ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It was only one snap of one playoff game, a sliver of a moment in the annual week-to-week march to put two teams in the Super Bowl.
But when Atlanta Falcons center Alex Mack's leg got rolled during his team's romp to victory in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday and Ben Garland jogged in, it was proof that Gary Kubiak was right all along.
There were times, many times in fact, when Kubiak would talk about Garland’s future as a player, and the recently retired Denver Broncos coach would offer a glimpse of what has actually transpired.
“I think [Garland] could be a center, and a good one,’’ Kubiak said during training camp in 2015. “He’s got all of those things for the position, you know his effort and character. He’s smart, he’s played in the defensive line and understands what those guys are trying to get done. But I think eventually he’ll be a center, or play there a lot.’’
Garland didn’t play there a lot in the Falcons’ rout of the Green Bay Packers -- he played just the one snap before Mack returned -- but Garland does lead a small contingent of ex-Broncos who will now be a part of Super Bowl LI.
Garland, a Grand Junction, Colorado, native, has spent the past two seasons with the Falcons, including most of the 2015 season on the practice squad before he made the active roster this season. Former Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme, who spent three seasons with the Broncos, which included three division titles and a Super Bowl trip, is on injured reserve (shoulder surgery) with the Falcons.
Tamme will not play in Super Bowl LI but is expected to travel with the Falcons to Houston for game week. The New England Patriots, the AFC champion, have just one former Broncos player among their travel party, with nose tackle Darius Kilgo having been added to the practice squad this season.
Kilgo, a Broncos sixth-round draft pick in 2015, will participate in New England's practices next week in Houston, but he would not play in the title game unless the Patriots promote him to the active roster.
But Garland’s road to the Super Bowl is paved with his own determination and a strong belief from the Broncos that there was an NFL player somewhere inside the second lieutenant from the Air Force Academy, who made his first appearance in a Broncos practice when Josh McDaniels was the team’s coach in 2010.
At the time, Garland arrived as a high-effort but undersized defensive lineman who was still considering the idea he might have to eventually be small enough to fit in the cockpit of a jet. The Broncos kept Garland on reserve/military during his two years of active-duty service because as former coach John Fox said: “I like to keep players who’ve been trained by the best in the world.’’
Fox’s father had been a Navy SEAL and Fox, too, believed Garland’s future would eventually be in the offensive line. And when Garland returned to the Broncos in 2012, he was indeed switched to guard even as he often went through practices playing in both the offensive and defensive lines.
Garland spent two years on the Broncos' practice squad before he made the active roster in 2014. Garland even opened training camp in 2015 as Denver's starting left guard. But in what was the early stages of a makeover in the offensive line that is now headed into its third offseason, the Broncos selected Max Garcia in the 2015 draft and signed Evan Mathis and Shelley Smith in free agency in the quest to protect Peyton Manning.
And the Broncos released Garland when the roster went to 53 players in September 2015. Garland went to Atlanta, slightly frustrated his hometown team had decided to move on, and the Broncos went on to win the Super Bowl last February.
As executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said the day Garland was waived: “He’s the kind of guy that you’d like to have your daughter marry, so anytime you let a guy like that go, it’s tough. Ben’s worked so hard and really tried to make that transition [from defense to offense]. Unfortunately there weren’t enough spots, but I think that Ben will be one of those guys that is going to get an opportunity.’’
Indeed, Garland was one of those guys, and he will suit up for a Super Bowl because of it.