SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- At 6 feet 6 inches tall and 305 pounds, 2nd Lt. Ben Garland looks more like a football player than a typical Air Force officer. That's because he's a defensive lineman contracted to play for the Denver Broncos and currently attending the team's conditioning and tryout camps, which last through mid-June.
While the 23-year-old Air Force Academy graduate waited for official word from the Secretary of the Air Force on being released from active duty through the Palace Chase program, which was recently approved, he spent his time at Scott Air Force Base in a disciplined balancing act to meet both the Air Force and the 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 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 achieving tough things, 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."
The Air Force has been his No. 1 priority ever since he dreamed about becoming an Air Force officer. He had scholarship offers from several division one 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," said Garland.
During his successful career at the Academy where he majored in systems engineering management and became well known for his on field intensity and relentless pursuit of the big hit, several pro teams showed interest in signing him.
A fellow Academy football player, 1st Lt. Tyler Weeks, said, "Ben is a relentless, physical, and dominating football player who gives 100 percent effort on every play with a motor that never stops running. 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."
Weeks, a former offensive lineman, now serves as the Air Mobility Command 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," said Garland.
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 at Scott AFB in July 2011 and it didn't take too long for people to start noticing the big guy on campus.
"I didn't think anyone was aware of my intentions to be a professional football player," said Garland. "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 as it did with his supervisor who said that initial thought had briefly crossed her mind, but soon realized that he was anything but a stereotype.
"We absolutely adore Lt. 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, 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 and said that Garland is a humble, selfless, easy-going person who understands there is more than fame and glory that go along with playing a sport at its highest level; he constantly gives back to the community and mentors young athletes.
"Ben's athleticism and sheer work ethic stand out the most. 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 stereotypes because he knows what it takes to play at that level where the intricacies of the game are complex and the intellectual knowledge requires due diligence with studying the tactics and techniques of the game.
"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. 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," he said.
When he's wasn't leading PA's 27-person shop through mobility exercises, crisis response situations or media events, he 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's on contract, there's still a vigorous selection process for which he trained, as well as to meet the minimum fitness requirements of his contract.
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. 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," said Garland.
Each day he combined stretching and mobility exercises with strength conditioning, weightlifting and speed work. Garland could be seen at the gym adding weight after weight to each machine at times surpassing over a half ton.
"I do a lot of precautionary and pre-injury work and use cold and hot tub contrast to help prevent injuries during training. You don't want to hurt yourself before you even get to go play."
To fuel this extreme activity, he must consume between 6,000 and 8,000 calories a day. A typical day's worth of food 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 was $200 a week.
"My diet is nowhere near the average Airman's," said Garland. "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 defense and studied the game--always looking for ways to improve. Those who know him know that there's little doubt that he will reach all of his goals, to which Garland says he 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 to just being disciplined," said Garland. "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."
Now that he is approved for separation as of May 26, he plans to finish using his leave status to keep attending the camp while working with base leadership on the separation details. He plans to finish his service commitment in the Guard, but details are still being worked. Until then, his office -- who claim No. 1 fan status besides his mom of course -- and indeed all of Scott AFB are staying tuned in to the Broncos website to catch glimpses of Garland at camp and to cheer him on throughout the tryouts.
"I work hard and served the best that I could," said Garland. "I dedicated myself to serving my country ... and now it's time to play some football!"