J .R. Fallon never knew Martin Richard, but he still felt a connection to him that would not be denied.
Eight-year-old Richard was killed in the terrorist attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon. His parents, Bill and Denise, created the Martin W. Richard Charitable Foundation and Team MR8, a group of 100 runners who are raising money and running this year's Boston Marathon on April 21 in Martin's memory.
Fallon is a 30-year-old Air Force Reserve member at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Mass. who lives in the Manchester area. He was one of 100 runners selected to join Team MR8 from more than 300 applicants.
Just as young Martin Richard was watching the marathon, Fallon himself had also watched as a boy.
"I was overwhelmed with sorrow last year, as were most of us, for the victims and first responders and devastated for the city of Boston. You feel violated as an American," Fallon said. "I remember thinking about Martin and knowing that my mom had taken me to see the race firsthand through the years and realizing that he was an innocent eight-year-old boy watching what is, in my opinion, the most historic race with his family. You think those things don't happen here, especially in downtown Boston on Patriot's Day."
Fallon said he could not shake the feeling that there was some way he could help.
"I remember leaving from military duty probably three weeks after the race. It never left my mind that it had happened to what we as New Englanders consider our city," Fallon said. "I experienced almost an internal void or emptiness where I just felt like there was something that I could do."
In late 2013, Fallon was driving home and listening to Boston Public Radio when he got the "something" he was looking for in the form of a story about Team MR8 forming.
"I said 'this is for me.' I was driving and I said that I had to do this so I pulled over and went to a Fed Ex Office and printed out the 11 page application," Fallon said. "You had to answer a lot of questions. ... who are your heroes? How were you affected by the incidents of last year? You had to write a personal statement and you also had to sign a waiver that would financially bind you to raise $7,500. I didn't think twice, signed it, gave my credit card information to pay the fee and faxed it in."
Fallon said he expected that runners selected to join Team MR8 might be older or more financially stable, citing that he is a graduate student at Boston University and will be attending law school in August. Fallon got a phone call and was interviewed to elaborate on some of the information from his application.
He soon found out that he had been selected, the only member of Team MR8 from New Hampshire.
"I was elated and extremely proud to do this. It's going to be emotional for everyone and especially for anyone wearing a Team MR8 uniform," Fallon said. "Talking with other military members, there are so many copious amounts of armed service members that are still deployed and most of us would be elated to run for Team MR8. It's a blessing and it's extremely emotional. You have a lot of time for thinking in these long, long runs. You're thinking about things and running for your own personal ambition and here in this situation it's completely different. It's been an emotional rollercoaster."
Fallon grew up in Goffstown and moved to Manchester in high school, graduating from Manchester Memorial in 2002. At Memorial, Fallon played basketball and baseball and continued his baseball career at Manhattanville College.
Fallon said he was never a serious runner, but after shoulder surgery following college he was looking for a new challenge while living on the west coast. He reflected on his childhood and found the answer.
"I looked for a personal triumph or goal so I ran my first marathon in 2008 in San Diego," Fallon said. "My mom ran a marathon for leukemia in Alaska when I was younger so it was motivation for me to say 'hey, if your mother is going to complete a marathon, you better do the same.'?"
He joked that it was almost his last one, but then found himself running in another in Oregon in 2009. He has since completed a third marathon, this time in New York last year.
Fallon said he is honored to be able to help Team MR8 spread Martin's message of "no more hurting people - peace." That phrase was written on a piece of paper that Martin is holding in a picture that has become known around the world.
"That sign that he held up became a worldwide symbol and President Obama spoke those words in a speech. That's how big it got," Fallon said. "What Team MR8 wants to do is invest in education, athletics and community. His family created this and even at the age of eight, Martin was wise beyond his years. He was proud to have passed a rigorous process to be named a peacemaker at his school. I remember being eight years old and thinking about the Red Sox and baseball and basketball, so this just shows what type of boy he was."
Heading into this weekend, Fallon had passed the $7,500 mark and was close to his personal fundraising goal of $8,888. Donations can be made at firstgiving.com by searching for JR runs for MR or J.R. Fallon. Further information on Team MR8 can be found at teammr8.org.
"I knew that Team MR8 was going to be my calling," Fallon said. "I plan to volunteer and continue to help in any way shape or form after the race."