"Wait, what?" He barely looked a day over thirty.
My first question was "Would you mind just saying your name to the camera?" AJ Martinez spent the next 20 minutes enchanting me with the stories of his life.
He plays semi-professional football as both a quarterback and defensive end. He started a youth league for basketball and football that boasted over 150 players. He is a certified professional tile setter with nearly a decade of experience in construction. He is the father to five children and husband to a beautiful wife.
AJ is the first of his entire family to graduate high school. Plus, he went on to graduate from the University of New Mexico with a degree in Sports Broadcasting after playing four years of football there. And he now chooses to work part time for the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Saint George, Utah and part time at a local restaurant to provide for his family and his community.
"He's had better opportunities," said Tat Chan, the ReStore's manager. "But he just keeps telling me 'But I wouldn't be making a difference there. I wouldn't be helping people there.' That's just who he is."
"He's the whole reason we are getting this house," said Melinda Falaniko talking to me on her back porch – the only part of her future Habitat for Humanity home that isn't under construction.
The Falaniko family moved to Utah from Oahu, Hawaii to find a better cost of living. Melinda is a full-time mother to six kids and is carrying their seventh, due in September. Evala Falaniko, her husband, works two part-time jobs with the local school district. All eight family members currently live in a two-bedroom apartment (I will never complain about the size of my motorhome again).
"We met AJ when we put our son in football, and he encouraged us to apply for Habitat for Humanity. I figured why not and filled out the application one day. A couple months later, we got the call." Mr. Faliniko said.
AJ started the football league to give the under-privileged kids on that side of town a better way to live. But his football league ended up giving a home to a family in great need because he never gave up on his community.
"I live on one side of town, but I coach over here. There was such a demand, such a need. It just felt like it was the right thing to do...Here the kids are..." he paused as if it broke his heart to say the words. "It's a more underprivileged side of town. A lot of them are minority kids or they aren't able to play... A lot of the parents said no [because sports were too expensive]. So we sponsored the league so no child would be turned down."Thinking back to his days as a tile setter AJ said, "There were days where I'd be in a four wall shower all day long with no one to talk to and all these thoughts would go through my head. I wish I could do this, I wish I could do that. But all I'm doing is working!" He laughed remembering his past frustration. "This is the happiest I've ever been. I may not be making as much money as I used to, but I feel like it's not as important as the things that I'm doing."
AJ has the skills to do a dozen other jobs, but he works part time at a non-profit so he can make a difference in his community. He works part time at a restaurant so he can pay the bills and coach baseball, basketball, or football on any given day. He plays semi-professional football at the age of 38 so he can leave a legacy for his kids.
He is living out the story he dreamed of while working twelve-hour days on construction sites in the middle of the desert.
No matter where you are, working full-time or part-time or unemployed, you may have a dream that seems too far away. AJ is a living testament to that. His advice? "Running water doesn’t go stale. You stay active and you stay moving, you're going to find a way."