Real Gator Heroes: In memory of 9/11

It was a day that linked the entire world together. A plane crashed into the World Trade Center and then another. More planes were crashing elsewhere and the entire world was frozen in fear and confusion. It was also a day that brought many together. Five years later, there are some linked because of the experience. The Florida Gators hold their own links to 9-11 and are better for it.

I remember I was working full time at a local grocery store when the news came. I heard about the first plane crash just as I was going on break and decided to get in my car and travel home to watch the news. As I was driving home another plane crashed into the other tower. I had no idea what was going on, and so I was waiting to hear about the brave people that would be exiting the towers. On my way back to work, the towers started to fall.

My nights at the time were spent with the Gator football team. I would help in film preparation for opponents. Before my night job could start that Tuesday, another two planes crashed and the nation was frozen in fear. Practice was cancelled and I would spend that night with my wife. The next day the big game on the schedule that year, against Tennessee was cancelled. It was hardly that significant at that point in time.

Joe Baldry is a cameraman for the Gators football team. He has been filming the end zone shot for coaches’ video at games for the team since 1993. You can see him perched up in the crow’s nest in the south end zone every Saturday in the Swamp. Back in the early days I would fill in for Baldry as a cameraman if he needed time off or couldn’t make a trip. One of my duties back then was filming practice every day and so I was a natural fit to fill in.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Baldry’s son Derek was being trained to be an Army Ranger. When the dust settled and everyone realized it was an act of terrorism that caused so many lives to be lost, Joe Baldry knew it meant his son was probably going to be sent to combat duty. He just didn’t know how soon.

On October 3, 2001, Derek Baldry was deployed to Afghanistan where he would serve three months in his first of two stints. His second stint was a ten month deployment from June 2003 to April 2004. During his time of deployment, Baldry could regularly be seen with a Gator hat on, proudly displaying the school that he cheered for growing up. At the time he didn’t know it would mean more than that.

Two years after leaving Afghanistan, Derek Baldry is a University of Florida football player. The walk-on tight end never really thought it possible while he was in harms way over seas.

“I am just happy to be a part of it any way I can,” Derek said about being a Gator football player. “I never thought about it seriously until I came back. When I was (in Afghanistan) I would have my (Gator) baseball cap on and just being from here it is a real special thing.”

A brother in arms of sorts on the scout squad, Cam Brewer’s name is listed right before Baldry’s on the numerical roster at UF. Brewer is number 88 and a wide receiver while Baldry is number 89 and a tight end. Brewer is also a former military vet having spent time in the Marines and special duties related to terrorist acts of 9-11.

“On Sept 11th I was actually in Washington at Quantico,” he said Saturday after the Florida Gators defeated the University of Central Florida Knights. “A few days later I was graduating and going out to go to Embassies. I was only 21 years old and growing up fast. I realized this was the real thing and not sure I was going to get my dream. “

That dream was to play for the Florida Gators. As a wide receiver at Gainesville’s P.K. Yonge High school, Brewer didn’t have all the physical attributes normally required for a scholarship player at a school like Florida. He chose to take his physical talents to the marines and put in his time serving his country. Despite that, while he matured physically and mentally, he always thought of coming back and making a difference as a Gator football player.

“I always had the dream,” Brewer said. “As a kid I was always wanted to come back here and playing football. It crossed my mind to do this.”

The game this past Saturday was a blowout and Brewer thought he may have a chance to see the field. It wasn’t to be, but it’s not for lack of effort.

“I didn’t get out there but I am trying to,” he said. “I got in one game last year. Standing on the sidelines is not for me. I want to do something for the team.”

Baldry was clamoring to get a piece of action on the Field of Glory where he grew up watching his heroes. It just wasn’t meant to be.

“I was begging on both sides of the ball trying to get in the game tonight,” Baldry said. “I actually went up to Coach Mattison and Coach Strong to see if I could get in on defense, even though I am a tight end.”

Though they won’t see much game action this year, both players are helping the team in other ways. They line up as offensive weapons against a very stingy defense, trying to make the Gators’ defense even better. Their elite training is something that makes them unique and most likely a huge asset on the football field. Their maturity is another asset, something that can be shared with younger people they want to see succeed. Brewer sees a lot of similarities in his Marine Corps. training and what he is doing on the University of Florida football team.

“The maturity factor,” Brewer said about what helps him stand out as a Gator. “I learned what was important and what I can overcome. That is the thing with the Marine Corps. They teach you that you can’t be stopped. They will push you to a point where you feel like you couldn’t go. When it is all said and done, you look back and say, ‘Wow. I can do anything I set my mind to.’ That is what I love about this program. It’s a lot like what we did in the Marines. It’s all about competitive excellence and getting your job done.

Derek Baldry also understands he has seen more in the last few years than many of the players he is going against in practice will see in a lifetime. It’s not the physical as much as the mental that sets former soldiers apart from the other young men on the football squad.

“Both are physically demanding, but more so than anything the mental preparation is the best,” Baldry said about his duty as an Army Ranger. “The mental toughness that is instilled being in the military and then going into combat. You can really tell the difference between someone that is really strong mentally and physically and an eighteen year old that hasn’t gone through a whole lot. I would say the mental toughness is the biggest thing I brought back from my military experience.”

It’s not always easy for these soldiers to separate from their time spent in combat. For them there is sometimes the need to do more, to be there for their fellow soldiers. Maybe they are living life to full playing big time college football.

“Sometimes it is hard for me,” Brewer said. “There are times when I feel like I should be doing more. I am here playing football going to school and having a good time. While some of my buddies are still over seas fighting for their lives and basically giving all of the ability to run out of that tunnel and play football. In a lot of ways I think I can help out. I can show that Marines and everyone can all come together and help this nation.”

For Baldry, he remembers just cherishing the ambience of college football as a child. “Growing up here (in Gainesville) we used to walk outside when they scored touchdowns just to hear the roar of the stadium,” Baldry said. “(Playing for the Gators) truly is a dream come true.”

Brewer and Baldry are members of the Gators’ Champions club. It is a club on the football team designed for players that do what they are supposed to be doing. It encompasses all facets of life as a student, a player, and a person. If a player excels on and off the field, they are rewarded by being in this club. For Derek’s father, Joe, it is just another step in a rewarding life his son has made for himself.

“He didn’t play football in high school, he was one of those annoying kids on trick bikes downtown,” Joe Baldry said of his son. “He became a big World War II buff as a senior at Gainesville High school. He was a dual enrollment and that kept him in school. One day his mother asked him what he wanted to do after high school and he didn’t know. The phone rang right then and it was an army recruiter. He then got interested in the Rangers and that’s what he did.”

“I see the big change he made in his life. One of the things I am really proud of is hit was a really good positive cultural experience for him. He had a great deal of empathy with the Afghanis. He wishes he could go back there and help them.”

One thing preached in college football and particularly with Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators is the team concept. Meyer often talks about not being selfish, about taking responsibility for your actions, about attaining rewards through your own merit. Derek Baldry may be the poster child for all of these.

“There was an ambush and he led a counter offensive,” the elder Joe said of his son Derek. “Basically he grabbed his ammo, ran to a truck, and fired on the enemy. The enemy had the high ground. Shortly afterwards, other vehicles showed up and started firing as well.”

Baldry was awarded two bronze stars for this and other combat he saw in Afghanistan. He turned them both down on principle.

“A buddy of his in the Rangers was wounded multiple times and all they gave him was a bronze star and he didn’t think it was fair,” Joe said beaming with pride. “He got an Army Commendation Medal. He has a CIB (Combat Infantryman Badge). It means he was shot at and he shot back. I accused him of being a Jedi Knight when he turned down the bronze star. He does have a great sense of honor about that sort of thing. He took his duty really seriously.”

Thousand of miles away the Baldry household never knew what despair Derek was in until afterwards. They always looked forward to the right communications coming from far away.

“It was always a good day when there wasn’t a car from the American Red Cross in the drive way,” Joe said. “It was difficult having communications. It is the only time in my life I was glad to get phone calls at three in the morning.”

In this same little town of Gainesville, my wife was assisting with Girl Scout troop number 868 sending cookies and care packages to Derek Baldry, care of Afghanistan. Years later they are excited to see he is a football player for the Florida Gators.

On Saturdays Derek Baldry runs out of the tunnel from the south end zone and to the middle of the field before stopping on the west sidelines for games. That tunnel entrance is one of the more riveting moments in sports.

High above that south end zone perched with a camera is a proud papa. One who saw his boy grows up to be a man and then a full fledged Gator.

“The first time he ran out he was going to turn around and wave to me, but they were so compressed he said he would have been crushed,” Joe said. “So, when he goes back in he raises his helmet. That is really great to see.”

“He is very dedicated and hard working. I am proud that he didn’t play in a high school program and now he is playing for a top five college program, it’s amazing. I used to joke with him that he never made the Little League World Series, and now this is far better than that.”

“He is my hero.”

Five years ago we were all engulfed with fear and confusion. Cam Brewer and Derek Baldry were not allowed to feel that way. Today they are a symbol of what this great country is about, living their dream as we watch on. Cam Brewer and Derek Baldry are everyone’s heroes.