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A Hero Among the Stars

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Each year, the president of the Tournament of Roses Assn. selects a prominent public figure to personify the event’s chosen theme as its honorary Grand Marshal. The Grand Marshal rides at the front of the Rose Parade and tosses the coin before the Rose Bowl football game.

In 2010, for example, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger  —  who safely landed a disabled US Airways jet in New York City’s Hudson River the previous year — was selected as an embodiment of that year’s “A Cut Above the Rest” theme. Everyone from President Dwight D. Eisenhower (in 1964) to actor John Wayne (1973) and even Mickey Mouse (2005) has served as Grand Marshal since the tournament began in 1890.

In November, Tournament president Rick Jackson announced injured Iraq war veteran, motivational speaker and actor J.R. Martinez as Grand Marshal for the 2012 festivities. Three weeks later, Martinez won Season 13 of ABC TV’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

“J.R. Martinez is an inspiration to us all and a natural fit for our theme, ‘Just Imagine’ Jackson said.  “J.R. is not only a courageous and engaging role model for us all but has dedicated himself to helping not only servicemen and servicewomen but all Americans facing challenges.

Born in Shreveport, La., and raised by a single mother from El Salvador, Martinez’s dreams of a professional football career were shattered by an injury in his senior year of high school. He enlisted in the United States Army in 2002 and within six months was deployed to Iraq. Less than a month later, the Humvee he was driving hit an improvised explosive device. Martinez, just 19 at the time, suffered severe burns to more than 40% of his body and endured nearly three years in hospitals and 33 surgeries.

“When I was in the hospital, all I could do was just imagine,” Martinez, now 28, explained.

Martinez began counseling fellow burn survivors while still being treated at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, and has since become an in-demand motivational speaker for corporations, veterans’ groups and schools. In 2008, he was cast as Iraq war veteran Brot Monroe in ABC’s daytime drama “All My Children.” 

But Martinez is perhaps best-known for winning “Dancing with the Stars” in November (alongside dance partner Karina Smirnoff) — a triumph that has expanded the audience for his positive message thousands of times over.

“Think about it: At my biggest speaking engagement, let’s say I have 2,500 people there,” Martinez said. “On [Dancing with the Stars], for 10 weeks, two times a week, I was able to impact between 30 and 40 million people.”

On a personal level, lifelong football fan Martinez is thrilled that the role of Grand Marshal includes flipping the coin before the Rose Bowl game. But he also has a serious message for the Rose Parade crowd and the millions who’ll be watching the spectacular on television worldwide.

“Even though I’m going to be doing the Tournament of Roses duties up till the game and the parade, I want to continue the ‘Just Imagine’ theme for the rest of my life,” he said. “I want to pass that on to people and I want all of us to know that no longer do you have to just imagine — now you can actually make it become a reality.”

As well as continuing to work as a speaker and actor, Martinez said he is now imagining himself as an author and perhaps as a TV host. But for now his focus is firmly on his Tournament of Roses role.

“Leading the parade and seeing thousands and thousands of people standing on the side of the road to admire everything about the parade — people’s smiles and everyone looking forward to the new year and looking forward to new possibilities.”

Paul Rogers
Custom Publishing Writer

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