Dreams do come true for Iraq War vet, ‘DWTS’ champ and Tournament of Roses Grand Marshal J.R. Martinez
By Jana J. Monji 12/29/2011
In 2003, Jose Rene “J.R.” Martinez was recovering from severe burns that covered more than 40 percent of his body, wounds he suffered while serving as Army infantryman in Iraq. At the time, Martinez considered suicide, something that he unabashedly spoke about as a contestant this fall on the ABC show “Dancing with the Stars.”
But, after being inspired by other war vets in similar and often worse straits, Martinez turned his own life around, becoming a television sensation, both as a character on a soap opera and as the first male winner of this fall’s “DWTS” Mirror Ball Trophy who was neither a sports figure nor a singer. On Nov. 1, Martinez was named grand marshal of the 2012 Tournament of Roses Parade, which has the theme of “Just Imagine …”
“When I was first asked to be grand marshal of the Tournament of Roses festivities by President [Rick] Jackson, I was speechless,” Martinez said in a prepared statement. “To be able to participate in this iconic American tradition on New Year’s Day is something I could only imagine. I believe everything happens for a reason, and I’m grateful the events of my life have provided me with the opportunity to share my message of hope and possibility on Jan 2.”
(Because the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl college football game are never held on Sundays, this year’s festivities are set for Monday.)
Martinez will ride in the 123rd parade in an open car and toss the coin at the start of the 98th Rose Bowl game. There’s no way he could have ever imagined such an honor a decade ago, when an injury quashed his pro football dreams during his senior year in high school, or in 2002, when he was training with the Army at Fort Benning, Ga.
In 2003, the injuries he suffered after the Humvee he was driving hit an improvised explosive device (IED) included a lost ear and severely burned face and body. The scars from the blast are still visible after many surgeries, but Martinez has overcome his initial shock and despair and is able to talk freely about his experience. During his recovery, a nurse asked him to speak with another burn patient. After that heart-to-heart, Martinez spoke with another and another, eventually becoming a motivational speaker. For his work, he’s been honored by veterans groups, including the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
In 2008, Martinez joined the cast of ABC’s daytime drama, “All My Children,” playing Iraq War vet Brot Monroe. That show was canceled after 41 years, ending Sept. 23. But just a week earlier, Martinez was already beginning to find an even wider audience on “Dancing with the Stars.”
Martinez wasn’t the first cast member of “All My Children” to take a spin on the Burbank dance floor. Susan Lucci, who played the infamous Erica Kane, teamed with Tony Dovolani during season 7 and finished in sixth place (Brooke Burke and Derek Hough went on to win). Cameron Mathison, who played Ryan Lavery, preceded Lucci for a fifth-place finish during season 5 while teamed with the sexy Edyta Sliwinska.
The Louisiana-born Martinez wasn’t considered one of the favorites, like David Arquette, Chaz Bono, Ron Artest, or Hope Solo and Ricki Lake. A TVonline.com article gave him 20 to 1 odds. Favored were Hope Solo (2-1), Ricki Lake (5-2) and Arquette (4-1). How wrong could those odds-makers be?
The 28-year-old might not have earned the first 10 of the season (that honor went to Ricki Lake with her partner Derek Hough during week 4), but after being the high scorer during week 5 and tied for first in week 6, Martinez earned the show’s first set of perfect scores (60/60) during week 8.
Of the professional dancers in the semi-finals, Martinez’s partner, Karina Smirnoff, was the only one who had never won the Mirror Ball Trophy before, and sometimes the pressure to pull off a win showed during rehearsals. Still, Martinez and Smirnoff beat Rob Kardashian (second) and Cheryl Burke, with Lake and Derek Hough in third.
Before that trophy was handed out in late November, Martinez was featured on the cover of People Magazine (Nov. 7 “Triumph After Tragedy”) and later, in the same magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” issue, Martinez was featured in the Men of the Year section as the DWTS heartthrob. Don’t get too excited, ladies — Martinez is in a committed relationship with his girlfriend, Diana Gonzalez-Jones, and they’re expecting a baby girl in spring.
Continuing his climb to celebrity, in early December, Martinez was awarded the Unsung Hero Award at the Lady in Red Ball in Palm Beach, Fla. As the honored guest, Martinez danced for a $25,000 benefit pledge for the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, financed by ball hostess Lois Pope.
Last year’s Rose Parade grand marshal was also a celebrity from the South, Georgia-born cooking show host and author Paula Deen. While food is the way to a man’s heart, Martinez has taken his purple heart and shown that with imagination and hard work, you can turn your life into a “Cinderfella” story, too.