UF's Baldry a real-life hero

Tags: HeroStories

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

elite soldiers.

''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.''


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

national championship.


''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,''

Meyer said.

He's a certified hero, a towering mountain peak, and Baldry is playing

football for something bigger than himse