Joe O'Connell of Cary might have passed away from complications from Cystic Fibrosis in November 2009, but that's not where his story ends. A tournament honoring his memory and helping fight against the disease that took his life continues every year.
A year before his death, the Roly Poly sandwich shop owner joined together with family and friends to start the Joey O Bocce Classic to help raise money for Cystic Fibrosis research.
They had been looking for a way to raise money for research and the idea of bocce was a perfect fit, his mother, Elana O'Connell, said Monday.
"He and his wife would play beach bocce all the time," Elana O'Connell said.
The first year was rough, but on that cold, rainy day they were still able to raise $8,000. The following year, the tournament moved to Joe's alma mater Cardinal Gibbons High School. Elana O'Connell remembers that warm day as "absolutely spectacular."
A few months after playing in that tournament, Joe became ill with a rare bacterial infection. He spent three months in Duke University Hospital's intensive care unit before passing away in November 2009. His daughter was born that September at the same hospital just two floors down from him.
Since his death, the tournament has continued on in his honor. Although, Joe attended Cardinal Gibbons before it moved to its current location, his mother said many people have said they feel he is on the field with them during the tournament.
"His spirit is alive the whole time. You feel Joe's presence when you are on that field playing bocce," she said.
Last year, the Joey O Bocce Classic raised $35,000. They hope to top $50,000 during this year's tournament on Sunday.
Team registration ended on Monday, but you can still go out there, support the cause and check out some great bocce.
There will be bounce houses and games for the children, raffles (including a basketball signed by UNC coach Roy Williams) and food.
Since Joe graduated from UNC, this year's tournament shirts will be Carolina Blue. They change the colors every year, but decided that every fifth year (until there is a cure for Cystic Fibrosis) they will make the shirts Carolina Blue.