Juan “J.J.” Lino looks back at his childhood and remembers feeling empty. For every positive in his life, he recalls a setback. But his outlook today has changed.

After receiving what he calls a “blessing” from prominent Fresno State alumni Derek and Heather Carr, Lino feels empowered to become the first person in his family to earn a degree.

At the Bulldogs’ Oct. 13 football game against Wyoming, Lino, a Fresno State freshman, was announced as the first-ever recipient of the Derek and Heather Carr Scholarship, an award renewable for up to four years upon qualifying for support. The Carrs’ gift will allow him to focus on pursuing a bachelor’s degree in viticulture without having to work full-time while going to school.

“The Carr family has given me the greatest award I could ever think of,” Lino said. “God placed it in their hearts to reach out and touch the lives of young people, and I could not be more thankful that they chose me as a recipient of such a blessing.”

While Derek Carr, the record-setting Fresno State quarterback from 2009-13, couldn’t attend the presentation because he was preparing for his game with the Oakland Raiders, his wife, Heather, and sons, Dallas and Deker, met Lino and his family on the Bulldog Stadium field and presented him with an autographed Raiders’ Carr jersey. A video message from Derek played on the scoreboard.

“During my time at Fresno State, I met my wife, got married and we had our first son, Dallas,” Derek Carr said. “Fresno State is where our team won championships, and where my older brother left a legacy that I wanted to follow. We have been blessed in so many ways, and now we want to give other students an opportunity to get an education and make their dreams come true at Fresno State.”

At Fresno State, 68 percent of undergraduate students, including Lino, are the first in their families to attend a four-year university. Fresno State relies on private support to bolster the scholarship funding and resources it needs to empower students for success. About 80 percent of the University’s graduates stay and work in the Valley.

Lino’s story, and the perseverance he demonstrated from the time he was a young child to when he earned admission to Fresno State, touched the hearts of the Carrs.

While Lino has a great relationship with his mother, he says he didn’t get to spend as much time with her as he would have liked because of her grueling job as a farm worker. As the youngest of seven siblings, he learned by observing the achievements and mistakes of his brothers and sisters. But he craved a father figure.

When Lino was 16 years old, he found that figure to look up to in Phil Gutierrez, who married Lino’s oldest sister, Maggie. Lino moved in with them, and he said it took time getting comfortable around Gutierrez, but the two of them soon developed a special rapport. “Day in and day out, he encouraged me to start acting like a man and to become more responsible,” Lino said.

Gutierrez owned a gym and would wake Lino up early in the morning and take him there to develop work ethic. “He became this father figure that I was searching for as a child,” Lino said. “He began to mold me.” But just as Lino embraced this positive in his life, Gutierrez died from heart complications.

“I was so lost,” Lino said. “I dealt with deep depression. But looking back at his life and how much he poured his energy into me, I grew strong again. I took everything he taught me and ran with it. His passing encouraged me to strive to become the man he was molding me to be.”

During Lino’s freshman year at Central Valley Christian High School in Visalia, he was named MVP of the JV football team as the quarterback and joined varsity for playoffs. His sophomore season, he competed with a senior for the starting quarterback position and was certain he would win the job. But, again, he faced a setback when the senior earned the job and Lino was moved to cornerback. Four games into the season, he was hit in his knee and tore his meniscus, missing the remainder of the season.

Lino says football helped him learn how to deal with adversity in his life, and he thought about Gutierrez encouraging him. He recovered from the injury and won the starting quarterback job his junior and senior years, earning second-team all-league honors.

“Juan grew up with a lot of obstacles, and yet he still had a positive attitude to make a difference in his life,” Heather Carr said. “Throughout high school he used his talents to help others in the community. Derek and I appreciate that, even with all the challenges he faced, Juan was true to himself. He played sports in high school, participated in community outreach and decided to go to college with a goal to open his own business someday.”

For the past two years, Lino served as a group leader for children at a two-week Vacation Bible School with his home church. This past summer, he served on a mission trip to assist those in need in Guatemala, where his family roots are.

Lino hung up his cleats after high school and, inspired by his memories as a child working in the fields with his mother, Lino is now focused on becoming a viticulturist after college. His goal is to one day own his own vineyard.

But first, he has four years of college in front of him — and, thanks to the Carr family, he now knows he’ll be able to afford a quality education.

“When I got the call about receiving the scholarship, I was so ecstatic,” Lino said. “I was speechless. I am thankful that I can attend school without the fear or stress of not being able to pay for it.”