ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- He has never appeared in an NFL game, not one. Not for a play, not for a moment, his day-to-day efforts have yet to be met with what some may think is the reward in a football life.
But for Ben Garland, it's about uniforms, and how you wear them.
"I've been able to wear the best uniform in the world, every single day, to be a part of something I think is special," said Garland, who is a guard on the Denver Broncos practice squad. "Now I get to wear the second-best uniform in the world, wearing that Broncos label, wearing that Broncos helmet. I've been rewarded in so many ways, I'm still striving to make it out there, to contribute, but no question I've already been rewarded in football."
A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Garland has spent much of the past four years trying to both honor his commitment to the military and still find a way to chase his dream of becoming a professional football player. The Broncos and the Air Force have let him try.
The Air Force and U.S. Department of Defense have worked with Garland as part of the Palace Chase program, which allows those like Garland to work in a civilian job after two years of active service if the job helps raise awareness of the armed forces. After his two years of active duty, Garland has joined the 140th Wing of the Colorado Air National Guard. His intention is to make a career of military duty when whatever becomes of his football career is over.
Just before Broncos coach John Fox took a leave of absence to undergo open heart surgery earlier this week, he took a moment to chart Garland's progress.
"I've always said the way Ben goes about it, the way he conducts himself, everybody in this building respects that," said Fox, whose father, Ron, was a U.S. Navy SEAL. "Players respect him, coaches respect him, everybody. We're all proud of what he's been able to do and he's had the best training in the world, we know that. It's been a no-brainer to have him around this organization."
Many in and around the Broncos would like to forget what happened in the 2010 season. There was the 4-12 finish, coach Josh McDaniels was fired, and of course, Spygate. But McDaniels and the team's personnel staff also invited Garland to training camp that year knowing if he showed enough to make the team he couldn't make the team.
And throughout that summer training camp, as Garland routinely sprinted to every drill and finished in front of his teammates in conditioning work, he was lauded for his effort and his potential.
Garland was set to enter pilot training as he went through that first training camp. However, after being unable to secure a weight waiver to fly, he served as an instructor at the Air Force Academy for one year and served as a Public Affairs Officer for the 375th Air Mobility Wing at Scott Air Force Base (Ill.) in his second year.
"The lightest I've been is 210 pounds my freshman year [at Air Force] and I was about 275 during my active duty," Garland said. "What I was hoping for was a weight waiver, to get into something like an A-10, a fighter, air support. But they've changed some of the guidelines since [former Cowboys defensive lineman] Chad Hennings could fly, so I had to switch career paths and moved to public affairs. It was a little tough, the whole time I wanted to fly, but I also wanted to lead and serve and be in the military and I have been able to do that."
He returned to the Broncos as a defensive tackle last season -- he was formally sworn into the Air National Guard in a ceremony on the front steps of the Broncos' complex following an OTA practice -- and eventually spent the season on the Broncos practice squad. This past offseason he switched to guard and is again on the Broncos practice squad.
Garland is getting daily on-field tutorials, with Broncos rookie tackle Vinston Painter, from long-time offensive line coach Alex Gibbs. Gibbs works with the two after most practices.
"So, right now I'm trying to keep my focus in that area, but at the same time stay up on things at defensive tackle, working hard every day just to get on the field somehow," Garland said. "But the Broncos have been great with me, they've worked with me and I'm really blessed to have somebody like [Gibbs], with that experience to come down and work with us one-on-one. I just look at everything as opportunity. I'll play any position."
Still, Garland said one of his favorite moments of the season thus far, beyond quarterback Peyton Manning's historic work in the pocket or the team's 7-1 start, was an outing the players took just before the Broncos adjourned for their bye last weekend.
Fox arranged for the team to have a private screening of "Lone Survivor,"' a Peter Berg film set for a January release that recounts an ill-fated 2005 mission in Afghanistan by four members of Seal Team 10. Only one of the SEALs, Marcus Luttrell, survived. Luttrell and Berg attended the screening with the team and Garland was able to meet Luttrell.
"The beauty was just seeing the appreciation of the military from my teammates, to see the appreciation of the sacrifices that have been made," Garland said. "To see how much they care about it; that meant a lot to me. And to meet an American hero, it was an awesome experience, to meet him, to shake his hand. To see that kind work ethic, that kind of attitude, that kind of drive, that's something you want to be."