Former Army Ranger walks on at Florida

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Former Army Ranger walks on at Florida

Sun sports writer


Derek Baldry did not have a position, did not know where to line up, and wasn't quite sure how to get into a proper stance.

"I just wanted to make sure the coaches didn't know I hadn't played high school football," he said. "I was basically playing copycat, watching the guy in front of me and trying to emulate him."

So, what was this 24-year-old former Army Ranger and football novice doing at an open walk-on tryout at the University of Florida in the spring of 2006?

The answer is on his left wrist.

SPC Ryan P. Long USA Ranger

A CO 3/75 KIA 03 April 2003 Iraq

This is the inscription on a metal bracelet that Baldry wears on his left wrist to honor a fallen friend. This is the inspiration that sent him chasing after a dream that many thought was uncatchable.

It all goes back to Afghanistan, in the fall of 2002. Baldry, a 2000 Gainesville High graduate, and Long, from Delaware, had gone through Ranger training together about a year before 9/11 and now were best buddies with the Third Ranger Battalion. When the soldiers were not on missions, facing deadly enemy fire, the conversation often gravitated to football.

"Every Monday night we would get together with friends and watch Monday Night Football and talk about the games from Saturday and Sunday," Baldry said. "We used to play football in our time off.

"We were just kind of egging each other on about the game one day, and Ryan said, 'You have the size and speed and the right attitude. You should try to play football.' "

No one was talking football on the day of one of Third Battalion's early missions. It was a rough one - and an action that made headlines across America the next day.

"The headline in The Gainesville Sun said, 'Two Rangers killed,' " said Baldry's father, Geo, who works for the School Board of Alachua County. "That's the only time in my life my blood ran cold.

"He called us a week later and was talking about it. He said he'd been on a mission and he'd made it back. He said later they all went into a hangar and the coffins of the two dead soldiers were there. That's tough for an 18-year-old. I was really proud of him."

It was tough, but Baldry made it out and back to the states after a three-month tour. So did Ryan Long.

"It was definitely an experience," Baldry said. "Our mission was to try and seize high-value targets and the ultimate mission was to find Osama bin Laden, obviously, but it was to no avail."

A little more than a year after returning from Afghanistan, Long was back in the Middle East, this time in Iraq. He had only a few months to go on his enlistment and was considered a short-timer. Baldry was stationed at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., at the time.

"The Army told him he didn't even have to go over there if he didn't want to, but he said he wanted to go," Baldry said.

He did not come back.

On April 3, 2003, Long and four other soldiers were killed when a car bomb detonated at a U.S. checkpoint.

"That was a shock," Geo Baldry said. "Derek and Ryan had gone to a car race (in Atlanta) just before Ryan went back over, and they had talked about being roommates. Ryan had only about three months to go. He had such a short time that the Rangers tried to protect him by putting him behind the front lines."

Long was working security at a road block behind the lines when a pregnant woman jumped out of a car and began screaming.

"He and four or five other guys ran up to see what was going on and a guy in the car detonated the bomb," Derek Baldry said. "It hits you pretty hard. Everybody in the Rangers had somebody they knew or fought alongside that was killed.

"It's weird. It hits you at odd times. You'll be doing something and all of a sudden you'll find yourself remembering and missing somebody. But you have to move on."

Long was buried in a small town in Wisconsin. Baldry attended the funeral. Less than two months later, Baldry was back in Afghanistan with the Rangers' 10th Mountain Division (huh?), where he would spend the next 10 months.

It was a different country than the one he left after his first tour.

"The first time, all the bad guys were still in the country," he said. "The second time, a lot of the refugees had come back and we were among the population. It went from us being on the offensive to being on the defensive. There were a lot of ambushes (by the enemy) as opposed to raids (by the Rangers). There were particular areas that were more dangerous than others. A few of those ambushes were pretty scary."

Baldry survived and returned to Gainesville (and civilian life) when his enlistment was up in April 2004.

Baldry said he always knew he would need a college education, and his time in the Army had reinforced that. His goal was to go to the University of Florida and pursue that football dream his Ranger buddies, especially Ryan Long, had put in his head back in Afghanistan.

His first move was to enroll at Santa Fe Community College.

"I knew I wanted to go to UF, but I didn't have the grades," he said. "I went to Santa Fe for one year, got my grades up and then transferred to Florida."

In the spring of 2006, Baldry attended a walk-on tryout at UF not certain what to expect because he had never played organized football. What he did have going for him was his sculpted 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame and impressive speed and athletic ability honed by Army Ranger training.

"I'm thankful this school holds open tryouts every year and allows a certain number to walk on," he said. "I think they saw my size and speed and took a shot on me."

Baldry was invited to join the team as a walk-on and was put at tight end. He dressed out for six games last season - including the BCS national title game in Glendale, Ariz. - and saw playing time late in the season against Western Carolina, earning a Hit City award from the coaches for one of his blocks.

Baldry played some defensive end this past spring and is slated to be a starter on special teams (field goals and extra points) this season. He's a 25-year-old junior with the kind of work ethic one would expect from a former Army Ranger.

"Derek is a tremendous guy," UF tight ends coach Steve Addazio said. "He's a high character guy and very accountable. He has a burning desire to help this team any way he can. I love him. He's all Gator."

Baldry will never forget one of the main reasons he is now a Gator.

It's right there on his left wrist - the bracelet honoring a friend who made the ultimate sacrifice.

"It's not like I felt I owed it to Ryan to try this," Baldry said. "But we always talked about it, and I decided I might as well go out and see if I could do it. It's better to have tried than to wonder about it the rest of my life."

Baldry said the only time he takes off the bracelet is for practice and games. He said he thinks about his friend often.

"I just remember the times over there and what he was like," he said. "I don't have any bad dreams. I'm fortunate. I don't really think about or remember the bad stuff."
Nino, Ryan and Cpt. Rippetoe died. Smith and Thibidau (sp) survived. There were only 3 KIA's. Another error to go Huh about....
Chalk another one up for the Glory Boyz! :cool:

My two guys served with Derek. It is my understanding that he was a really skinny bat boy; and not very big at all. We saw him on the sidelines for the BCS game; and he has done a good job in the weight room.

Less than two months later, Baldry was back in Afghanistan with the Rangers' 10th Mountain Division (huh?), where he would spend the next 10 months.
As with many stories in life, there is more to Derek's saga than what is printed in the paper.

UF tight ends coach Steve Addazio said.
Hehe, I remember when he was a high school head coach in these parts...Excellent coach; really knows his stuff...