When Dalton (Ga.) High School Athletic Director Ronnie McClurg first saw 17-year-old J.R. Martinez practice with his football team, he knew he had something special.
“I told him after the first practice that he made the team,” said McClurg, who was Dalton’s head football coach at the time. “It was not because of his ability. It was because of his attitude and the morale he generated around him. He did not know a single person there, but you would have thought he was the captain by the way he communicated with his teammates on the first day.”
Now, millions of people know who he is. Martinez, the United States Sports Academy’s 2009 winner of the Mildred “Babe” Didrikson-Zaharias Courage Award, is now a regular on the television soap opera “All My Children” despite the visible facial scars given to him by a roadside bomb in Iraq – ones that 32 surgeries could not take away. The Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran tirelessly tours the country giving motivational speeches, charming far more people now than he did as a handsome teenager in Georgia eight years ago.
Martinez moved from Hope, Arkansas to Dalton the summer before his senior year in high school because of a job opportunity his mother had. Though he was in position to start on defense in Hope before the move, he was determined to find a position on the new team in Dalton.
“I thought he was a delightful person to work with and very entertaining on the field,” said Hope High School head coach Johnny Turner.
Martinez called McClurg when he first arrived in Dalton and asked about trying out for the team. McClurg said he usually doesn’t keep seniors on the team unless they are starters or on special teams, but there was something about Martinez. He played running back as well as special teams for Dalton, contributing strongly to his team making the state finals.
The Catamounts’ opponent in the finals, Statesboro, was also their final opponent in the regular season. Statesboro ran a wishbone offense, a tricky, run-oriented formation made famous in college by Alabama, Texas and Oklahoma. It involves three running backs in the backfield, two halfbacks and a fullback, with the fullback slightly closer to the quarterback than the halfbacks.
“After we watched the game films J.R. volunteered to work on scout teams, playing the role of their (Statesboro’s) fullback,” McClurg said. “He took a real pounding that week. But that was his attitude. He wanted to do whatever was best for his team, just like he wanted to do whatever was best for his country.”
Both McClurg and Turner referred to Martinez as a “hard-nosed player.”
“He was very physical for his size,” Turner said. “He was very energetic about his team. Everyone on the team liked him. He led by example.”
The impact he had on the Dalton community in just one year was more than evident when he returned from Iraq.
The player “who would never quit” nearly quit life as well as the game after a land-mine planted in Karbala, Iraq trapped him inside the Humvee he was driving leaving him severely burned one year after he graduated Dalton and joined the Army. Upon his first look in the mirror he stopped eating and refused to speak to anyone as he contemplated his injuries and future. The explosion left 40 percent of his body burned, including the entire left side of his face. After 32 surgeries – the longest lasting 15 hours – over 34 months, Martinez decided to use the scars to “get people’s attention” and have his voice heard and more importantly, his positive message of life and faith heard.
“He had an opportunity to just quit,” McClurg said. “He could have quit when he came to us, but J.R. had no quit in him and certainly has not quit since he was wounded.”
Martinez leads the way, working and speaking with our wounded warriors, helping them visualize the possibilities in life. But he doesn’t stop there. He continues to create a world where his message of courage, faith and perseverance is heard by troops and civilians alike, using his role as Brot on “All My Children,” where he plays a veteran who is re-establishing his life in the civilian world. Currently, his storyline finds him falling in love with a beautiful character, but because of his disfigurement, he is unsure if his romantic attention will be accepted.
The Mildred “Babe” Didrikson-Zaharias Courage Award is presented annually as part of the American Sport Art Museum and Archives (ASAMA) Academy Awards of Sport program, honoring the artist and the athlete. It is presented to an individual who demonstrates courageous action in overcoming adversity to excel in sport and exhibits grace and perseverance in doing so.