ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – As a little boy, Ben Garland(notes) clutched a poster of the Air Force Thunderbirds, the planes roaring into the sky, and he knew exactly what he wanted to be. He pinned that poster to his bedroom wall, beside the pictures of John Elway, and he told his mother, Syndee, he was going to the Air Force Academy someday.
From then on, his life was planned. He wore Air Force shirts to school, made lists of what it would take to get into the Academy, and thought of little else than the Air Force and the jets he would someday thrust through the clouds.
He loved football too. And, like all kids in Grand Junction, Colo., he adored the Broncos. There were times he envisioned himself a Bronco. His closet at home was filled with Elway T-shirts, and when he didn't wear an Air Force shirt to school he wore his Elway jersey. But football was a fantasy. While other kids dreamed of the NFL, Garland imagined the roar of the engines, the shaking of the cockpit.
The Air Force wasn't a fantasy. The Air Force was real.
Then everything he dreamed about came true. He was accepted to the Academy, played for its football team and graduated last spring. He landed an elite place in pilot-training school in Del Rio, Texas, and got an appointment to report late this winter.
But he had also become very good at football. So good, in fact, the Broncos signed him as a free agent and invited him to their training camp. Suddenly, Garland, who had planned his life since he was a little boy, had a decision he never imagined: Fly or play football.
''Can you imagine you had two dreams as a little kid?'' he asks one day at Broncos training camp, where he is trying to make the team as a defensive end. ''One to be a pilot in the Air Force and one to play for the Broncos? Not just any team. The Broncos. And now you have both opportunities before you?''
The problem? He can't have both. There is time for just one. So he must pick. If he likes his odds as an NFL prospect and where he stands at the end of camp, he can request a sports waiver from the Air Force which will require him to spend two years in the service before making a try at the NFL again. But doing so means giving up his spot in flight school, which requires at least a five-year commitment in the Air Force.
Pick flight school and he can forget about football.
It's a difficult decision: Fly for his country or play for his favorite team in his favorite sport.
And he isn't sure which one he wants more.
Troy Calhoun saw this coming. The Air Force coach knew he had something wonderful in Garland when his defensive end sustained a right hand fracture last fall. He saw the injury and assumed Garland would miss at least a month, maybe two.
''Don't worry, Coach,'' Garland told him. ''I'll be back tomorrow.''
The next day, Garland showed up to practice — his arm in a cast, ready to play. The player who was supposed to be out at least four weeks never missed a day.
''He just has sheer resiliency and toughness and fortitude,'' Calhoun says.
The NFL loves stories like this. And as Garland grew bigger and more dominating in Air Force's games his last year in school, it was only a matter of time before teams showed interest. When the Broncos called, he took six weeks of military leave he didn't have. That means, essentially, he'll have no vacation the next two years just so he can attend training camp as the longest of long shots.
He has been relentless in scrimmages, pouncing at the offensive linemen before him. Asked if he is wasting his time trying to make the team, players quickly shake their heads.
When the team runs sprints at the end of practices, Garland always wins the defensive race. This despite the fact he is 6-foot-5, 275 pounds and running against linebackers and defensive backs who are some of the fastest players in the NFL. It's becoming clear that if he decides to give up flight training and comes back to football in two years, there will be some kind of opportunity waiting for him. And that has given him pause.
''[The NFL] has been everything and more that I thought it would be,'' Garland says. ''I mean, it's been a humbling experience. I've been kind of awestruck. You kind of get stars in your eyes when you put on the Broncos symbol. I've learned so much more about the game than I ever knew before.''
But then there is the Air Force.
The Air Force Academy never had to recruit Garland. Rather, he recruited it. In high school, he flooded the coaches with game tapes and letters explaining how hard he would work, how good he could be. Inquiries from other colleges piled up at the house, every school from Harvard to UCLA. Ben wasn't interested. Whenever a school called, he said he was going to Air Force.
New Mexico wanted him badly. The Lobos invited him to take a recruiting trip, meet the football team.
''Don't waste your free trip on me because I've already made up my mind,'' he told the New Mexico coaches.
They insisted he visit anyway, and so he did. But it was pointless. When the Air Force finally offered its scholarship it was a quick, easy "Yes."
By then, of course, he was already coming. Not wanting to leave an athletic admission to chance, he had plotted his way to the Academy for years. Syndee Garland remembers Ben, back in elementary school, preparing a list of all the requirements he would need to get into the Academy, committing them to memory. As he got older, he started checking them off. In high school, he joined clubs he thought would make him appear diverse to the Academy's admissions committee. When he thought his résumé needed more padding, he ran for class office.
He even obtained the necessary congressional recommendation.
''He got in on his own; he didn't have to use football,'' Syndee says.
So now, after working through the only school he ever wanted to attend, fighting to get the cherished invitation to flight school and standing just months away from the only thing he ever hoped to do, how can he turn it down? Garland isn't sure. This is what makes nighttime the worst. Night is when practice is over, there are no more meetings to attend or defenses to learn and he must sit alone in his room, pondering his future.
''That's when it tears at you,'' he says. ''That's when you got to make a decision.''
He's asked Calhoun. He's asked his family. He's made lists, writing down all the pros and cons of his choice, his future. Syndee Garland keeps hoping for a sign, something that makes the decision easier, like the Broncos telling him he doesn't have a future in the game. But none come. The Broncos seem intrigued and the Air Force is waiting.
Perhaps the best example is Chad Hennings, the former Cowboys defensive linemen who picked flying over football in the early 1990s, only to have the Air Force downsize five years after he got in. He left, was signed by Dallas and became a football player.
Time is running out. If he's going to accept his slot in flight school, he will have to start losing all the extra weight he put on for football so he will be lean enough to fit in the planes when classes start. At 6-foot-5, he's already pushing their height limits. But even if he decides he wants to play football, he needs to notify his commanding officers so he can get a new career plan.
''I guess either one would be a dream come true,'' he says.
Once, down in Texas, he flew an F-16. It was what they call an ''incentive ride.'' He sat in the back seat of the plane while another pilot flew up front. After awhile, once they were up in the air, the pilot threw control to Garland for a few moments. Suddenly, the metallic beast screeching across the clouds belonged to him.
''Ohhhhhh it's an amazing experience,'' Garland says. ''It was like driving your own personal roller coaster.
''It's a rush like none other.''
But playing in the NFL has its own elation.
''A whole different adrenaline rush,'' he says. ''It's one of those things where you train so hard and everything goes by so fast. You put your training together along with your hard work. It's a really cool experience.'' What does he choose? He doesn't know. Flying or football? His country or the Broncos?
His mother's advice? Even she isn't sure.
''A piece of him will be lost in whatever he gives up.''
- Air Force