When Air Force Academy football player Ben Garland broke his left hand at practice in 2009, Head Coach Troy Calhoun thought he might miss the rest of the season. Garland played that week.
“You thought, ‘My goodness, this guy, he’s a pretty special human being,’’’ Calhoun said.
Garland, 32, is now entering his sixth NFL season overall and his second season with the San Francisco 49ers. For the last nine years, the offensive lineman has spent his offseasons with the Colorado Air National Guard.
“It shapes who you are,’’ Garland, a captain with the 140th Wing of the Colorado Air National Guard, said of his military training. “It teaches you that teamwork, that discipline, that work ethic. A lot of things that are valuable to the team, I learned in my military career.’’
Garland was 5 years old when he attended an Air Force football game with his grandfather, who was a colonel. That experience led the determined boy to vow to play on that field someday and become an officer.
Garland played on the defensive line at the Air Force Academy from 2006 to 2009, earning all-Mountain West conference, second-team honors as a senior. He signed with the Denver Broncos as an undrafted free agent and placed on the reserve/military list for two years so he could honor his military commitment.
Garland became an offensive lineman in 2012 and has been on three teams that reached the Super Bowl — the Broncos after the 2013 season, the Atlanta Falcons after the 2016 season and the 49ers last February. Garland started at center during San Francisco’s 31-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV in Miami.
“I’m definitely known around the wing as the guy who plays in the NFL,’’ said Garland, who is 6 feet 5 and weighs 308 pounds.
Garland has worked primarily in public affairs with the Air National Guard, handling media and community relations as well as internal communications. He has deployed abroad, including to Jordan in 2013.
He was also the recipient of a 2018 Salute to Service Award, in part, because of actions off the field including donating game tickets each week to service members, visiting the Air Force Academy annually to speak to students, working with Georgia Tech ROTC and mentoring local young officers, according to the NFL.
“Once you join the military, you are always an airman or soldier or whatever branch you choose, but we’re all service members,’’ said Major Kinder Blacke, chief of public affairs for the 140th Wing of the Colorado Air National Guard. “I don’t really think you take that uniform off. I guess I would say I see him as a guardsman who’s an excellent football player and has pursued both of those dreams at once. It’s really admirable.’’
Garland said he cherishes his time at Air Force.
“It was extremely challenging and physical, and you were exhausted at times, but the challenging things in life mean the most to you,’’ he said. “It was one of the best experiences of my life, and I have some of my closest friends from it.’’
Garland served on active duty from 2010-12 after graduation. He was already a member of the Air National Guard by the time he made his NFL debut for the Broncos against the Raiders in Oakland on Nov. 9, 2014.
“The way he is able to have a full plate but to do it with such drive and energy, he has an enormous amount of work capacity,’’ Calhoun said.
The coronavirus pandemic has altered the sports calendar and left a question mark over Garland’s NFL career. There is no guarantee that Garland will be with his teammates for the 49ers’ scheduled opener against the Arizona Cardinals at home on Sept. 13.
Regardless, Garland still possesses a clear vision for what lies ahead.
“Once my NFL career is over, I’d love to do more stuff with the military,’’ he said. “It just depends where my body’s at. …[In] the military, you get people from all walks of life to come together to be one of the best teams in the world. These selfless, incredible, courageous people, you get to know and be friends with. I definitely want to be a part of that as long as I can.’’