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Face of Defense: Air Force Officer Tackles NFL Dream

By Air Force Staff Sgt. Brian Valencia

375th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill., April 25, 2012 - At 6 feet, 6 inches tall and 305 pounds, Air Force 2nd Lt. Ben Garland looks more like a football player than a typical officer.

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Air Force 2nd Lt. Ben Garland, who's preparing to realize his dream of playing for the NFL Denver Broncos professional football team, tops off his shopping cart at the commissary on Scott Air Force Base, Ill., March 9, 2012. Garland shops for groceries weekly to fuel his daily 6,000 to 8,000 calorie intake. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Brian J. Valencia

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution imageavailable.

That's because he's a defensive lineman contracted to play for the NFL's Denver Broncos. Garland will attend the team's conditioning and tryout camps which last through mid-June.

The 23-year-old Air Force Academy graduate has been approved to be released from active duty through the Air Force's Palace Chase program, which offers qualified active duty enlisted members and commissioned officers the opportunity to petition for transfer to National Guard or Reserve status.

Meanwhile, Garland has spent his time here performing a disciplined balancing act to meet Air Force and NFL physical fitness requirements.

"To play defensive lineman you have to be a pretty big guy. I need to be around 300 pounds to stay competitive and that's not really the Air Force body type where you're going to run a mile and a half really fast and you're going to have a small waist," said Garland, who served here as the 375th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs chief of media operations. "Even with the pushups and sit-ups, you're pulling and pushing a lot more weight than the average Air Force member so it makes the testing extremely difficult."

But, Garland's no stranger to achievement, as he aced his most-recent fitness assessment with an overall score of 90.4, though he admits that meeting the waist measurement is the toughest part since it does not take into consideration height or body composition. For maximum points, his waist needed to be less than 35 inches, and in order not to fail it had to be no more than 39 inches. He measured 38 inches.

"I know a lot of people who struggle with the waist measurement; it has been difficult trying to maintain standards and be competitive in football," said Garland, a Denver native. "But it's one of those things you have to take and push through. You have to take the Air Force standards and make them your No. 1 priority."

Garland said the Air Force has been his top priority ever since he dreamed about becoming an Air Force officer. He had received athletic scholarship offers from several top-ranked football schools but instead worked to earn an academy appointment purely on academics and leadership.

"I wanted to earn it. I did not want to be given a waiver or an exception because I was a football player. I wanted to be evaluated and accepted in every area and get in on my own merit
-- it meant more to me that way," Garland said.

During his successful career at the academy where he majored in systems engineering management and became well known for his on-field intensity, several professional football teams showed interest in signing him.

Air Force 1st Lt. Tyler Weeks, a fellow academy football player, described Garland as "a relentless, physical, and dominating football player who gives 100-percent effort on every play" and never quits.

"Ben has always been a loyal teammate who motivates others to perform at their highest potential. His example and encouragement lift the play of those around him and make Ben a valued member of any team," said Weeks, a former offensive lineman who now serves as Air Mobility Command's financial management and comptroller executive officer.

Though Garland had been preparing to become a pilot, when the opportunity came to play professional football, he made "the tough call."

"I dreamt of flying for the Air Force ... and playing in the NFL for the Broncos ... it was a tough choice but I ultimately decided to play for my home team," Garland said.

The Broncos gave him a three-year contract and placed him on inactive reserve status so he could complete his Air Force commitment. As an academy graduate Garland was committed to serving two years active duty before being eligible to separate. After graduation he served as a strength and conditioning coach at the academy until the Air Force sent him to become a public affairs officer with his first duty station here.

He arrived here in July 2011 and it didn't take too long for people to start noticing the big guy around the base.

"I didn't think anyone was aware of my intentions to be a professional football player," Garland said. "No one let on they knew and if they did, I didn't see it at first. But, then I would be training at the gym, and people would ask me questions about football, about Tim Tebow, [former] quarterback for the Denver Broncos, or someone would just ask for fitness tips."

If there is a perception that football players are just "dumb jocks" then getting to know Garland breaks that perception very quickly, according to his supervisor here.

"We absolutely adore Lieutenant Garland!" said Karen Petitt, chief of public affairs. "He's this big gentle giant with a great laugh, strength of character, and genuine interest in his team. He's got this amazing gift for details and a memory that keeps us on track with all the taskings that come our way.

"Everyone just naturally looks to him as a leader," Petitt continued, "but not because he's the 'office linebacker' like you see on those TV commercials, but because he's got integrity and charisma, and they know they can depend on him."

Weeks agreed, noting that Garland is a humble, easy-going person who gives back to the community and mentors young athletes.

"Ben's athleticism and sheer work ethic stand out the most," Weeks said. "Some players rely on athleticism alone to be 'good' players. Ben has become a 'great' player because he dedicates every fiber of himself to becoming a better athlete every day."

Garland said he's not bothered by football player stereotypes.

"Everyone who plays -- even at the college level -- is continually analyzing and thinking multiple steps ahead of what they're going to do and how it will affect the game," he said. "To understand the schemes and understand what goes into the full game, you have to be intelligent even if you're only intelligent in the ways of football."

When he's wasn't leading the public affairs office's 27-person shop through mobility exercises, crisis response situations or media events, Garland traded in his uniform for PT gear to put in another five hours at the gym to keep competitive for the Broncos training camp. Though he has signed a contract with the Broncos, he said, there's still a vigorous selection process.

Garland said he kept his workouts consistent no matter what obstacles got in the way. Even when tired or sick, or after a long day, he pushed through to get his workout in.

"Some days I might work a 12-hour shift, go home and eat a full meal until I'm stuffed, and then I go work out as hard as I can because I know there's some other guy out there working as hard as he can to beat me out for that roster spot," he said. "I also know there is someone who is training hard to line up across from me, so I need to stay on top of my game for that."

Garland said he must consume between 6,000 and 8,000 calories a day to fuel his body. A typical day's worth of food, he said, consists of different combinations of lean meats, vegetables, protein and good fats such as nuts and avocados. Eating that much food is expensive and his average grocery bill reached $200 a week.

"My diet is nowhere near the average airman's," Garland said. "I have to eat so much food that it can be tough scheduling it around working out and the full-time commitments of the Air Force. But, it's all about discipline. You have to balance everything while keeping focused on your end goals."

With what remained of his spare time on the weekends, Garland read books on football defense and studied the game -- always looking for ways to improve. Those who know Garland believe he'll achieve his goal of becoming an NFL player. Garland gives credit to the Air Force.

"The Air Force has influenced me on the football field in every aspect from work ethic to teaching me how to work as a team member to just being disciplined," Garland said. "In the Air Force it's, 'Excellence In All We Do,' and on the football field you put that same excellence into every play. If your job is to hold this gap, then I'm going to do everything in my power to be in that gap."

Meanwhile, Garland's supporters here say they'll cheer him on throughout the Broncos tryouts.

"I work hard and served the best that I could," Garland said. "I dedicated myself to serving my country ... and now it's time to play some football!"