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January 7, 2012

Jamie Jones: Welcome home again, J.R.

The voice on the telephone was some 800 miles away, in the heart of the hustle of New York City, a world away from his adopted hometown of Dalton.

The call was the beginning of a newspaper interview where the normal pleasantries are exchanged. Then, we would get down to business.

“Hi, this is Jamie Jones with The Daily Citizen newspaper. How are you doing?” I mindlessly asked.

I expected the rote reply of, “Fine. How are you?”

But the voice on the other end had a different response.

“Man, you don’t know how nice it is to hear that Southern drawl ...”

Taken aback, I let out a hearty laugh, and remarked that my accent wasn’t that noticeable.

Such was the beginning of a 45-minute conversation — it didn’t feel like a interview at all — in November 2008 with J.R. Martinez, a former Dalton resident who had recently begun an acting stint on ABC’s legendary soap opera, “All My Children.”

During that wide-ranging conversation, J.R. never shied away from a question. He spoke openly about his accident while serving in the Army in Iraq. In March 2003, he drove a military Humvee over a land mine, and the fiery explosion caused burns to more than 40 percent of his body. The flames left his face disfigured. Over the course of 34 months, J.R. endured 33 surgeries.

He detailed the dark days after the accident. The days he thought perhaps being dead was better than living with his physical scars. How women would turn their heads after seeing him.

But J.R.’s overall message was clear: hope. By playing the role of an injured military veteran who returns home on “All My Children” and being a motivational speaker, J.R. had the power to spread his message to countless others.

Over the next few years, J.R. and I spoke by phone for several stories. Our May 2011 conversation focused on his future, because the soap opera he starred on was being canceled after 41 years. Despite losing a job, J.R. remained upbeat about the opportunities before him.

This was just a few months before he hit stardom by winning “Dancing With the Stars,” before he appeared on the cover of People magazine, before he was the grand marshal for the Rose Bowl parade, before he returned to Dalton on Saturday for “J.R. Martinez Day: A Welcome Home Celebration,” which included a parade through downtown and a pep rally at the trade center.

His first welcome home parade happened in 2003. Supporters lined Walnut Avenue and packed the Kmart parking lot to welcome J.R. as he returned home for the first time since his devastating injuries.

On Saturday, I asked him to compare the two homecomings.

“They’re both so special, so different,” Martinez said. “The first one was really one of the reasons why I am where I am today. It catapulted me to understand that people can love me for who I am and not judge me based of my scars ... I remember thinking to myself, ‘Well, if nobody accepts me anywhere else in the country, I know I can come back to Dalton, Ga., and I’ll just be J.R., No. 36 who played on the Catamount football team ... And coming back now it’s a great feeling because I know I’ve made a lot of people proud.”

People who never before even considered watching “Dancing With the Stars” were suddenly glued to their television each Monday and Tuesday night. Even I watched the dancing show — all in the name of work. At least that’s what I told my friends and co-workers who needled me for watching a reality show.

He eventually won the contest, beating out celebrities that had better name recognition. But not a better story. Or better dancing skills.

There’s an old adage in the journalism world about always remaining objective, no matter the subject. There’s no cheering in the press box, so to speak.

But watching J.R. grind through weeks upon weeks of “Dancing With the Stars,” I found not rooting for the fellow Dalton High graduate difficult. In each story I wrote about his performance, remaining neutral in my coverage wasn’t always easy. J.R. advancing through the competition each week sold newspapers, and his success helped uplift Dalton.

We connect to multidimensional people such as J.R. for a variety of reasons. Maybe it’s because he’s a Dalton High graduate. Perhaps it’s because he’s Hispanic. A football player. A military veteran. A fighter. A dancer. A self-described goofball.

On his whirlwind trip back home, J.R. encountered a community that embraced him with the same vigor as when he arrived here from Hope, Ark., in the summer of 2001 as a 17-year-old kid who wanted to play football for the Dalton High School Catamounts.

Although his stay was brief, J.R. took in plenty of adoration.

And a nice helping of Southern accents, too.

Jamie Jones is a staff writer for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at jamiejones@daltoncitizen.com.

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