Falcons Tight End Knows Tragedy of Viral Cardiomyopathy Personally

Falcons tight end, DJ Tialavea, has been personally touched by cardiomyopathy.

Falcons tight end DJ Tialavea has been through the wringer in more ways than one, but he tends to come out on top. One aspect of the aspirational athlete’s life that became a little less bright in 2013 revolved around the death of his father, Don, before Tialavea ever donned his first Falcons uniform. Don, also known as “Sweet D,” was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy, a condition wherein the heart muscle begins to thicken and stiffen, usually in the wake of a viral or bacterial infection. Don had been given just a few months to live shortly before DJ (Donald Jr.)’s birth. He beat the odds for more than two decades, although he was frequently bedridden, in and out of the hospital, or forced to use a wheelchair for extended periods of time. Despite these difficulties, DJ recalled in an official Atlanta Falcons publication that his father remained resolute and taught his son, “the importance of accepting those who face major obstacles.”

Viral cardiomyopathy is nothing if not a major obstacle, as is evidenced by the senior Tialavea’s original grim prognosis decades ago. Although cardiomyopathy can be caused by heart attacks or high blood pressure, the condition can also result from viral or bacterial infections. In fact, until 2012, patients considered to be at risk for the condition were often advised to take antibiotics before visiting the dentist to lower their likelihood of contracting such a bacterial infection as a result of bleeding from the gums during their dental cleaning, even though the odds of this were fairly low. Likewise, a 1997 review of the association between cardiomyopathy and enteroviruses did appear to establish what the authors referred to as a “causative role of enteroviruses in the condition,” especially in pediatric cases.

However, cardiomyopathy often goes undiagnosed until the condition is exacerbated (possibly by an infection). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that as many as 1 in every 500 adults has the condition.

Symptoms of cardiomyopathy include unusual fatigue, swollen ankles and legs, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, and even fainting. In Don’s case, his initial diagnosis came as a result of a doctor’s visit around the age of 30, after experiencing extreme shortness of breath.

DJ and his family often credit his father’s determination to live for his own determination to succeed in professional football despite great odds. After leaving Utah State University in 2013, DJ slept on the floor of a friend’s uncle’s basement while working 15 hours a day, all while trying to stay in shape in case he got signed for his dream job: professional football. DJ eventually did get signed as a free agent and spent time on several teams’ practice squads before signing with and then being cut by the Atlanta Falcons in 2015.

DJ’s determination paid off; however, when he was activated off the Falcons’ practice squad in 2016. He made his first career NFL catch for a touchdown during his first NFL game. That catch helped the Falcons beat the Carolina Panthers on their way to Super Bowl LI.

DJ’s father always credited his faith for keeping him alive after that original diagnosis although he was never fully cured. In truth, viral cardiomyopathy and ongoing issues with this disease are often difficult, if not impossible, to cure because the condition is frequently a result of a chronic health issue, even if it is triggered by an infection. “Adopting or following a healthier lifestyle can help control symptoms and complications,” CDC researchers state, noting that in most cases, “The goal of treatment is to slow down the disease, control symptoms, and prevent sudden death.”

Don Tialavea certainly accomplished much with his lifestyle changes and unwavering faith, and for DJ, his father is still at every game and will definitely be at the 2017 Super Bowl, sitting in the empty seat deliberately left vacant next to his mother and sisters.