Most of all, Ben Garland is enjoying every bit of his NFL experience. The former Air Force defensive lineman can take mental snapshots of the practices and preseason games as he tries to impress the Denver Broncos this month.

But when there’s free time away from the field, an impending decision weighs on his mind.

Garland doesn’t know what he’ll do yet, whether he’ll accept a coveted spot in the Air Force’s pilot training program, or if he’ll turn that down and serve two years with the Air Force in another role while keeping his NFL dream alive.

It’s one or the other. Become a pilot, or pursue a NFL career. He and his family have heard many times how fortunate he is to pick between two dream career paths, and everyone acknowledges it is a great situation to be in. However …

“In some ways it’s not,” Ben’s mother Syndee Garland said. “How do you pick between these two?”

Pilot training is about a 10-year commitment, if Garland accepts. He hasn’t been given a specific date to tell the Air Force if he’ll accept the spot, but there’s some urgency. If he becomes a pilot, he must attend the aerospace basic course at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama this October, then initial flight screening in Pueblo in February and then the actual training begins in April.

His work would start well before October. He weighs a little more than 300 pounds now. He would have to get down to about 240 to be a pilot, which will take some time.  

The decision would be easy if Garland wasn’t so good at football. Officials and coaches at the academy can’t say enough about him. Members of the Broncos organization say Garland is impressive – his work ethic and character have caught their eye.

Garland said he will continue to use his advance leave to remain with the Broncos through all four preseason games, as long as the team wants him.

“If I can make it that far, it would be an honor,” Garland said. “If I make it that far, I’ll know better whether I have a shot or not.”

Playing in the NFL over the next two years, while fulfilling his commitment, doesn’t appear to be an option. He is currently working one day a week as an instructor in Air Force’s strength and conditioning program, and if he turns down pilot training, he’ll be reassigned to another job.

It “can’t be token service,” in the words of an Air Force spokesman, but a meaningful job. The Broncos can keep Garland’s rights by placing him on the reserve-military list. Because he has a signed contract, after two years of service Garland can defer his remaining three years to six years of reserve service, and play in the NFL.

That sounds like a solid plan, but the tug of being a pilot in the Air Force is strong too. Garland made it clear he loves the Air Force and wants to serve his country.

“My thoughts are first on the Air Force – that’s my No. 1 priority,” Garland said. “That’s such a great opportunity to be an officer and such a great thing to be a part of.”

Garland’s family has been a sounding board, but Syndee Garland said Ben has to make the decision, and they will be proud of him either way. Chad Hennings – who got to be a pilot and play in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys – said he spoke to Garland months ago but couldn’t tell him what the best path was.

“It’s probably the toughest decision he’s going to have to make in his young life,” Hennings said. “I don’t envy him one bit.”

Garland played pretty well in the fourth quarter of the preseason opener at Cincinnati, assisting on four tackles. He is modest, however, saying he has a lot to work on. The first cut date is Aug. 31. Denver’s final preseason game is Sept. 2. After that, he and the Broncos should have an honest evaluation of his NFL future.

Before then, there will be a lot of time to think.  

“When I’m free, I’m definitely weighing the options,” Garland said.