Florida All-American Vernon Hargreaves III, a mystery man and a special keepsake
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Vernon Hargreaves III did not know the stranger dressed in military fatigues nor did he know who Pablo A. Ruiz was.
As one of the most high-profile players on Florida’s roster, Hargreaves encounters random fans regularly. However, this chance meeting made a lasting impression on Florida’s junior cornerback.
The look on the man’s face when Hargreaves told him he had not received a bracelet in honor of Ruiz stuck with Hargreaves long after their brief exchange.
"I really didn’t know what he was talking about," Hargreaves said. "When I told him, he was just devastated. I saw in his face that he was kind of hurt."
Hargreaves said the man approached him recently after a team meal outside the Gator Room as the players made their way toward the bus. Time passed without any answers for Hargreaves until earlier this week when he received the bracelet.
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Still, the identity of the man who approached Hargreaves remains a mystery. He is interested to find out more. So is Desiree Ruiz, the widow of 37-year-old Pablo Ruiz, who died from a non-combat related incident in Afghanistan on May 24.
An emotional Desiree Ruiz said Thursday she knows who Hargreaves is.
"I can’t tell you how that happened at all," she said by telephone of Hargreaves’ new bracelet. "My husband was a huge football fan and he loved Florida. Who would send that is beyond me. It could be hundreds of people. He has tons and tons of friends. That’s really cool."
Pablo and Desiree grew up in Melbourne, Fla., rooting for the Gators. Pablo was a diehard Florida fan who remained a close follower of the program as his military career took him to Fort Bragg, N.C., where he was assigned to Group Support Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group.
Ruiz enlisted in the Army in 2003 as a cook and served in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg for eight years according to the Army Times, deploying to Iraq three times. He was later assigned to Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Va.
He was on his first deployment to Afghanistan at the time of his death.
Ruiz shared his passion for sports as a prominent mentor for team4taps, a sports initiative to support families of the fallen under the direction of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS.
Diana Hosford, director of teams4taps, said the organization was heartbroken to hear of Ruiz’s death over Memorial Day weekend. As a TAPS Good Grief Mentor since 2013, he was actively involved in TAPS events connected with the NBA’s Washington Wizards and NHL’s Washington Capitals.
"He was a go-to guy for us," Hosford said. "That’s the kind of man he was. He was always helping others and a true hero for families in need. The fact somebody out there sent a player on his favorite team a bracelet to have a piece of Pablo with him is amazing."
Ruiz’s memorial service in early June drew hundreds of people at Florida Tech in Ruiz’s hometown. Ruiz was posthumously awarded his sixth Army Commendation Medal and his third Meritorious Service Medal.
With Saturday’s matchup against Florida Atlantic the Gators’ annual "Saluting Those Who Serve" game, several military members, veterans and local first responders will be recognized for their service.
Hargreaves will have Ruiz on his mind thanks to the mystery man who sent him the bracelet.
"Coach Mac always tells us that we have an impact on other people, but it’s kind of hard to believe when you don’t see it," Hargreaves said. "But this is proof that it goes way deeper than we all know. It definitely touched me because I know it meant something to him. I won’t forget how he looked when I told him ‘no.’ I knew this really meant something to him."