Teddy Darcey is one of the first to hit the field ahead of Penn State’s matchup against Yale.
It’s late February, but it’s nearly 50 degrees. The anticipation for the game between the top two teams in the country grows as fans file into Panzer Stadium in University Park.
Darcey warms up with his fellow goalies. He faces shots from his teammates and coaches. His brother Connor’s No. 16 is at his back in goal, sewn into the net in which he used to defend.
The No. 16 is everywhere within the Penn State men’s lacrosse program. That’s how head coach Jeff Tambroni and his staff want it to be.
Connor died in a single-car accident in the early morning of June 12, 2015, less than two months removed from his redshirt sophomore season at Penn State.
After he delivered the eulogy at Connor’s funeral on June 15, Tambroni promised the Darceys that their son’s memory would become a pillar of Penn State’s program.
Teddy knew when he committed that there would be constant reminders of his brother, his best friend, his role model.
He would see remnants of Connor’s legacy everywhere – a memorial in the locker room, on the Panzer Stadium scoreboard, on the jersey of one of his teammates.
But when Teddy made the decision to attend Penn State, his parents made it clear to him: this is about you.
“We didn’t want Teddy to try to fill the shoes of Connor. We wanted him to walk in his own shoes and make his own path,” Penny Darcey, Teddy’s mother, told the Daily Collegian. “We just want him to have his own story and his own experiences at school.”
It didn’t take Teddy too long to decide where he wanted to spend his college years.
He garnered looks from colleges after earning the starting goalkeeper job as a freshman at Wellesley High School.
When Penn State expressed interest, he reciprocated, officially committing in January of 2016.
“That was sort of a relief for us,” Penny said. “Because if you think back then, we were in the height of our grieving and we were still really raw. And, to have that one aspect ... resolved and not hanging over us was a real gift.”
The Darceys knew what they were getting in Penn State because of their experiences with Connor. Penny said she felt especially comfortable putting her son Teddy in the care of Tambroni and his staff.
Penny thought to herself that some people on the outside would view the situation as Penn State doing the Darceys a favor after their son died, despite the fact that Teddy was rated a three-star recruit by Inside Lacrosse.
So when Tambroni and his staff assured them otherwise, the Darceys were sold.
“The thing that I remember most about [the recruiting process] was they said that they wouldn't recruit him just because he was Connor’s brother. They were recruiting him because he was a legitimate recruit in his own right,” Penny said. “And I think that was so key for us to even say yes and consider it.”
Once he arrived on campus, the Darceys hoped that Teddy — as much as possible — was looked at as just another one of the freshmen class. No special treatment.
That held true when it was time to pick numbers in the fall.
Teddy went through the process the same way his peers did. The jerseys of seniors that had graduated in the last year were put on display, and the freshmen each selected the number they wanted.
It just so happens that one number stood out to Teddy: 17.
“Teddy came out and called us and was like, ‘Oh my God, 17 was there and I picked it,’” Penny said.
That No. 17 jersey became available following the graduation of defenseman Mike Aronow following the 2019 season. The lone redshirt senior on the team in 2019, Aronow was the last Nittany Lion to suit up alongside Connor.
The jersey is symbolic to the Darcey family in its own right. It’s a combination of the No. 1 that both Teddy and Connor wore in high school and the No. 16 that has become symbolic of Connor’s spirit in the years since his death.
“[Teddy selecting No. 17] couldn’t have made us happier,” Penny said. “It just seemed so right.”
At Penn State, it has become a tradition for the No. 16 to be passed down from the current bearer to a rising senior who embodies the spirit of Connor, and Teddy’s anticipated arrival did not change that.
Tambroni and associate head coach Peter Toner wanted to continue honoring Connor the same way they have since his death.
“That was our promise that we made to the Darceys when all this stuff went on,” Toner said. “I mean, they were so great to us when they were going through a tragedy, and our promise back to then — while we couldn’t fix the situation that they were in — was to do our very best to help carry his legacy, to tell the stories of what he meant to our program, what he continues to mean to our program.”
Tambroni and Toner’s offices are decorated with photos and memories of Connor. The No. 16 jersey is memorialized inside the Nittany Lions’ locker room.
The tradition of handing the symbolic jersey down started when James Burke, a close friend of Connor’s, wore it in the 2016 season.
He passed the jersey down to Matt Sexton, who passed it to Ryan Keenan in 2018. Keenan selected defenseman Chris Sabia to wear the jersey in 2019, making him the first player to wear the jersey not having shared the field with Connor.
“For coach Tambroni and I, we’re the only ones left that had that experience [with Connor],” Toner said. “I mean, there’s nobody left in this program that had the opportunity to play with him. There were guys that met him through the recruiting process a little bit.
“But that legacy has been passed on from year to year by his former teammates and us as coaches, and the stories that have been passed down are still alive within that 16 jersey, and we try to keep him as relevant as we can within the program just to carry on his spirit.”
The No. 16 jersey was passed down to its fifth bearer in the spring when Sabia selected fellow defenseman Nick Cardile to don the number in the 2020 season.
Once the decision was made, Cardile didn’t hesitate to reach out to the Darceys when given the opportunity. He spoke to Teddy’s father, Bill, in the fall before meeting Penny at the team’s annual freshmen picnic.
“He said, ‘I just didn’t know what to do when I was made 16,’” Penny remembers. “He said, ‘I ended up staying here all summer and working out because I knew if I was going to wear the No. 16, I had to do it proud.’”
And while he knew he had to make some changes to live up to the expectations that the honor brought with it, Cardile also made it a point to not stray too far from what earned him the privilege.
“Obviously you have to step into a leadership role as a captain or to wear No. 16, but at the same time, you were chosen to be No. 16 and you were chosen to be a captain because of your résumé, not because of what you're going to do,” Cardile said in January. “So I think you have to stick to who you are, but at the same time, enhance the levels of communication, leadership.”
It’s a choice that Toner, who specializes in defense, felt was a wise one.
“If you asked our entire team, [Cardile is] probably one of the guys everyone would say who's got some of the most personality on our team that you see every single day,” Toner said. “And he wears it on his sleeve a little bit, much like Connor used to.”
The fun-loving attitude coupled with his fierce competitiveness is what Toner and Tambroni agree makes Cardile the ideal bearer of the No. 16 jersey.
Cardile entered the season in an unprecedented situation. His coaches can certainly evaluate how he is honoring the legacy of Connor, but an even more qualified set of eyes enters the fold when Teddy is around Cardile and the team on a daily basis.
“That definitely takes on a new meaning,” senior goalie Colby Kneese said of Cardile wearing the honorary jersey this year. “You have someone with you every day that really can put you to the test of, are you holding Connor’s legacy up?”
Cardile didn’t view the unique situation as any more added pressure. He knew going into the year what the expectations would be, and he wasn’t afraid to ask for help when he needed it.
Cardile reached out to Sabia for some advice multiple times over the course of the season. And as someone who only met Connor a handful of times on recruiting visits, he made an effort to learn more about Connor the person as well.
“Sometimes I’ll text Connor’s friends who were on the team like James Burke and all the older guys to get their perspective of Connor just to try to understand it more,” Cardile said.
Through these efforts, Cardile and Teddy have naturally grown close to one another, and Cardile has become not only a friend, but also a mentor.
“That's been a pretty neat connection that they've started to form...,” Toner said. “[Their] senior-to-freshman relationship I know is something that we've tried to really cultivate here.”
On the field, Teddy worked to find his place over the course of the season.
“When you're a freshman, that's challenging enough to figure out what your role is,” Toner said. “And then to be a freshman goalie is probably even more challenging just because you're one of four guys that are in that position.”
It’s rare in lacrosse for teams to rotate goalies in and out of games. Couple that with the fact that Penn State’s three other goalies have prior experience with the team, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Teddy didn’t see much playing time in the 2020 season.
He entered the year recovering from a knee injury, which hampered his chances of making an impact in fall ball. He also had to get through the awkward early stages of being one of the new players on a team that is already tight-knit.
Once the spring season rolled around, Teddy’s coaches and teammates saw improvements out of him.
Cardile noted that Teddy, a communications major, started to get used to the academic rigors of college and even started to enjoy his classes. Toner saw his impact as a teammate grow on the sidelines and in practice.
“Just finding ways to contribute to the team, I think that's been his mindset,” Toner said in early March. “How can I be a great teammate? How can I contribute in some way? Whether it's energy at practice, whether it's cheering on his teammates when they're in the goal or it's jumping into goal himself and making a play or two or stop or two and giving the guys on the sideline an energy boost.”
In the midst of a career year for the starter Kneese, Teddy embraced something new — a supporting role.
“He loved his position on the sideline,” Penny said. “He and Colby had a special connection, and he would try to keep him upbeat during games and stuff like that, so I feel like he found his role.”
Teddy wouldn’t go the whole season without getting the chance to showcase his abilities in a game, though.
In the second game of Penn State’s spring break trip to the Carolinas, the Nittany Lions dominated Furman by a score of 22-7. Before the final buzzer could sound in Greenville, SC, Tambroni gave all four goalies a chance to get on the field.
Teddy entered the game with 1:13 left to play. He ensured the 22-7 score would stand, making a save before the clock hit zero.
It was a moment the Darceys had been waiting for, but a bittersweet one at that.
After the game, Teddy’s family joked with him that he had a perfect save percentage on the season.
They also remembered Penny’s father, John Rosebrough, who longed to see Teddy suit up in goal for Penn State. He died two years prior after a battle with cancer.
Before spring break came to a close, Penny’s stepmother, Mary, wanted to recreate something that Penny’s father had done right after Connor’s death. As a sign of appreciation for the teammates who supported his grandson at Penn State, John gathered the team for a bonding event.
After the Furman game, the Darceys did the same, treating all of the players to an afternoon at Topgolf.
They wouldn’t know it then, but the trip would be the Nittany Lions’ last event together as a team in 2020.
On the bus ride back to State College, Penn State players and coaches heard the news that the NCAA was canceling the remainder of the collegiate athletics season due to the spread of the coronavirus in the United States.
For a team that had hopes of contending for a National Championship, the news came as a crushing blow.
Despite two early losses to Yale and Cornell, Penn State was still considered to be title contenders. So many key members of the 2019 team that reached the Final Four — Cardile, Kneese, attackmen Grant Ament, Mac O’Keefe and Dylan Foulds, faceoff specialist Gerard Arceri — were back with hopes of ending their careers in blue and white with a championship in 2020.
And then that chance was gone.
Less than 48 hours after he got his first chance to showcase his talents in a game, Teddy came to terms with the fact that he’d have to wait almost an entire year to get the opportunity to do it again.
But while it certainly wasn’t the ending to the season that they had expected or hoped for, the Darceys take solace in the fact that Teddy’s first chapter of his Penn State journey ended on a high note.
“Actually, the season ended on the best note in the whole world for us...,” Penny said. “It was a really poetic night for our family that Teddy played, we had this event. We felt so close to Connor and my dad.”