Ben Gardner arrived in San Diego on Nov. 4, 2015. Although he played a key role on the team's practice squad, it was a tough adjustment as the 6-4, 270-pounder transitioned to a new team, a new city, and most of all, a new position.
A former seventh-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys, Gardner made the most of his reps in the Chargers offseason conditioning program over the past two months. It was an opportunity he'd eyed for a very long time.
"I'd been thinking about this a lot," he said. "I came in midseason and didn't really have a chance to get involved in the defense in any way, shape or form while on the practice squad. It was all new for me this year. It was kind of like a rookie year again in this system. But having been here, I was comfortable with the guys in the building and the coaches. I think that has helped me."
Gardner likely would have already made his mark in the NFL had it not been for injuries. A two-time All-Pac-12 player at Stanford, his college career ended prematurely his senior year when he suffered a torn pectoral muscle in October. After it caused him to drop to the seventh round of the 2014 NFL Draft, his rookie year was over before it even began as he injured his shoulder in training camp that required season-ending surgery.
Healthy again, Gardner became a training camp favorite last year in Dallas, and impressed in the preseason as he tallied eight tackles and one sack in limited reps. However, he was waived at the end of the year as part of a numbers game before eventually landing in America's Finest City.
While others may feel snake bitten, Gardner learned to harness his past misfortune in a healthy manner.
"I understand that this is how it works. When I was a senior in college, if I didn't tear my pec I may have gone in the third or fourth round. Then I went in the seventh round, got hurt my rookie year and missed it (all). Then Dallas drafts three guys in my spot after I got healthy. But that's just how it works. You have to focus on the next opportunity every time. I tried to block all that out, and really learn the system and show I can be trusted this fall."
Now, for the first time in his life, Gardner is lining up at outside linebacker instead of having his hand in the dirt at defensive end. That transition is not an easy one, yet you would never know that watching him on the field.
"It's different. It's a lot more to process mentally pre-snap in terms of recognizing the formation and what everyone is doing behind you because it all fits together. But (Linebackers) Coach (Bob) Babich has done a great job taking it slow with me and being very detail oriented. I pride myself on being able to pick things up quickly, and I think it has been pretty seamless. I'm feeling more and more comfortable each day, and I am enjoying the challenge."
So what can fans expect from Gardner this season?
"I'm a smart, tough player that likes to get up the field and cause havoc in the backfield," he said. "I plan on setting the edge, being a tough guy against the run and get after the quarterback a little bit. I definitely have more of an appreciation of what it takes as this is my third go around."