He didn’t have his “Dancing With the Stars” mirrorball trophy, but actor J.R. Martinez did bring his A-game charisma and inspirational message of embracing adaptation to life challenges in a keynote presentation to hundreds of student transporters at the 19th annual STN EXPO in Reno, Nev.
The Reno ballroom inside the Grand Sierra Resort — the location of the STN EXPO — was full of conference attendees on July 23 as more than 500 listened to Martinez’s motivational speech titled “Accelerate Your Life Into 3-D: Desire, Dedication and Discipline,” sponsored by Blue Bird Corporation and Cummins Inc.
He recounted his personal story that included many surprising detours along the way, forcing him to adapt to new towns, new schools and, ironically, through a tragic event, a new path that has lead him to a fulfilled life he never thought he could have. He then related these adaptations to life to changes that can occur within an industry and how those within the industry must remain adaptive and positive when things seem unpredictable.
“It just shows you that when you don’t quit, stay positive and life happens and you’re forced out of your comfort zone, you’ll be surprised at how beautiful the journey is,” Martinez said.
Throughout all his challenges in life, Martinez said one of the first times he really became emotional was when he received the call to join season 13 of DWTS.
“At that moment, I looked back eight years ago and remembered where I was then,” he said, referring to his time in the hospital — close to three years — recovering from severe burns to more than 40 percent of his body as a result of an IED attack while in Iraq serving as an Army infantryman.
Before Martinez appeared on DTWS and pursued an acting career, he dreamt of becoming a professional football player to provide a better life for him and his immigrant mother. Then an injury right before graduating high school forced him to adapt to a new plan. He decided to join the Army, thinking that serving his time would enable him to enter college and reroute him back on his path to professional football.
Then, just months after he entered the Army, he was in Iraq driving a Humvee when the vehicle drove over an IED and the explosion ejected three of the four soldiers inside. Martinez remained trapped inside but luckily was rescued. After returning to a U.S. hospital from one in Germany, he fell into a depression after seeing himself in the mirror.
The upbeat, positive attitude Martinez had since birth was replaced by a distraught, bitter young man who kept asking “Why me?” and couldn’t see a gleam of light at the end of the tunnel. That’s when his supportive mother set him straight and told him to remain positive every day and, over time, he’ll be able to see his new plan in life unfold.Soon after, a young twenty-something Martinez visited a fellow burn victim in the hospital, and from this meeting spawned his new life direction. He said goodbye to the path of the NFL and embraced the idea of becoming a motivational speaker to other burn victims, as well as to others in general. This new path eventually lead him to his first casting call with the now-defunct soap opera “All My Children” and then DWTS.
In addition to the more publicized facts about his life, Martinez also recalled other lighthearted events while growing up in Shreveport, La., Hope, Ark., and Dalton, Ga. He rode the school bus during his elementary and middle school years and enjoyed the ride to and from school with his friends. He then described one particular school bus driver, “Turner,” who always put him in a good mood and even helped Martinez avoid getting beat up by kids at his bus stop one day.
Though he couldn’t remember Turner’s first name, Martinez said he never forgot the driver’s smile and positive attitude, which was passed on to the students on the bus. As Martinez told this story, many in the audience nodded their heads in agreement that the beginning of a student’s day begins and ends with the school bus driver and the environment on the bus.
Looking directly at the audience, Martinez concluded, “You have that ability to impact a life. I hope you know that.”
Read Arroyo's article on Martinez from the April 2012 edition of School Transportation News magazine.