Paddy Cotter’s career in sports journalism began with a whimper, not a bang.
His first assignment for the Daily Collegian — Penn State University’s student newspaper — came when Cotter was a freshman in the fall of 2016. It landed him outside a bar in State College, Pennsylvania. He was supposed to be inside, observing a dwarf-wrestling match.
But Cotter got carded and never made it through the front door. The hulking doorman ignored his declaration that he was a working journalist.
“A meathead bouncer wouldn’t let me in,” the Roanoke native recalled in an interview last week. Cotter returned to the newsroom chagrinned — and without a story.
He never stopped looking for more, however. And it wasn’t too long before Cotter stumbled upon a good one, while covering the university’s lacrosse team during its spring 2017 season.
He noticed the entire team had a strange obsession for a particular two-digit number. During practices, every time the players broke a huddle, they did it with a collective shout of “16!” Every time their coach ordered pushups, the players did 16. The number was prominent on the scoreboard at home games.
To Cotter, it seemed as if the entire program was built around a number — something atypical in Division I lacrosse. What was with that number? he wondered. And why? Cotter started asking questions. The answer proved to be really, really deep.
Four years later, you can see them for yourself at the Grandin Theatre. The debut of “16,” Cotter’s 68-minute feature documentary, occurs Saturday night. That’s a 68-minute sports documentary Cotter conceived, wrote and directed beginning when he was student. (He graduated from Penn State in 2020.)
A slightly shortened (52-minute) version will premiere June 27 on the Big 10 Network.
The movie’s about a high school all-American lacrosse goaltender, the late Connor Darcey of Wellesley, Massachusetts. Penn State lacrosse Coach Jeff Tambroni successfully recruited Darcey, who was sought after by more prominent lacrosse programs, such as Johns Hopkins and the University of Massachussetts.
Darcey, the middle child in a sports-minded family of three boys, sat out his freshman season (2013) at Penn State and began playing as red-shirt freshman in 2014, wearing the No. 16 jersey. He started in the position during Penn State’s 2015 season, which was also the university’s first year in Big 10 lacrosse.
His love for the game and his dedication to it infected teammates both in high school and college. I can’t do justice that here in this column. But you can hear it in their own words in “16.”
And then, during summer break on June 12, 2015, Darcey died suddenly in a freak car accident under freakish circumstances.
That night, Darcey and a close friend from high school, Harry James, went out for the evening in Boston’s North End. By late that night, both of their smartphones were dead when they tried to order a rideshare home.
They walked into a 7-Eleven, to charge their phones. Another customer in the store offered them a ride in his BMW convertible. They accepted. Darcey jumped in the front passenger seat; James sat in the rear.
The car crashed and overturned within seconds of leaving the 7-Eleven, Cotter said. The crash killed Darcey and the driver, whom authorities later said was drunk and under the influence of cocaine. James suffered minor injuries.
The grief in “16” that you see from Darcey’s parents, brothers, friends, teammates and coaches is palpable. Many of them weep through the interviews.
I asked Cotter about his biggest hurdles in making the movie. That involved gathering the trust of many people.
“It’s a very trust-based documentary,” Cotter said. “Most of the people I interviewed were these people I’d never met, who were reflecting on the worst moment in their lives and the depths of their grief.”
For the movie, Cotter gathered footage from Darcey’s childhood, as far back and his infancy and his days playing pee wee ice hockey and other sports. Cotter shows us Darcey’s final season at Wellesley, a public high school west of Boston. (They lost the 2013 state championship game that year.)
He’s also gathered Big 10 footage from Darcey’s Penn State games — and security video from the 7-Eleven store in Boston’s North End the night Darcey died. It’s horribly eerie, watching the last few carefree seconds of a young man’s life.
In all, Cotter winnowed down 10 terabytes of video into a final project of 12 gigabytes, which hints that he left about 90% of the material he gathered on the digital cutting room floor.
Some viewers might get misty as they watch the interviews with Darcey’s dad and mom, Bill and Penny Darcey, his older brother Will, younger brother Teddy, and friends, teammates and coach Jeff Tambroni.
“Little did we know the adversity or hurdles we’d face,” Tambroni says early in the movie.
The interesting thing is what happened following the funeral. In the months that followed, after many tears had dried, the Nittany Lions rejiggered their lacrosse program around Darcey’s memory.
“They decided to build their entire program around the identify of 16,” Darcey’s lacrosse jersey number. It’s bestowed on a worthy senior member of the team each year. And even today, there’s still a locker reserved for Connor Darcey in the Penn State locker room.
“They took the energy behind their grief and used it to build the bedrock of a national championship contender,” Cotter said. At least in that respect, “16” has a kind of happy ending.
Here’s the movie’s synopsis: “After a tragic accident involving star lacrosse goalie Connor Darcey, a team and a family is overwhelmed with grief. But together, they forge an impactful legacy that creates a national championship contender.”
Darcey’s younger brother, Teddy, plays goalie for the Nittany Lions lacrosse team today. Teddy and his dad will be in the audience at the Grandin on Saturday night.
Tickets are $10. If you like a true story that’s drenched with heart, perseverance and emotion, this one’s hard to beat. See you there.