CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- When D.J. Tialavea tweeted about sleeping on a floor a couple of years ago before finally getting his NFL opportunity, he wasn't exaggerating.
2 years ago I was sleepin on floor @ a family friends house, Worked 2 jobs,15 hours a day.. today I get 2 play in my first NFL game..BLESSED— DJ Tialavea (@DjTialavea_86) December 24, 2016
Tialavea, 25, an undrafted tight end for the Atlanta Falcons and a Utah native, was out of football after leaving Utah State in 2013. During a five-month period, he connected with college buddy Simi Tialavea (no relation) and decided to get to work.
"He had an uncle that lived in St. George, Utah," D.J. Tialavea explained. "That's where we stayed. They took us in. We slept on the floor in the basement of the house. There was nine of us total in the house. Me and Simi, we worked about 15 hours a day and tried to train and keep our bodies in shape. It was a grind, but it all paid off."
Tialavea worked at a youth detention center in St. George where he watched over 15-to-17-year-old boys. He also worked private security, transferring kids back and forth from various youth detention centers.
"They were right around $10 an hour," Tialavea said of the two jobs. "On the [transportation] job, we would have to travel a lot, so you'd work 24-hour shifts. We drove from Denver to Arizona to L.A. When detention centers had to transfer, we'd be there."
Such a backstory just makes Tialavea's accomplishment on Saturday that much more remarkable. Not only did he play in his first NFL game after being promoted from the practice squad, he also scored his first touchdown on a second-quarter, 1-yard reception -- his very first NFL catch -- in his team's 33-16 triumph over the Carolina Panthers. It marked the 13th receiver that MVP candidate Matt Ryan has hit for a touchdown this season. And it helped the Falcons win a game that eventually led to their capturing the NFC South and a playoff berth later in the day.
Tialavea, whose father died in 2013, had his mother and sisters there to watch and dined with them in downtown Charlotte on Friday evening. After Saturday's game, he couldn't stop smiling while savoring the moment.
"I was out of football for a whole season," Tialavea said. "I just tried to keep the dream."
That dream became reality.
Tialavea originally was signed as a free agent by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2014. He spent some time on the Buffalo Bills' practice squad. Then after being signed and cut by the Falcons during the 2015 preseason, he found his way back to the practice squad before the end of that season.
Going into this season, Tialavea was again released after camp even though the Falcons kept four tight ends on the 53-man roster. He was re-signed to the practice squad. Tialavea was elevated to the 53-man roster on Thursday with rookie tight end Austin Hooper recovering from a knee injury and veteran Jacob Tamme already on injured reserve after shoulder surgery.
Tialavea made the most of his opportunity, and his teammates certainly expressed their appreciation.
"I'm just really proud of D.J.," Ryan said. "To be activated off the practice squad this week -- I think his family flew in at the last minute -- and for him to score and play as well as he did the entire day, I'm really proud of him. He's earned it. And that was really, to me, one of the cooler parts of the game."