ORLANDO, Fla. — Tara Connell didn’t see her son’s last text until hours after she found out he was never coming home.

Cory Connell, 21, told his mother June 11 he was going to the Pulse nightclub with his girlfriend Paula Blanco and her teammates from the Orlando Anarchy, an all-female football team he helped coach. The women wanted to teach him to salsa.

Later that night, Tara Connell texted her son “Have fun. Be safe. I love you.” Then her phone battery died. She was awakened early the next morning by her other children with news that Cory had been among 49 people shot to death at the club.

In Cory’s final text to his mom, he wrote, “See you tomorrow. I love you, too.”

The 2013 Edgewater High School graduate known for his selflessness will be remembered at his alma mater’s annual awards ceremony for graduating seniors, when recipients of scholarships named in his honor will be revealed.

His parents said they are grateful to Edgewater — which retired Cory’s No. 81 football jersey at a game in August — and the parent-teacher-student association for the honor of $1,000 annual scholarships to two college-bound seniors.

The scholarships will be awarded to one male student and one female student who have good grades and mirror the values and traits Cory demonstrated on and off the Edgewater campus, according to the application form and the PTSA.

“You always want your kid to grow up and do the right thing and realize life isn’t all about you,” said James Connell, Cory’s dad. “That’s why we’re so proud of him.”

The Connells also thanked Publix, where Cory worked, and College Park, where the family lived. But James Connell stopped naming names, afraid he’d forget someone who had sent a sympathy card, a note of encouragement or who prayed for them.

“We got that incredible love.” he said. “I’d just like to thank the people. That is very important for me to get out there, to thank these people who were there for us.”

He said he prays for mothers and fathers who lose children to less publicized tragedies and don’t feel the love of an empathetic community.

Tara Connell, who works at a hotel near SeaWorld Orlando, said cards and letters she received comfort her.

“I’ve read and kept every one,” she said. “I’ve read them 100 times at this point. . It was sad at first, but it’s therapeutic now. I’m in a different (emotional) place than I was.”

She said the “beautiful words” helped the family understand Cory’s impact on their community and private testimonials from his peers lifted their spirits.

She’s also grateful more than ever for cellphone pictures and videos of Cory taken by his girlfriend and his younger sister, Amanda.

“There’s so many memories we have now . that we wouldn’t have. I thank God every day for that. I can hear his voice.”

Like Cory, the Connells’ other children graduated from Edgewater High — Ryan, 26, in 2008; Ashley, 24, in 2010; and Amanda, 19, last year.

Cory, who aspired to be a firefighter, was posthumously named an honorary Orange County firefighter last year. Firefighters at Station 50, located near the nightclub, gave his parents a firefighter’s helmet marked with their son’s name.

The parents later helped firefighters give presents to needy children during the Christmas holiday. The gifts were given in Cory’s name.

“We’ve tried to give back,” James Connell said.

The tragedy changed how he reacts to life’s aggravations.

“I’m not going to cuss you out for cutting me in traffic — you know what I’m saying? Is it that serious?” he said.

But life without Cory is still a struggle, he said.

“I still don’t accept the fact,” James Connell said. “I just think . he’s at college, he’s at school. I know that’s not the case, but it’s the way I deal with it.”

The family also maintains their son’s 2008 fire-engine red Ford Mustang GT as a reminder of his spirit. It’s parked in his older brother Ryan’s garage.

“I couldn’t look at it every day,” his mother said.

Ryan and his siblings regularly wash and wax it and occasionally start up the car Cory called “Eleanor.” He borrowed the name from a Ford Mustang in the movie thriller “Gone in 60 Seconds,” which gave the car a starring credit.

“It was his pride and joy,” his sister Ashley said.

His father sometimes sits in it and listens to the radio, set to K92.3, an Orlando country music station.

Looking forward to the awards ceremony Wednesday, Tara Connell recalled a young woman at a family gathering for Cory’s 22nd birthday telling her that Cory’s kindness made her want to be a better person.

“I think the scholarship has a lot do to with that,” Tara Connell said. “Leave an impact, make a difference.”


Information from: Orlando Sentinel, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/