In this file photo, Iraq War veteran and actor J.R. Martinez in his home in Dalton. Martinez will join the 13th season of ABC-TV's "Dancing With the Stars."Staff File Photo/Chattanooga Times Free Press
DALTON, Ga. — The world knows him as an actor, an Iraq War veteran, and now as a "Dancing with the Stars" cast member.
But to the Daltonians who know J.R. Martinez -- and that is most of them -- he will always be a hometown hero.
"He's still the J.R. I knew," said former football coach and Dalton High School Athletic Director Ronnie McClurg. "Even after all he's been through, his spirits have never changed. He certainly is a deserving young man and we are very, very proud of him."
Martinez will join the 13th season of ABC-TV's Dancing With the Stars with a mix of actors, athletes and TV personalities. The show first airs on Sept. 19. The local ABC affiliate is WTVC-TV, Channel 9, in Chattanooga.
Other celebrities on the show include basketball star Ron Artest; World Cup soccer player Hope Solo; reality stars Robert Kardashian, Kristin Cavallari and Chaz Bono; TV personalities Nancy Grace, Carson Kressley and Ricki Lake; singer-actress Chynna Phillips; actor David Arquette; and Italian actress Elisabetta Canalis.
Martin, 28, played strong safety for the Catamounts during his senior year in Dalton. He joined the Army after high school and was seriously injured in Iraq during his first tour of duty in 2003.
He had to undergo 33 surgeries and spent months in rehabilitation for burns covering more than 40 percent of his body.
Since his recovery, he has become a motivational speaker to corporations, veterans groups, nonprofit organizations and schools. In 2008, he joined the cast of the daytime drama "All My Children," where he plays an Iraq combat veteran.
McClurg said he has stayed in touch with Martinez and with his mother, Maria Zavala, who still lives in Dalton. He hasn't spoken to either of them since the announcement Monday night, but McClurg said he knows Zavala is proud and excited.
Dalton resident Gene Threet said Martinez texted him on Monday to tell him to watch the show.
"He didn't tell us why but just that we should watch it. We are so excited for him," Threet said. His son played on the football team with Martinez, and the two became good friends.
Although he was born in Louisiana and didn't move to Dalton until before his senior year, on his website Martinez says he "proudly" calls Dalton his hometown.
Threet and McClurg said the town is also proud to claim Martinez. When Martinez came home after he was injured, most of the town turned out for a welcome home parade.
Threet still chokes up when he talks about that day.
"He is such a genuinely good person, you couldn't help but fall in love with him. He's taken what has happened to him and made it as positive as possible," Threet said.
McClurg said he will never forget the first day Martinez played football after moving to Dalton. The coach had warned him he had to make first string on special teams to be allowed onto the team.
After watching him play for only one day, McClurg pulled Martinez aside and told him he had made the team.
"I've never seen a person adapt so quickly to another group," the coach said.
That perseverance and athletic ability will serve Martinez well on the dance show, both men said.
"You can rest assured that all of Dalton will be watching and voting -- and Chattanooga is welcome to vote, too," Threet said.
McClurg added, "He may be the worst dancer on the show, but in my eyes he'll be the best. He's a great leader and a great American who made a sacrifice for all of us."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...