Last week, Joey Mbu was in a meeting with his fellow defensive linemen when, out of nowhere, Bryan Cox delivered news the UDFA signing won't soon forget.
Matt Bryant's injury opened up a roster spot, Cox explained, and Mbu, a practice squad member, should prepare to be called up for Sunday's game. Naturally, the 22-year-old was excited. So were his teammates in the room—including Ra'Shede Hageman, who joked that Mbu might cry during the national anthem.
"It felt like my hard work was starting to pay off," Mbu said. "It felt great knowing the coaches trust me to do the job and not have to look elsewhere. It was really gratifying."
Mbu ended up playing 24 snaps versus the Panthers, according to Pro Football Focus, registering two tackles (one for loss) to go along with a QB hurry. It was a solid debut, one that showed he can succeed at the highest level.
He admitted to being nervous when he trotted onto the gridiron at Bank of America Stadium, but after he brought Jonathan Stewart down three yards behind the line of scrimmage in the first quarter, Mbu felt a sense of calm wash over. From that point on, it was just "regular football" once more—just like at practice.
Mbu's big play also gave him a special kind of satisfaction. Those who don the UDFA label have bigger chips on their shoulders than most. They know the odds aren't in their favor; they know lots of executives don't think they have what it takes. To beat the percentages, and to show those higher-ups, "Actually, I do belong here," is an experience like none other.
"To finally get on the field and prove some people wrong, it felt really good to me," Mbu said. "Obviously there's more work to be done, but in that moment, I felt like, 'What's up?'"
By aiding the Falcons' defense in Carolina, Mbu joined Robenson Therezie and Terron Ward as undrafted rookies who have contributed this year. In total Atlanta has 13 undrafted players on its current depth chart—a testament to the franchise's ability to mine talent others pass up.
"It's something special. That's how you know Quinn knows what he's doing," Mbu said. "It wasn't by mistake. It just goes to show you that they did their scouting right."
Quinn has praised Mbu's work since training camp, when the 6-foot-3 DT consistently improved his technique and adapted to the system in place. Atlanta's head coach was happy with Mbu's performance last weekend, too, and believes it was an encouraging step forward.
"It was great to get him started with his first play time, getting him going," Quinn said. "I thought it was a great first outing for him."
Mbu's path to the 53-man roster was, of course, peppered with challenges. Following an impressive career at University of Houston, he watched all 256 draft picks go by without receiving that coveted phone call. Then he joined the Falcons as a camp body, survived round after round of cuts and paid his dues on the practice squad, where one's job is hardly secure.
Now, no matter what happens in the future, he can always pull up Sunday' box score, point to the tackle for loss and know he realized his dream.
"I'm in the NFL," Mbu said with a laugh, "and I have a stat to prove it."