Ben Garland’s journey through life has seen the San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman play in Super Bowls while simultaneously serving his country. But his latest efforts?
Building wells and hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro.
The National Guard Captain sat down with Heavy to discuss life since the 49ers’ run to Super Bowl LIV, the relationship between his military service and football, as well as the USAA’s Memorial Day initiative to honor fallen service members and remember those who fought in World War I through Poppy in Memory.
“I’m really excited about the opportunity to partner with USAA, working with them to honor Memorial Day. Being a military veteran and having lost friends that have served overseas, this is an opportunity to pay tribute to them and show support for the families of those who have fallen.”
An alum of the Air Force Academy that spent his first two years in the NFL serving in the Air Force, Garland has always balanced a civic duty with a desire to compete at the highest level.
After coming in and starting at center for the 49ers in the last three regular-season games of 2020 as well as playing snaps throughout the playoffs, Garland has spent the offseason giving back.
Being an NFL player is special enough, but Garland has a hunger to live life in a meaningful live outside of his sports. From the Grand Junction, Colorado native’s perspective, a lot of this inspiration comes from his all-time role model.
“My grandpa was always my hero, He was an incredible man. Good character-wise, and [through him] I saw the military as a way to reach my greatest potential as a man. I knew that was a big foundation of what made him who he was. I thought it would be a great way for me to push myself to be the best man I can be.”
This led to Garland electing to attend the Air Force Academy after high school in his days of being a defender, totaling 115 tackles, 11.5 sacks and blocking two kicks in his time as a Falcon.
His home-state team, the Denver Broncos, came knocking after Garland went undrafted in the 2010 NFL Draft. That ensuing fall, Garland was placed on the reserve/military list and began to serve his two years in the Air Force.
Garland explained that he feels just as fortunate to grow the relationships he has through military service as he has through football.
“Anytime you go through something difficult with somebody and you become part of a team and you really rely on each other, it makes that bond and relationship grow stronger. Nothing grows those bonds like being in boot camp with somebody or going to war with someone. I think that bond that military members have is far beyond anything else.
You have that bond in football, where you went through training camp, went through hard stuff, you tried to become a team together and put it on the line. You do have that bond, but those relationships are my favorite part of being a service member and playing football. Still nothing compares to the bond you have with your brothers and sisters in the service.”
After his time with the Air Force, Garland returned to the NFL, sticking with the Broncos until 2015. After joining the Atlanta Falcons, Garland began his switch from the defensive side of the ball as the 2017 Falcons nearly won Super Bowl LI, falling short to the New England Patriots 34-28.
In 2019, the 2018 Salute to Service award-winner moved on to the 49ers, again playing an important role on a Super Bowl-contending team.
Time in Tanzania
After San Francisco fell short to the Kansas City Chiefs, Garland returned home and then to the Air Force Academy, relaxing after his second full-playoff run in three seasons.
But as one could guess, Garland didn’t go very long before he was on to his next task.
“Went back to the academy for a bit and about two weeks after completing it, I went over to Kilimanjaro and Tanzania and worked on projects with the Waterboys, we put in some wells and raised money to put in more wells for some communities there to have water.
Then, me and a group of military veterans and [retired NFL player] Lamarr Houston climbed Kilimanjaro together. That was a really cool experience to bond with those military guys. You get away for six days with no phone, you’re on top of a mountain with nothing to do but learn each other’s life stories.
Waterboys is an initiative by retired NFL lineman Chris Long’s foundation, looking to bring fresh water to communities in need.
Garland said the entire trip was an important experience but watching fellow military veterans, some who have lost limbs while in service, climb Mt. Kilimanjaro was something truly uplifting.
Some of those guys on the mountain were so unbelievably inspiring. Kevin, Doc, and a couple other guys who have lost limbs while serving our country, yet they’re climbing this insane mountain which was incredibly hard for me though I’m relatively fit. These guys aren’t complaining once and they’re clearly in excruciating pain. You could just see the mindset that they were determined to do it for the people that have supported them, the people that helped money for the wells. It was just such an inspiring experience for me to start the offseason with.
Garland said he is now back in the States, spending what time he can with family while preparing for the 49ers’ 2020 season. Still, as important as football is to Garland, it’s his experiences off the field that shows the level of character he aspires to.
Evan Reier is a sportswriter covering the San Francisco 49ers for Heavy.com and local sports for the Montana Standard in Butte, MT. Follow and reach out to him on Twitter at @evanreier.