UF's Baldry a real-life hero
The memory of a fallen soldier stays with Derek Baldry, a walk-on tight end
at UF who, as an Army sergeant, searched the mountains of Afghanistan for
GAINESVILLE -- One member of the University of Florida football team wears a
bracelet to remember the life of a fallen soldier.
It's a simple thing. Metallic black in color, the band is a reminder: a
memory of a friend, a memory of scouring the mountains of Afghanistan
searching for al Qaeda, a glimpse into the past of the Gators' real-life
hero. The story etched into that bracelet is the only reason walk-on tight
end Derek Baldry, a former sergeant in the U.S. Army, is now a football
That story is Spc. Ryan Long.
Long was a fourth-generation soldier, and a talented soccer player who loved
snowboarding in New Hampshire and fishing in Delaware. Now his name and all
that it represents -- sacrifice, honor and the galvanizing strength of the
Army's Ranger Regiment -- is chiseled into Baldry's memory band. It fits
tightly around his muscular left wrist.
''Ryan was just the kind of person who made an impact on anyone who met him,
and it really is truly a great loss not to have him any longer,'' said Donna
Long, Ryan's mother, who, like Derek, never removes her son's memory band.
``Derek understands the brotherhood of the Army Rangers and has eternalized
Long died less than a month before his 22nd birthday, killed by a suicide
bomber northwest of Baghdad on April 3, 2003. But his spirit lives on every
day during the Gators' fall training camp.
''In our downtime together, Ryan and I used to play a little football
together,'' said Baldry, a 25-year-old junior. ``He said I was pretty good,
and that when I got out I should try and walk-on somewhere. He's the main
reason why I'm here.''
Baldry grew up in Gainesville but, according to his father, wasn't a fan of
the Gators as a child. He wasn't even a football fan. Baldry says he spent
his high school years either at the beach or atop a freestyle BMX.
''He was one of those kids you'd see downtown doing tricks on his bike,''
said Geo Baldry, Derek's father, who grew up in Miami and graduated from
Coral Gables High in 1968. ``He was a free spirit.''
That all changed near the end of Baldry's senior year at Gainesville High.
The extreme sports fad faded in the spring of 2000, replaced by a
fascination with World War II history. It took one phone call from an Army
recruiter for Baldry to join the military.
Military life suited Baldry. He adapted to the structure quickly. He loved
jumping out of airplanes. It didn't take long for Baldry to sign up for the
Ranger Indoctrination Program, the first step to becoming one of the Army's
''The toughest thing about going into the Ranger Regiment is dealing with
weather and being tired and hungry to a point that you fall asleep while
you're walking or you hallucinate,'' Baldry said. ``It's mental toughness
vs. physical toughness.''
HANDLING THE PAIN
Baldry's Ranger peers voted him ''class hero'' after he sprained his knee
during the course but still managed to carry one of the group's largest
soldiers for several miles up a hill. Baldry's ability to endure pain set
him apart. He once ran 12 miles carrying a 60-pound rucksack and full battle
gear in 1 hour and 52 minutes.
After joining the 3rd Ranger Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment, he met
Long in February 2001. Then came 9/11 and everything changed. Baldry was one
of the first soldiers in Afghanistan, arriving in early October.
Baldry, Long and their fellow Rangers entered east Afghanistan through the
Pakistan border, and began searching the region's mountainous tribal belt.
The objective was simple. ''To seize them or kill them,'' Baldry said.
Baldry returned home after his rotation and later joined the 10th Mountain
Division. He returned to Afghanistan and earned an Army Commendation Medal,
awarded for acts of heroism. Baldry also was nominated for a Bronze Star
after leading a counter offensive during an enemy ambush. He declined the
medal, according to his father, because some of his fellow soldiers were
wounded and Baldry was not.
''Coping with some of the losses we sustained was the hardest part,'' Baldry
said. ``Yeah, there were a lot of times we would get ambushed and stuff like
that, but I think the most difficult part is losing good friends.''
Baldry, a journalism major, didn't know a coach or player when he tried out
for the Gators' football team in 2006. What's more, he had no knowledge of
football basics like stances and positioning. He excelled, however, despite
never playing football and was on the sidelines when Florida won its
RESPECT FROM MEYER
''I have real respect for the Rangers,'' said Florida coach Urban Meyer,
whose father and sister served in the military. ``They protect our country
and I tell you the minute I heard that story -- to be honest with you -- I
gave him a little more opportunity than some of the other players.''
Baldry's size and athleticism helped. At 6-6, 259 pounds, he's no tackling
dummy for the first-team Gators. Far from it. Baldry said Florida's coaches
will soon award him a scholarship and he'll contribute this season on the
Gators' field-goal and extra-point teams. He dressed for six games in 2006
and earned a ''Hit City'' award from the Gators' coaching staff for a
devastating block against Western Carolina.
''He's really raw, but he's tough and he's big and he had a great summer,''
He's a certified hero, a towering mountain peak, and Baldry is playing
football for something bigger than himse