During weightlifting class at Summerville High School last Wednesday, Cotter Smith already was looking forward to the weekend.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Three days until I get my Eagle,’” said fellow Boy Scout James LeCompte.
But the 17-year-old didn’t make it to the weekend or finish his Eagle Scout project, leaving local and national officials with Boy Scouts of America searching to figure out how best to honor him.
Wednesday evening, after a typical game of pick-up basketball in the driveway of his Pine Forest Country Club home, Cotter complained of back and chest pain.
Hours later, he died of an aortic dissection, the same trauma that took his father nearly a dozen years ago.
“It’s not something I expected would ever happen again to anyone in my family,” said Cotter’s mom, Ellen Carney. “He had no risk factors. He was extremely healthy and athletic.”
The teenager went into cardiac arrest once, and medical workers brought him back.
“The last thing he said to me was, ‘Mom, I’m going to be OK,’” she said. “He arrested again, and there was nothing else they could do.”
'A lot of loss'
Cotter was the middle child of Ellen and the late Spencer Smith, sandwiched between two sisters, Christine, 20, and Samantha, 15.
He was born with a left club foot and spent the first year of his life in a cast, his mother said.
“Until he was about 6, every time he ran, he fell down, and he would just get up and keep running,” she said.
Cotter was 5 when his father died and almost 15 when he lost his stepfather, Lamar Carney, in 2015.
“He had a lot of loss, and he weathered those storms,” Carney said.
Among Cotter’s passions were church league basketball, the Gamecocks and the Golden State Warriors, specifically Steph Curry. In December, his uncle, Glenn Churchill of Mount Pleasant, took him to a Warriors game, but an injured Curry didn’t play.
Every morning before leaving for school, the 11th-grader would read the sports page and kiss his dogs goodbye, his mother said.
“He was a quiet, behind-the-scenes kind of leader,” who recruited basketball teammates regardless of their talent, she said.
When a teacher denied a classmate’s request to go to the restroom during class, Cotter passed a petition through his fellow students to allow the boy to go, literally.
“In the last few days, people have told me so many stories about him,” she said. “He was so kind and so funny.”
'So close to finishing'
And then there was Scouts.
On Thursday, the day after Cotter’s death, members of Troop 2, which calls itself “The Deuce,” met at St. Paul’s Summerville, like they do every week. But instead of finalizing plans for a 50-mile trek through the Grand Canyon over Spring Break, they laughed and cried as they told stories about Cotter, the Scout who first proposed the canyon hike.
“It’s part of the process of healing,” said Troop Leader Mark Edwards, who met Cotter's family at Summerville Presbyterian Church shortly after they moved to town in 2006.
“One day his mother said, ‘Cotter needs to get around some other boys,’” said Edwards, whose son William is the same age. “So we got Cotter to join our Cub Scout troop. I remember when he first came, he would hold on to his mom’s legs. He would never go play with the other boys.”
Cotter soon found his place among a group that included William Edwards, William Kenney and Joe Justis.
“We just kind of grew up together,” Joe said. “We were always here for each other. Right now we are just trying to get through it and make sure we are all OK.”
With Troop 2, Cotter completed two 50-mile hikes, including one that raised $11,000 for bladder cancer in honor of Scoutmaster Glenn Justis’ late mother. He hiked the Grand Canyon, went to two National Jamborees and Florida Sea Base. He served as senior patrol leader, head of the troop.
“The kid has done a lot,” Edwards said.
And on his Eagle badge, he was oh-so-close.
Finishing the project was James LeCompte’s idea.
“I just feel like it’s something that needed to be done,” said the 10th-grader. “He was so close to finishing, and I just think it’s important for us to get it done so he can have that.”
The Scouts gathered on Saturday at the playground behind Sand Hill Elementary School — where Ellen Carney is the school nurse — to complete Cotter’s Eagle Scout project by building a gaga ball court.
As some boys drilled and hammered the octagonal court into place next to a swing set, others just talked.
“Cotter told me…”
“Remember when Cotter…”
To some, it seemed that Cotter was merely missing the Scouting event, but anyone who knew the teen knew that would never happen.
Now, troop leaders promise they’ll see to it that Cotter gets his Eagle rank posthumously, but Scout officials say that has to be determined through reviews at the local and national level.
“We appreciate this young man’s positive impact on his Troop, our organization and the community he served through Scouting,” said Coastal Carolina Council CEO Legare Clement in an email. “We are actively looking into how to best memorialize his contributions to Scouting, and help his family and friends heal.”
Cotter could also be eligible for the Spirit of the Eagle Award, a posthumous award, Clement said.
“Cotter literally had everything done for Eagle Scout,” Edwards said. “The Eagle award is not about doing. It’s the leadership, organizing, contacting the school, getting all the equipment and the kids to build it, organizing all the labor. As far as I’m concerned, he has met all the requirements.”
Scoutmaster Glenn Justis, currently on a four-month hike of the Appalachian Trail, has promised to give his own Eagle badge to Cotter, if necessary, and give him a Court of Honor as he does every other boy who reaches the Eagle rank, said his wife, Laine Justis.
“We will fight with everything we can to make sure he gets it,” she said.