Super Bowl LI has military ties on both teams with Garland and Cardona

Posted at 3:59 PM, Feb 03, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-03 15:59:50-05

HOUSTON (CNN) — When Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman Ben Garland was attending the Air Force Academy, he really wasn’t focused on pursuing a career in the NFL.

“I was thinking more so becoming an Air Force officer and being the best pilot I can be,” Garland said in Houston as his team was in the midst for preparing for Super Bowl LI.

The game, which is scheduled to kick off Sunday at NRG Stadium in Houston at 5:30 p.m. local time (6:30 p.m. ET), will have US military representation on both teams: New England Patriots long snapper Joe Cardona is in the Navy.

Garland, who is 28 and from Grand Junction, Colorado, was originally signed by the Denver Broncos as a college free agent in 2010. That same year, the Broncos placed him on the reserve/military list to serve his two-year military commitment. Garland returned in 2012 and spent two years on the Broncos practice squad.

The Falcons signed him on Sept. 9, 2015. He was a member of Atlanta’s practice squad for the first 14 weeks of the 2015 season before being signed to the active roster for the final three games.

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has high praise for his lineman.

“He’s a guy that if you asked him to do anything, he would do it,” Ryan said. “And certainly, everybody in our locker room has so much respect for Ben, serving for us and our country, and attending Air Force. He’s one of a kind, and we’re lucky to have him on our team.”

Today, Garland is a captain for the Air National Guard. On Sunday, he has the chance to help Atlanta win the Super Bowl.

“I’ve gone from an Air Force officer to playing on offense, playing on defense, playing both ways, playing special teams,” Garland said. “It’s been a journey, but I’ve loved every moment of it.”

Meanwhile, the Patriots’ Cardona, a 24-year-old from El Cajon, California, graduated from the Naval Academy in 2015 and was selected by New England in the fifth round (166th overall) of the 2015 NFL Draft. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s father, Steve, served as an assistant football coach at Navy for 34 years.

“It’s an incredible opportunity. It’s every little kid’s dream growing up to play in the Super Bowl, and it definitely was my dream growing up in El Cajon to one day play in the Super Bowl, and here I am in Houston,” Cardona told CNN affiliate KSWB this week in Houston.

According to the KSWB report, Cardona plans to complete his eight-year commitment to the Navy in the reserves.

“It’s something I take pride in, being able to serve this country and also being able to play football,” Cardona said to the station.

Earlier this week, Belichick gushed about his long snapper’s commitment to the service and his talent as an NFL player, calling it “a privilege” to have him on his team.

“Joe represents everything that we want to stand for,” Belichick said. “He’s a great person. His real job, defending our freedom, is at the very top of the list. We have great respect for the training and the work that he’s done.

“Last year was an even more challenging year for Joe because he was on active duty in Newport. His day job was the Navy and his second job was to play football. Obviously, that’s a lot different from any other player in the room. Once everyone fully understood that, you just gained even more respect for Joe. What he was doing was in addition to a job that was for everyone else.

“He’s improved a lot this year just being able to dedicate the season full time to football. He had a good season last year, but he’s made a big jump in year two,” Belichick said. “We’re excited. He’s done a good job for us. We’re excited to have him.”