Atlanta Falcons tight end D.J. Tialavea walks to and from the team's facility from his home in Flowery Branch every day.
When you think of the NFL, you might think of players like Julio Jones, whose locker is just across from Tialavea's in the team's practice facility. You might think of eye-popping plays, like Jones' catch over Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly in Atlanta's Week 16 victory. You might think of the multi-million dollar contracts that result from those highlight reel catches, like the $71.25 million, five-year extension signed by Jones prior to the 2015 season.
None of that resembles Tialavea's experience in the National Football League.
Tialavea was signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars as an undrafted free agent in 2014 and earned playing time with their starters during the team's first two preseason games. He was cut as the team made decisions to get their roster down to the league-mandated total of 53 players, and he was added to the Buffalo Bills practice squad, but only for a few weeks.
The Falcons added Tialavea to the roster during the offseason, and he was with the team throughout training camp and the preseason. Tialavea suffered a knee injury during preseason and was a casualty when the team made cuts to get the roster down to 53 players. He went home to Utah and tried to stay in shape and rehab his injury, staying focused on another shot with the Falcons.
Tialavea was certain he wanted to return to Atlanta.
"I had other opportunities to at least go try out for other teams, but I always -- me, and my family as well -- we always had a gut feeling that Atlanta was a really good spot for me," Tialavea said. "I had told my agent, hey, tell these other teams I appreciate them calling, the interest, but I think I'm going to wait it out until I get a chance to go back to Atlanta, and it worked out."
This epitomizes what Quinn and his staff are trying to accomplish with players.
Quinn said the team stayed connected to Tialavea when he was not on the roster, encouraging him to rehab the knee and to maintain a hope of ending up back in Atlanta.
"Every coach that's here, we want to take every guy as far as we can," Quinn said. "So when he was injured, man, we were really disappointed. Like, man, just go rehab and we'd love to have a chance to get back and work with you, and so we stayed connected with him."
For Quinn and his staff, they want their relationships with the players they're developing to be a two-way street. They want to create an atmosphere where the coaching staff invests in players' development and the players, in turn, want to invest in the team.
"I think it's those kinds of things, when you have the investment in the player and they'll have it back to you, and that's one of the things I want to stress with the guys all the time," Quinn said. "Like, how far you can take a guy, then maybe he's willing to give back some on his end, too, to say, all right, they're invested in me. I want to go invest in them, too."
Part of the reason Tialavea wanted to return to Atlanta was the coaching staff's emphasis on developing every player on the roster. Dan Quinn has said that he views the roster as a 63-man roster, and the team doesn't treat practice squad players any differently than superstars. If anything, the "Plan D" guys, the practice squad players and young guys the team is working to develop, get more attention and help from the coaching staff.
For Tialavea and players like linebacker Tyler Starr and defensive tackle Joey Mbu, it's paying off.
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said that with Tialavea, they liked his size and his blocking ability in the run game, and they wanted to see him develop in the pass game. It was that development that led to the decision to add him to the active roster.
"When he came back [to the practice squad in Week 12], we really wanted to challenge him because he was making big time progress, in the run game especially, at the end of the line, the combination blocks, so we challenged him to see how much of the pass game could he incorporate into that," Quinn said.
Tialavea credits his improvement to the extra time the coaching staff spends to develop practice squad players and their commitment to helping them reach their full potential.
"They treat you just like you're with the team, especially the Plan D guys. They give you even extra attention, whether it's before or after practice, and they know your talent and they want to grow your talent," Tialavea said. "They have future plans for most of the guys on that Plan D schedule, so they work with me almost every single day, and it's paid off extremely. I obviously got this opportunity, so it definitely helped."
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said that, should Tialavea be active on game day, he believes the tight end is prepared to contribute.
"D.J. has been a very solid tight end for us. He's a very good blocker; he's a big guy who comes off the ball hard and really helps in the run game, and he's serviceable in the pass game," Shanahan said. "If it ends up working out for D.J. this week, I fully trust him. He did some good things for us in the preseason before he got injured. He's a guy who will compete, help out in the run game and do his job in the pass game."
Pursuing his dream of playing in the NFL has been a challenge for Tialavea. As a practice squad or fringe roster player, there's not a lot of job security. Those players are always expendable depending on the team's personnel needs in any given week.
The uncertainty is a challenge for players like Tialavea and their families, but it only makes the experience of being promoted to the active roster more sweet.
"Oh, it's been a trial, to say the least. It's tested me. It's tested my family, so getting this opportunity is just a wonderful blessing," Tialavea said. "I can't be more grateful for this opportunity."
While practice squad players certainly put their bodies through a lot in practice, there's a disparity between the pay for active roster players, even at league minimum, and practice squad guys.
There's no limit to the amount a team can pay a player on the practice squad, but teams tend toward paying the minimum, which is $6,600 per week. For a person in a normal profession earning an average salary, that sounds like a lot of money. It is a decent salary for players who spend an entire season on a team's practice squad. According to Spotrac.com, Tialavea made $25,888 before taxes for Weeks 12 through 16.
One game check at veteran minimum, which Tialavea will be paid for this week's game even if he's inactive, exceeds the total he made on the practice squad over the course of those four weeks this season. Spotrac lists Tialavea's salary for Week 17 at $33,000.
Still, based on Tialavea's experience so far in the NFL and his understanding of the uncertain future, you can't blame him for not rushing into any big purchases. Tialavea said that he's considered using money from his game check to purchase a car, but it's possible that he'll just keep walking the mile between his home and the team's practice facility.
"That's something I've thought about, but we'll see," Tialavea said, laughing. "I don't know. We'll see what my bank account says and we'll go from there next week."