A retired Army colonel, Pat Connors has a special appreciation for the sacrifices made by members of the armed forces, so when Connors and his wife, Karen, became Florida Citrus Sports members in 2006 — while Connors was still enlisted, no less — it was only natural that they turned it into a way to give back to the military community.
Shortly after joining the organization, the couple started a military affairs committee that works, in part, to provide special bowl memories for Wounded Warriors in the Central Florida area.
“We started it with the goal of giving them a good experience for the day with their families,” said Karen Connors, herself an Army brat. “We bring them to FanFest, let their kids play, give them nice seats. We’ve had as many as 12 Wounded Warriors to a game and we assign sponsors to each one of them so we have a Florida Citrus Sports board member escort that family all day, whatever they need.”
Often, those servicemen and women get the chance to be honorary team captains, an experience that includes participation in the coin toss before the Citrus and Camping World Bowl games.
“We find them, and since we’re on the field anyway as bowl hosts, we get them to where they need to be introduce them to everybody, all the VIPs,” Pat Connors said. “The teams provide swag, they go out for the coin flip, then they go to their seats, with club access, and enjoy the game.”
Over the years, the Connorses have made connections with dozens of veterans through Florida Citrus Sports, and for Karen, there’s one story, in particular, that stands out.
“One of them never walked without a cane,” she said. “He wasn’t young, probably 50, and he worked and worked and worked and worked because his goal was to walk on the field. He made sure he could walk at least to mid-field and back unaccompanied because he didn’t want his family, his children and his relatives to see him on television with the cane. The progress he made was amazing.”
“To have them have fun for the day and not think about their daily lives and their kids get to see their parents as the heroes they are, and that’s cool,” Pat Connors added. “It’s super-gratifying for Karen and me.”
In many cases, the military affairs committee’s support of veterans extends beyond the games, as well.
“We’ve made lifelong connections from this,” Pat Connors said. “A lot of times we’ll seek out veterans that we know need this. They need to get out there. They might be having trouble adjusting or might be new to town, or whatever the case may be, but we use the game as an introductory thing.
“And once we establish a relationship with them — Karen is on the Orange County veterans advisory council, we’re both on (mayor) Buddy Dyer’s veterans advisory council, I’m a board member of the Camaraderie Foundation, which focuses on invisible wounds of war — then you can start to assess their need for further services within the community.”
And beyond the football, the events and chances to volunteer as team hosts, it’s the opportunity to follow their passions that is one of the most satisfying aspects of Florida Citrus Sports membership.
“I’m an engineer, and I’m sitting in the same room with doctors, lawyers, bankers, secretaries, retirees, and our common interest is the community and college football,” Karen Connors said. “There are very few organizations that are agnostic. It doesn’t matter where you come from. It doesn’t matter if you are retired, if you’re full time working, if you’re a housewife, if you’re into the defense industry, you’re still part of this family. And they give back to the community and help build it in a unique way.”