Less than a year ago, Jets defensive tackle T.J. Barnes was sleeping on a friend's couch in Atlanta, without an NFL future. Now, he's on the Jets' 53-man roster and part of one of the best defensive lines in the league.
Barnes was at his lowest last year around this time. He had just been cut by the Jaguars before the start of the regular season and no NFL team was even sniffing around. He was among the last cuts as preseason ended, a feeling he remembers as “simply hard to take after all you go through.” Over the course of the next few hours he lost his phone and missed his flight home.
A friend he met at church in Atlanta offered him a spot on his couch and Barnes took it, even though it wasn't the glamorous NFL lifestyle he had dreamed of and frankly, it was difficult for his massive 6-foot-7 frame to fit on the sofa. But he knew he couldn't go back home, not after being cut.
It looked like his NFL dream would never come to fruition, but before Week 5 he received a call from the Jets asking if he would come to New Jersey for a workout. The Jets had a Monday night game against the Falcons, ironically in Atlanta, and wanted Barnes to do a workout on Saturday. So he flew up and worked out for the Jets during a session he describes as “horrible.”
“I just thought it was bad,” Barnes said. “I was a little out of shape and heavy. I thought it was awful.”
He flew back to Atlanta without a deal, thinking he might be out of football for good. His roommate got tickets for the Monday night game against the Jets and Barnes sat front row to watch New York's surprise victory. No one recognized him on the Jets sideline. It wasn't easy on Barnes, however, who said he left the game early.
“I just had to leave,” Barnes said.
Then his phone rang on the drive back to falling asleep on his couch.
“My agent called me and said to expect a call. Then I look at my phone and I'm getting a call. It's the Jets saying, 'We are going to pick you up for the practice squad,' and I'm like, 'What?' I couldn't believe it,” Barnes said. “I thought it was that bad when I had my workout. Then I go to the Jets game that night — the team I had just tried out for a day or two ago. I was sitting there watching the game, feet away from the players. It wasn't easy to watch because that was my dream to be there on that sideline.
“Then I get the call and man, it was the best feeling in the world. I wasn't sure I'd ever feel it again.”
Barnes had left Georgia Tech early without completing his degree in business management. When the Jaguars cut him, he didn't know what to do next.
“I was so sold that I was going to make the 53 in Jacksonville and I had all my eggs in that basket. I didn't have my degree because I left school early. I really didn't know what was next,” Barnes said. “I didn't want to go back home because that felt like I'd be starting over. I knew I could, but I didn't want to.”
Barnes finds himself making progress in his first full season with the Jets. Barnes admits to nerves as he waited to find out if he would make the team. He wasn't sure if he would make the practice squad, let alone the official roster. Barnes had a good training camp and preseason. The nose tackle has improved his footwork and the use of his hands.
But he still knew the feeling of missing out on a 53-man roster all too well.
“I was nervous. I didn't hear anything from anybody, I didn't know. My agent hadn't heard anything. I was on pins and needles,” Barnes said. “I didn't find out till 5 p.m. They made me wait. It was tough, I'm not going to lie. But it is great to be in the position that I'm in right now, considering where I was this time a year ago on a couch. I'm now in the NFL. It feels great.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.