional,” Teddy Darcey said. “Everything took on a whole different meaning and before every game or practice I just wanted to play for [Connor] and wanted to protect his goal, it’s a whole other meaning to him.”

Wellesley earned a postseason berth for the 14th consecutive year with a 9-9 regular season record, but once again ran into the pride of the Catholic Conference as Xaverian ran away with a 13-5 win in the opening round of the Div. 1 South tournament.

Darcey has two years remaining as a member of the Raiders, but his college decision has already been made. This past fall, he made his verbal commitment to play at Penn State, following in his brother’s footsteps. Connor may have opened the window, but it was Teddy’s play that earned the offer.

He will have to squeeze in a year as a post-graduate, reclassifying for the 2019 school year, but in three years he will walk onto the campus as a Nittany Lion.

“I wanted to play lacrosse in college, Connor opened the doorway and I stuck my foot in there,” Teddy explained. “I thought about it, it’s such a great school, and Connor had a blast even though he say on the bench for two years and it motivated me to go there.”

Carrying the waves to shore

It has been nearly a full year since that pebble fell, causing a horrific splash. But 12 months later, the residual ripples are as strong as ever.

“It has always been my biggest fear,” Bill Darcey said one rainy May evening. “It really started in my eulogy, my fear was that someone like Connor would be forgotten, and I think that’s impossible now.”

It is truly unfathomable to comprehend how many ways that his legacy has been kept alive in a relatively short span.

The obvious begins with Teddy Darcey. He is nearly a spitting image of Connor during game days. But in two short years, Darcey will move on from Wellesley High School, although he will walk in the same footsteps at Penn State.

What is the next step to ensuring that his memory is kept alive?

Immediately following graduation on June 3, the bulldozers took to Wellesley’s deteriorating football field and begin tearing it up. Over the summer, artificial turf will be installed, and the stadium will be renamed Darcey Field.

“In some 30 years, some girl will play a field hockey game and she will be able to read a story about this wonderful, wonderful Connor Darcey,” said Batty. “These waves will turn into these ripples again, and it will benefit generations of kids.”

The funding was made possible seemingly overnight. In the weeks following Connor’s death, a group of family friends birthed the idea and pitched it. Bill was certainly on board, but a million dollars, that seemed a little far fetched.

“They said give me two weeks, and I couldn’t believe it,” Bill remarked. “They had a small list, made calls and raised over a million dollars, and I’m blown away, it happened.”

Connor never played at the stadium field, playing the entirely of his career at Sprague Field, less than a mile from the school. But for the final two years of his career, Teddy will get that opportunity thanks in part to his older brother.

At Penn State, Tambroni similarly pulled together the community to ensure that Connor isn’t forgotten. On April 30, before the Nittany Lions final home game of the season against Big Ten rival Michigan, the team’s locker room was dedicated to Darcey in an emotional afternoon for all. Inside, there is a plaque with his name on it that players touch when they walk out to the field.

“We can’t ever bring him back, we can’t ease the pain, but we can provide a glimpse of Connor in someone, so that one day they will look out there and maybe it will remind them of Connor, so we’ll carry the torch and keep him alive.”

It was beautiful mid-April afternoon on Lindon Street in Wellesley. Batty was speaking to this reporter when a pair of roughly 12-year-old youth lacrosse players came walking by. The boys were returning with lunch in hand from The Lindon Store, just down the road, when Batty called them over, a bit hesitant at first as they squinted through the late afternoon sun.

The pair approached the table, with a red-haired freckled boy sporting a pair of Wellesley lacrosse shorts with a red “1” and a blue “6” embroidered into the right side.

After a quick back-and-forth, Batty asked “Who are you wearing those for?”

The freckled child lit up and without missing a beat he replied, “Connor Darcey!”

It had been nearly 10 months since that tragic day last June, and this child likely never had the luxury of watching Darcey at his post, and certainly doesn’t fully understand his significance quite yet. But it is those moments that prove that Connor Darcey’s legacy won’t soon be forgotten.

The initial splash may have subsided, but the ripples continue to carry on.