Within the entire National Football League, there are only two players who currently serve in the military — and both of them made it to Super Bowl LI this year.
Ben Garland, an offensive guard for the Atlanta Falcons, also serves as a captain in the Colorado Air National Guard’s 140th Wing as a public affairs officer and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy. Army Maj. Earl Brown, who serves in the communications department for the NFL, says another reserve component Super Bowl player, New England Patriots, long snapper Joe Cardona is an ensign in the Navy Reserves. He is the first Naval Academy graduate to be drafted into the NFL since 1993.
The El Cajon, California, native had served a year of active duty for the Navy when he was shifted to the reserves and designated him as a supply corps officer, easing some of the demands on his football schedule. After playing for the Navy’s winning football team for all four years of his college career, Cardona had the opportunity to continue that winning streak when the Patriots beat the Falcons in the 2017 Super Bowl.
Q: What made you decide on the Navy?
JC: I’m from San Diego, being a Navy town, I always grew up around it. And, my dad served in the Navy for 24 years and just seeing the Navy everywhere around me growing up it was a no-brainer when the Naval Academy offered for me to come play football and gave me an opportunity to serve.
Q: As a kid, did you always know you wanted to be on this path of football and military service?
JC: I saw myself serving and that was what the childhood career was for me, or at least what I wanted to do and it wasn’t until maybe my junior year of college that I realized I could have the potential, the ability to play in the NFL just as I developed in school and developed as an athlete. And it wasn’t until really before the draft that I found out I would have the opportunity to get the chance to play in the NFL and that’s all it really was, was ‘we’ll give this guy a chance’ … To say the least, it was very unexpected to be able to play in the NFL.
Q: What was the moment like when you realized you would be playing professional football?
JC: It was just surreal — you know, you go from, like I said, I grew up playing and never thought it would materialize, although I thought I was pretty lucky to get to play at the college level. It was definitely surreal leading up to those first practices not knowing how I’d stack up, but it ended up being — at the end of the day — football out there’s normal. It’s what I’ve done forever. It all sort of fell into place.
Q: How have you maintained being in the NFL player and maintaining the military side of your career?
JC: It definitely became a concern because I’ve seen myself going down this path of being a naval officer, and my main concern in the whole draft process and football stuff was whether I could get an opportunity at that career as well. That first year being on active duty, things were looking very unsure because I was stretched so thin between the two it was hard to do either one with a clear focus and do my best at both… Going into the reserves, it actually gave me the opportunity to have both careers going simultaneously.
Q: Are there intersections between the military and playing for the Patriots?
JC: I would say the biggest similarities are teamwork and … the wherewithal to know I have to do my job and I am a part of this big process. It’s important to fill my cog in the wheel. I’m doing my job so it can help accomplish the mission, you know on the football field or off, and that’s important in both football and military sense.
Q: What can people learn from your story?
JC: With hard work and persistence, really anything is possible. A lot of things happened to fall in place, and I had some great mentors who I learned a lot from and navigating the water between the two — football and the military — haven’t always been easy. Just showing a commitment and having that commitment to both, whatever you do, and really committing is what’s going to help you achieve whatever you can imagine.
Joe Cardona’s story gained national attention because he needed a waiver from his command to miss drill weekend in order to play in that Super Bowl game. He says they were fully supportive of him and continue to be accommodating of his football requirements. His near-future plans include pursuing a degree in business and hoping to continue his success both on and off the field.
“ I would say the biggest similarities are teamwork and… the wherewithal to know I have to do my job and I am a part of this big process.”