13:12 PM

Sgt. Eric "EJ" Diaz, Tampa International Airport Police

Born and raised by a single mom in Ybor City, young Eric Diaz dreamed of one day being a Hollywood stuntman. He loved the excitement and bravado of superhero and action movies, and thought he physically had what it took to be a stuntman star.

As he got older, though, he became a bit more pragmatic in his ideas of how to best make a living. After graduating from Tampa Catholic High, Diaz was drawn to the idea of law enforcement. He thought being a police officer might have its perks and fulfill his itch to be a superhero in his own right.

The police academy was not what he expected. It was better.

“I fell in love,” said Diaz, who goes by “EJ” among his friends and colleagues.

Being an officer, he realized, may not put him in the spotlight or make him a hero. But it gave him a feeling of being part of something bigger and actually helping people with skills he didn’t even know he had. Having grown up without his father in his life, he valued the men – and women, he noted, as he looked up to former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor for much of his career – who taught him how to be selfless and quietly brave.

“Every day, you have to give the ultimate sacrifice for your community,” Diaz said. “Through the police academy and my early years in law enforcement, I met so many mentors who showed me what it was like to not only be a good leader, but a good person.”

Diaz wound up working for the Tampa Police Department for 30 years. He was a SWAT commander for several of those years and trained hundreds of officers throughout his career.

He was married during those 30 years and had two children, Joey and Sarah. But, he admits, he was also married to his job. While he doesn’t regret the time and effort he put into being a dutiful officer all those years, he feels sad about missing key moments with his children and family vacations because he was working.

After Diaz retired from TPD, his marriage ended as well. His kids were grown and doing well. He was ready for a change.

Diaz joined the Tampa International Airport Police Department three years ago, unsure of what to expect. He found an immediate law enforcement family and a completely new atmosphere where passengers were friendly and grateful for help and airport employees seemed genuinely happy to be there.

“You become a part of the culture here very fast,” Diaz said. “You read all the positive press or hear about another award and you’re genuinely happy for the airport. And you want to be a part of it. I have a real vested interest in helping this place succeed.”

Around the same time Diaz began working at the Airport, he married Karrie Lynn, a communications supervisor for TPD. The two have fun together, singing karaoke and finding small adventures on the weekend. He’s also traveling more these days and recently went on trips to New Zealand and Alaska. He went to Europe with his kids, now 27 and 24.

Diaz still has the workaholic bug, and Chief Charlie Vasquez once ordered Diaz to stop calling him and checking in while he was on vacation.

“There’s definitely more of a work-life balance here,” Diaz said.

Along with his wife and kids, Diaz tries to make time for his all-time biggest fan: his mother, Cozette.

He has long given up on his stuntman career goals but still clings to old dreams. When his cell phone rings because the Airport Operations Center is calling, the Batman theme song plays.

“I can’t believe I get paid to be here,” Diaz said. “To be a superhero.”