Flying or football? Air Force grad weighs choices
To launch his career as a pass rusher, Air Force graduate Ben Garland may have to ground his pursuit of becoming a pilot.
It's a decision that weighs on the Denver Broncos rookie defensive lineman.
Garland has earned a spot into a pilot training program at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas. It's a chance to fly jets for a living as he serves his five-year commitment to the Air Force.
However, Garland's prowess as a pass rusher with the Air Force Falcons earned him a spot with the Broncos this spring. Nothing guaranteed, no promises, just a shot to be on the same defense with Pro Bowlers like Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins.
Also very appealing.
Should he select the wild blue yonder, though, chances are his football career may be derailed. By accepting his pilot's slot, his five years could turn into the decade required for fliers.
That dilemma is dawning on the 22-year-old Garland, whose Denver teammates refer to as ``Air Force.''
``It's such a golden ticket either way,'' said Garland, who is from Grand Junction, Colo.
An alternative may be this: Garland possibly could skip pilot training and fulfill his commitment through working down the road at the Academy in the finance department. He might even be allowed to moonlight as a member of the Broncos, provided, of course, he makes the team.
Garland also has the option of applying for early release from his commitment after two years of active duty, serving the rest of his time through the reserves.
It's similar to the path that Philadelphia receiver Chad Hall recently traveled. Hall, a 2008 Air Force grad, spent the last two years serving as a second lieutenant at Hill Air Force Base in Utah before signing with the Eagles in March.
Hall was a maintenance officer, though, not a pilot.
``But he's been a huge help to me,'' said Garland, who's on a 60-day leave to join Denver for offseason workouts. ``If I were able to somehow make this team, what an amazing experience. And if I have any sort of career as an Air Force officer, what a dream, too. Something will work out.''
Former Air Force standout defensive lineman Chad Hennings empathizes with Garland.
Hennings placed football on hold after being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1988. He took part in a training program for top pilots and flew support missions in northern Iraq to help with relief aid.
He was looking at being a 32-year-old rookie in the NFL after serving his 10-year commitment to the Air Force.
But when the military went through a reduction in forces after the first Gulf War, Hennings received credit for time served. That permitted him to play for the Cowboys at age 27, winning three Super Bowl titles over a nine-year career.
``I was very blessed to fly in combat missions and have a full career in the NFL,'' Hennings said in a telephone interview.
Hennings has spoken to Garland about the situation - one pilot/pass rusher to another.
``It's a gut-wrenching decision,'' said Hennings, who's now an author, motivational speaker and ministry leader in the Dallas area. ``He's going to have to decide which path he wants to go in and put his nose to the grindstone.''
Garland anchored a line last season at Air Force that was one of the top defenses in the nation. He led the team in tackles for loss (10 1/2) and sacks (4 1/2). All that despite playing most of the year with a broken left hand.
``Nothing would keep me off the playing field,'' he said.
As much as he enjoys football, Garland feels the same way about flying. That's why he's on the fence about his future.
To climb into the cockpit of a plane, though, Garland would have to shed weight.
A lot of it.
The 6-foot-5 Garland has bulked up to 292 pounds to play on the defensive line.
To fly, he must to hover around 245, which would still make for a tight squeeze.
``You get creative to fit in,'' said Garland, who has logged air time over the past few summers and is working on his private license. ``When I would take off, I had to reach under my leg to start the ignition.''
Hennings remembers that feeling all too well.
``If I climbed in now, I'd probably get claustrophobic,'' Hennings said, laughing. ``They're not meant for someone who's 6-6, 290 pounds.''
Hennings provided good PR for Air Force as a pilot and pass rusher.
``When I was playing in the Super Bowl or the NFC championship games, John Madden would circle me with his pen and say, 'Chad's an Air Force graduate' or 'Chad flew in Gulf War' or 'How the heck did Chad fit into that cockpit?''' Hennings said. ``That's indirect marketing the Air Force can't pay for. I'm glad I did both. It worked out perfect for me.''
He would love to see a similar ending for Garland.
For now, Garland remains in a holding pattern as he decides between flying and football.
``I look at it as having two bright futures,'' Garland said.