January 8, 2012

‘I consider you family’

Dalton welcomes home J.R. Martinez

Charles Oliver

— His voice breaking, J.R. Martinez recalled his first visit home to Dalton from Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas in 2003 where he was being treated for burns on over 40 percent of his body.

He recalled a memorable reunion with some of his football teammates from Dalton High School.

“We had a little barbecue at Ryman Farm, just to talk about the old days. I’m sitting at a table with Aaron Ward and two girls,” he said. “I’m looking at the hamburger on my plate and saying, ‘I can’t put that in my mouth.’”

Martinez couldn’t open his mouth wide at that time because of the scarring on his face. And he couldn’t grip things very well because of the damage to his hands.

“So I sat there, and everyone is just going on talking. Finally, I thought ‘I’ve just got to try.’ So I picked up the burger and I went to take a bite, and everything fell out of it,” he recalled. “I felt so embarrassed, so embarrassed to be like that in front of my friends. But without saying anything, without skipping a beat, Aaron reached over, put my burger together and cut it up into little pieces. And I ate my burger.”

Martinez told a crowd of several thousand at the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center that was just one of the many ways, big and small, that Dalton welcomed him and gave him confidence during his recovery from injuries received in Iraq.

The crowd gathered to greet Martinez, whom many call an American hero, for “J.R. Martinez Day: A Welcome Home Celebration.”

As the Dalton High marching band played the school’s fight song, Martinez entered the trade center arena through the inflatable red and white Catamount helmet the team runs through before home games. Martinez played football for Dalton during his senior year.

The crowd stood and roared, many of them waving small American flags, while others held their cameras high to snap a shot of his entrance. Martinez bounded to the stage — grinning widely — and pumped his fist.

As the applause softened, Martinez took his seat on the stage alongside his mother, Maria Zavala. He shared the stage with many of his closest friends. Behind the stage was a large American flag backdrop.

For the next two hours, Dalton showed how much they appreciated him.

Martinez has become a national celebrity during the past three months with he and partner  Karina Smirnoff’s victory on the latest season of “Dancing With the Stars.” He was featured on the cover of People magazine. The magazine later selected him to appear in the “Sexiest Man Alive” issue.

But he won national acclaim and respect for his personal story, as well as his dancing. Martinez was driving a Humvee in Iraq in 2003 when its left front tire struck a land mine, leaving him with severe burns.

Martinez moved to Dalton in 2001 just before his senior year, and former Catamounts football coach Ronnie McClurg spoke of getting a phone call from Martinez asking him if he could try out for football.

“I asked him what year he was going to be and he said he would be a senior. I told him seniors don’t make good bench warmers. I said you’ll have to try out and make the squad,” he said. “Well, he accepted the challenge and came out for the team. Well, J.R. is perhaps the most encouraging young man I’ve ever been around. At that first practice, he had that contagious smile, and he was patting guys on the back, patting them on the helmet, patting them on the rear end, encouraging them. He was the most encouraging guy on the team, and he didn’t know any of them.”

McClurg told Martinez after just two practices that he had made the team based on his attitude. McClurg presented Martinez with the final jersey he wore in the state championship game with Statesboro in 2001.

That was just one of many honors given to Martinez, including the key to the city, a proclamation from the Dalton City Council and Whitfield County Board of Commissioners recognizing Jan. 7 as “J.R. Martinez Day,” a commendation from Gov. Nathan Deal and a flag that will fly in the Avenue of Flags outside the Whitfield County Courthouse on patriotic holidays.

While “Dancing With the Stars” was the nation’s first exposure to Martinez’s dancing skills, several speakers said they had long known that he could dance. Dalton High School Principal Debbie Freeman recalled Martinez trying to dance with teachers at school dances.

And former football teammate Mitchell Boggs said he also recalled Martinez trying to dance with the teachers.

“J.R. also tried to dance with my girlfriend. My girlfriend then is now my wife, so I’ve got my eye on you,” joked Boggs, who helped the St. Louis Cardinals win a World Series last year.

Martinez said that some people are born in their home and some people have to search for it. He was born in Shreveport, La., and lived there for nine years, then lived in Arkansas for eight years. But he said it wasn’t until he moved to Dalton that he felt home.

“I just want all of you to know. I don’t consider you fans. I consider you family,” he said.