The Atlanta Falcons still have some work to do if they want to make a return appearance at the Super Bowl. But one Air Force family will be at the big game thanks to Falcons offensive lineman Ben Garland, who turned a recent honor for himself into a way to help others.

Garland met Katie Dean and her 3-year-old son, Cooper, in November as part of the NFL’s Salute to Service event. The lineman, an Air Force Academy grad and a captain in the Colorado Air National Guard, wore the initials of Dean’s husband, Robert, an airman who took his own life in June 2016, in Atlanta’s game over Veterans Day weekend.

“Ben talked to us about [my husband] Robert and his service,” said Katie Dean. “[Ben] is such a nice guy and very humble.”

They kept in touch. Garland gained a huge fan in Cooper.

“It was so funny, we’d do Snapchats and stuff, and people would ask him, ‘Who’s your favorite player?’ and he’d say, ‘Ben Garland! Ben Garland!’“ Garland said. “I think he told his mom one day, ‘Hey, wish Ben Garland a happy birthday.’ It wasn’t my birthday, but for a 3-year-old just to randomly think of you like that, it’s pretty cool to have that.”

Garland invited Dean and Cooper to be his guests at the Falcons’ community honors dinner on Dec. 11, where Garland was awarded the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for his community service.

“I just thought we were going to dinner,” Dean said.

But Garland had more in store for Dean and her son.

After accepting his award, Garland invited Dean and Cooper onstage and surprised them with two tickets to the Super Bowl.

Dean was overwhelmed with Garland and the Falcons’ generosity. As for Cooper, he’s just excited he became friends with Garland.

“[Cooper] doesn’t completely understand any of this,” Dean said. “He just thinks his best friend is a football player.”

Ben Garland bonded with Cooper, 3, through a partnership between the NFL and TAPS. (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors)
Ben Garland bonded with Cooper, 3, through a partnership between the NFL and TAPS. (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors)

‘They have so much compassion’

Katie Dean and her husband, Robert, had just celebrated their six-year wedding anniversary when Robert took his own life on June 23, 2016.

“We were at home when he passed, and we were just on the other side of the door when it happened,” Katie Dean said. “It’s not easy to get over something like that.”

Dean said the constant support from Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which partnered with the NFL on the Salute to Service honor, has helped her and Cooper work through the grief of losing Robert.

“They have so much compassion for everyone and for what they’re doing,” she said, adding that it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Gold Star Family — TAPS offers assistance to any military family who’s grieving.

Dean said she’s not sure what her husband, who grew up a Falcons fan, would make of everything that’s happened to her and to Cooper through TAPS and the NFL.

“He was very humble, and he never wanted anybody to give him any recognition for anything,” she said. “I’m sure he would be like, ‘What? The Super Bowl!’ He was a huge football fan.”

Robert Dean joined the Air Force right out of high school and worked in the aircrew flight equipment field. He was stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, for almost all of his six years on active duty. When he died, Robert was in the Air Force Reserve but was getting ready to go back on active duty.

“It’s sad that men and women are coming home from overseas and dealing with the transition and not really getting the support they need and choosing to end their lives,” Katie Dean said.

Diana Hosford, vice president of sports and entertainment at TAPS, said the organization works with professional sports teams to create meaningful opportunities for the families of America’s fallen heroes.

“This incredible connection with Ben Garland and the Dean family is just extraordinary and means so much to Katie and Cooper,” she said. “Ben being in the Air Force just like their fallen hero and also being so kind, caring and thoughtful just like the man they loved and lost, makes this bond even stronger.”

Reaching out

Dean said Cooper lost his father and his uncle within a year of each other, so she’s glad her son has someone like Garland to admire. Garland also felt a bond with the family, on several levels.

Cooper Dean, 3, wears a replica helmet at the Atlanta Falcons training facility. (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors)
Cooper Dean, 3, wears a replica helmet at the Atlanta Falcons training facility. (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors)

“We had a great connection,” he said. “Not only was it an Air Force family, which I can very much relate to … you could tell how much [Robert] meant to them. It was definitely heavy on my heart.

“They’ve given everything up for this country, so hopefully, we could give a little bit back to them.”

Garland credited the entire Falcons franchise — singling out owner Arthur Blank and head coach Dan Quinn — as encouraging community involvement and “using the NFL as a platform to do better.” Still, his work in the community stood out enough to earn him the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.

And at the same time, his on-field role has increased: He made the first start of his four-year NFL career in December, becoming a full-time offensive guard after seeing action on both sides of the ball during Atlanta’s Super Bowl run last season.

“It’s such a deserving honor for a guy who stands for what he does,” Quinn said at a news conference, describing the Walter Payton award. “His role on this team has been, behind the scenes, a really significant one. …

“The work that he does off the field, behind the scenes, it’s a fantastic story. … There’s guys like Ben on this team, and on other teams, that set a fantastic example.”

The league names its overall Man of the Year in February. Through Sunday, the 32 finalists will compete on Twitter to see whose hashtag (#WPMOYChallengeGarland, for instance) gets the most mentions. The winner’s charity gets $20,000, which in Garland’s case would go to SoDE Solution; the lineman serves as executive director of the nonprofit, which combats sex trafficking.

Staff writer Kevin Lilley contributed to this report.