If you’re an Air Force football fan, or a fan of service academy football in general, there are a few names that come to mind when you think about current NFL players with roots in military service. Of course Joe Cardona and Austin Cutting are doing an outstanding job of holding down starting roles on their respective teams’ special teams unit, and you can’t forget Garrett Griffin’s NFC Championship touchdown reception last year, but two names stand out as NFL veterans who have consistently battled for their seat at the table. First, Alejandro Villanueva, an Army Ranger and current Pittsburgh Steeler, and Ben Garland, the 2010 Air Force Academy graduate on the 49ers who can seemingly fill any role he’s needed to play on the line.
Ben Garland’s NFL career earns my respect because it shows how grit and determination pay off. While he’s never said explicitly that he’s taken the Air Force core values to heart, his career is the perfect embodiment of said values.
I think it’s important to note this because with all of the back and forth on the pros and cons of allowing service academy graduates to go directly to the NFL, the point of contention really distills down to whether or not the taxpayers will ever see a return on their investment. If you want a case study into how an academy graduate can continue to serve even if they aren’t active duty, look no further than Ben Garland.
I’m not saying that Ben Garland wakes up everyday and repeats the mantra ’integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do,’ but I do believe that Ben’s upbringing, his academy experience, and Air Force service have led him to subconsciously take these values to heart to make an impact on the field and in the community.
The definition of integrity that sums it up best comes from C.S. Lewis - “integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” To be playing in the NFL, I would assume that most players do what it takes to make a roster even when the prospect of achieving their dream seems improbable.
Ben Garland went un-drafted in 2010 and was put on the Broncos’ military/reserve list until he was put on the practice squad on in 2013 and released in 2015. At this point, Ben remained persistent and put in the work to be signed by the Falcons in September 2015. With his eligibility to play on the practice squad dwindling, he was signed to the active roster in December 2015. In 2017, he would dress for the Super Bowl against the Patriots.
From there, Ben’s work paid off, he played in 16 games and started three at left guard. In 2018, he played in 14 games and started in four at right guard.
This season, Ben signed with the 49ers in April of 2019 and was named starting center in week 15 following an injury to Weston Richburg and now he will be starting for the first time in the Super Bowl.
It’s unfathomable how much work must have gone in when no one was watching for Ben to get where he is. His career has been a shining example of the ‘next man up’ philosophy that is drilled into cadets on the Air Force football team. He’s played in four different positions on both sides of the ball and all of that has led him to starting on the sport’s biggest stage tonight.
To have the wherewithal to keep grinding, even when the odds of a future in the NFL may have been low, is an indication of the kind of guy Ben is. And when the camera pans to him on game day, he meets every situation with a smile.
Ben Garland’s community service resume looks like another full time job in addition to being an NFL player and a Captain in the Colorado Air National Guard.
Last year, he used to platform to go on two USO tours, one to meet with service members in Europe, and another to meet with them in Kuwait and Iraq. He’s also active in helping veterans transition to civilian life and he works diligently to raise awareness about service-connected PTSD.
He also mentors ROTC and Air Force Academy cadets and donates game tickets each week to active duty service members.
Ben won the 2019 Salute to Service Award and $50,000 in total was donated to military aid societies in his name for winning the award.
From his time on active duty to his current Air National Guard service and community outreach, giving back is not lost on Ben. After winning the Salute to Service Award, he had this to say - ”It feels good to give back. When you make someone’s day, but not only that, you make someone’s day who’s just a good person. It’s one thing to go help a random stranger, but when you know that stranger is a brave, selfless, courageous person who is going out of their way to serve the country and sacrificing so much for you, and then you make their day, that means so much more to you.”
If you aren’t convinced of the excellence that Ben has achieved, here’s a little perspective - according to the NCAA, 1.6% of NCAA college football players will play professionally. If you factor in the barrier to entry of a service commitment, that number is far smaller for service academy graduates. The fact that Ben will be starting in the Super Bowl, and yet, he is arguably even more well-known for his community service, is the mark of excellence.
Ben has forged a unique path for himself. As any service member who plays professional sports knows, there really isn’t a roadmap to make it work. Reaching those goals requires an unbelievable work ethic and sense of personal accountability to compete with athletes who have more time and resources to dedicate to their craft.
If there is anyone we can look to as a beacon of Air Force values and a shining example of an Academy to active duty to professional success story, it can be found in Ben Garland. As much as tonight’s Super Bowl seems like a culmination of years of dedication, it’s just another point in Ben Garland’s journey. There’s much more to come from him, but it’s a great opportunity to look back at how far he’s come.