DALTON, Ga. - Jose Rene "J.R." Martinez may have graduated from the crosstown rival high school, but students at Southeast Whitfield High School didn't hold that against the TV star Thursday morning.
Students roared their approval when Martinez, a former U.S. Army soldier who was disfigured by burns in 2003 when his Humvee hit a land mine in Iraq, entered the school gym. He roamed the entire gym floor as he captivated students with his high-energy, motivational message.
"I call Dalton, Georgia, home," said Martinez, before launching into a thumbnail sketch of his life.
"My mom didn't have a lot of money. My mom didn't speak the language that well," he said, explaining he was raised by a single mother from El Salvador, and his father left when Martinez was 9 months old.
"I still don't know him to this day," he said.
Martinez played football for Dalton High School when the team went to the state championship. He planned to play in college.
Instead, Martinez entered the Army at age 19 because bad high school grades meant he'd have to wait two years to play college ball.
"I was a knucklehead, and decided not to pay attention in school," he said.
After being injured, Martinez was in a coma for almost a month; when he first saw his scarred face, he was in a "dark place, upset and angry," he said.
But his positive attitude kept him going.
Martinez shared how, while shopping for basic necessities during his recovery in San Antonio, Texas, a teenage boy saw the scars and told Martinez, "Dude, you're not normal."
"If I was somebody else, that would break me down," said Martinez. Instead, he shot back, "That's funny, man, because I was looking at you and thinking you're not normal."
The teen apologized, and Martinez explained to him that "everybody's normal."
"The cool thing about my scars, is you can see 'em. You know I've been through something," he told the students.
"At the end of the day, if you don't believe in yourself, no one else does," Martinez said.
"I'm telling you guys, I came from nothing," Martinez said. "I could dream big. I'm entitled to that."
He asked students to think of his speech as "spare change" that they could draw upon in times of need.
Ninth-grader Jackie Gomez took that to heart.
"I'm putting everything in my pocket and saving it for later on in life," Gomez said, adding "he looked like a pretty fun guy."
Eleventh-grader Samantha Gravitt followed "Dancing with the Stars" on TV in 2011 when Martinez went on to win.
"I think it was really inspiring," Gravitt said of Martinez' talk.
School Principal Karey Williams marveled at the hold Martinez had over students.
"They weren't even hardly blinking. They didn't want to miss a word," she said afterward.
Martinez later spoke at Eastbrook Middle School and to youths at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Gordon, Murray and Whitfield counties.
He came to Dalton to speak Thursday night at the Boy & Girls Clubs' annual fundraiser dinner.
"It's our biggest fundraiser of the year," said Robbie Slocumb with the organization.
Close to 300 people were to attend the event, which the club hopes will generate about $100,000.
"That's more money than we've ever made," board member Donna Hair said.
Past speakers at the dinner have included investor Warren Buffett, model Kathy Ireland and pro football star Peyton Manning.
Martinez is the only former Dalton resident to speak at the dinner, and his appearance is expected to raise more money than any previous dinner speakers have, according to Slocumb and Hair.