Ben Garland blazing military-NFL trail

The Broncos signed Ben Garland in 2010 knowing he'd have to serve at least two years in the Air Force. AP Photo, USA Today Sports

Ben Garland has been where Alejandro Villanueva is now. He knows the odds are against Villanueva making the Philadelphia Eagles' roster after serving four years in the U.S. Army.

While the degree of difficulty is high, transitioning from active duty in the armed forces to playing in the NFL can be done. Garland is proof. His journey from serving in the Air Force to earning a spot on the Denver Broncos' practice squad the past two seasons provides the road map for Villanueva. All Villanueva, who signed with the Eagles as a free agent before last month's draft, needs is time and opportunity.

The Broncos have given the 26-year-old Garland that over the last couple of years. Denver coach John Fox is the son of a former Navy SEAL. He has the utmost respect for the men and women who serve and protect our country.

But Fox hasn't viewed Garland as a charity case. He appreciates Garland's work ethic. He values Garland's presence in the locker room. He knows that no matter what goes wrong or what adversity the team faces, Garland won't quit. Garland will keep pushing, and that resilience is infectious.

"Ben's the kind of guy you root for," Broncos offensive line coach Dave Magazu said. "He's one of the good guys you're hoping like heck catches a break and makes the football team and makes your team better, because he's such a great guy. ... He's a machine."

A Colorado native, Garland was a defensive lineman for four years at Air Force Academy from 2006-09. In April 2010, the Broncos signed Garland as an undrafted rookie free agent knowing that he would have to serve at least two years in the Air Force.

Garland used leave time to attend the Broncos training camp that summer and then, after the Broncos put him on the reserve/military list, spent two years in active duty. He was an instructor at the Air Force Academy for nine months and then was a public affairs officer for the 375th Air Mobility Wing at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.

Every day during his active duty, Garland would train for upward of five hours. He set up cones in a field, ran what he called "mock football drills" and practically lived in the gym.

"Everyone thought I was crazy," Garland said. "I'd never go out. I was constantly working and training and working for my dream."

In 2012, the Air Force and U.S. Department of Defense worked with Garland as part of the Palace Chase program, which allows those like Garland to transition into the Air Force Reserve work a civilian job after two years of active duty.

Garland was indefatigable at practice, but he was not in football shape.

"You can't really replicate that live speed with 11 people," he said. But he was fit. His teammates often joked that he put something in his water to keep him from getting tired.

"It's one of those things; you learn mental toughness and you learn, 'I'm kind of exhausted and tired,' but be dedicated to the task at hand,'" Garland said. "The NFL and the military have so many similarities. You're on an elite team trying to be the best in the world at that specific task. You have to have discipline and work together as a team. You have to be a leader."

Garland was that simply by example.

"He doesn't wear down, which is really incredible," Magazu said. "Even some of the other guys will ask, 'Aren't you even tired.' Yeah, but you don't ever see it. He has that mental toughness and that physical toughness he can push through it. It doesn't look like there's a dent in his armor."

Garland spent the 2012 season as a defensive lineman on the Broncos' practice squad. He was part of the scout team and also stood in as an offensive lineman. Before the 2013 season, the Broncos moved Garland, who is 6-foot-5 and is listed as 308 pounds, to offensive guard. He spent last season again on the practice squad.

The Broncos have needs along the offensive line this season after guard Zane Beadles left for Jacksonville in free agency. Garland has been working during organized team activities with the second-string offensive line. While he is eligible for one more season on the Denver practice squad, the hope is he can land a spot on the 53-man roster.

"I guess you say we're trying to find a place for Ben," Magazu said. "Where are we going to be able to take advantage of all the intangibles he has and all the things he has to offer?"

That is how Garland hopes Villanueva, who played multiple positions at the United States Military Academy, is handled in Philadelphia. The Eagles are trying Villanueva at defensive end in their 3-4 base defense.

Like Garland was in Denver two years ago, Villanueva is a long shot to make the Eagles' roster. But like Garland, he has a relentless work ethic and is playing for a coach in Chip Kelly who values players in peak physical condition.

"He'll be perfectly fine in the workouts," Garland said of Villanueva. "He just needs to get used to playing football. He just needs to play and hopefully gets the opportunity long enough that they think they need you on the team."

That's what Garland did, and he continues to take advantage of the opportunity.