FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga -- As a video montage began to play at the Atlanta Falcons community honors dinner Monday night, offensive lineman Ben Garland leaned forward in his seat, seemingly oblivious to the full banquet room surrounding him.
When the video finished playing, Garland walked onto the stage to a rousing applause and was awarded with the Falcons' Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for his work.
"I'm incredibly humbled to receive this honor tonight," Garland said upon arriving to the podium. "I was completely shocked to hear the news of the nomination. Every week I work alongside my brothers and see they're doing absolutely incredible things in the community, so for me to get picked among these men to be Walter Payton Man of the Year blew me away.
"I feel blessed every day that I get to be a part of an organization that aligns so closely with my core values. My goal is to be a part of a lasting positive change and empowering the civilians in our great city of Atlanta, and I look forward to continuing my commitment to serving this community as an ambassador for the Falcons. I'm truly grateful for this recognition, and it could have gone to any one of our players – we have so many good guys – that's why it means even more to me."
After Garland ended his acceptance speech, he displayed an incredible act of kindness and generosity, not unlike those that earned him a spot on the stage in the first place.
During the NFL's Salute to Service initiative, the Falcons partnered with TAPS – Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors – to honor those who gave their life and support the families they left behind. Garland represented fallen U.S. Air Force veteran Robert Dean during the initiative and grew close with his wife, Katie, and his young son, Cooper.
Following his recognition, Garland invited Katie and Cooper to join him on stage, where he then presented his sponsor family with two tickets to the upcoming Super Bowl in February.
"I was honored to be able to represent Robert Dean on my helmet for the Salute to Service game," Garland said. "I got to know the family, and what a cool program that we get to represent some of these absolute heroes. These are people that gave everything, and we get to meet the families who also gave everything in honor of this country. To be able to honor them and give them something, it means a lot to me."
For Katie Dean, the generosity Garland showed her and Cooper by providing Super Bowl tickets is just the latest act of kindness from the Falcons lineman.
Garland first met the Dean family at the Falcons' practice facility in Flowery Branch and developed an immediate and genuine connection with Katie and Cooper.
"Ben's just been great," Dean said. "To take our family in and take my little boy like it's nothing. We were totally shocked that he gave us the tickets to the Super Bowl. I'm still trying to process that, I think, that we just got two tickets to the Super Bowl. I'm so thankful to Ben and to the TAPS that brought us together."
Roberts presented with Salute to Service Award
Garland is far from the only player in the Falcons organization who deserves recognition for his work in the community, and he was not the only player honored on Monday night. Kickoff and punt returner Andre Roberts, was presented with the Atlanta Falcons Salute to Service Award for his work with military families and the TAPS program throughout the season.
Roberts comes from a military family where both his mother and father served in the U.S. Army, and he attended and played football at The Citadel, one of the six primary military colleges in the country. During the Salute to Service initiative, Roberts took time to show his appreciation for former military veterans by visiting the local VA Medical Center.
"I'm honored," Roberts said of receiving the award. "You never think that you're going to get recognized for this kind of stuff – off the field stuff. I'm just happy to be part of the Atlanta Falcons organization. And what they do for the military, it's just awesome.
"The biggest thing I'd say is it's not always about the money. The biggest thing you can give somebody is your time. If you can give somebody your time, show your support, it always helps."
The desire to help others begins at the very top of the Falcons organization with owner Arthur Blank. Many of the six core values that Blank holds at the very heart of his business ventures embody selflessness in many ways, including "give back to others" and "put people first."
Blank spoke at the beginning of the night about the importance of "making a difference in people's lives" and explained that the Falcons seek to not only draft talented players on the field but also men of great character off of it.
Garland and Roberts are just two of the many players within Atlanta's locker room that put Blank's philosophy into action. They continue to work within the community to help improve the lives of others and encourage those around them to join along.
"There are so many guys who do so many incredible things in the community," Garland said, "and to be the one selected, it means even more to me. "Just start taking a genuine interest in someone's life, and that could be the biggest impact in the world. If we do one person at a time, and each person genuinely takes an interest in someone, that can literally change lives. And down the road, you'll hear it. 20 years from now, they'll say, 'Thanks, because you're genuinely interested in me, you completely turned around my life and it meant the world to me.'"