North Texas linebacker Joshua Wheeler first noticed that Ulaiasi Tauaalo had made a fundamental change in his life in the midst of a game a few weeks ago.
Tauaalo, a defensive tackle, made a stop and had his name called out by the stadium announcer. Wheeler recognized Tauaalo's last name but was surprised to hear him referred to as Ulaiasi instead of T.J., the first name he had used since arriving at UNT in 2014.
"I told him, 'Hey, they called you by your government name,'" Wheeler said of Tauaalo's legal name. "He told me he was getting back to his culture."
Tauaalo is certain his grandmother was smiling because of that change.
Tauaalo is Tongan. Only his mother and grandmother called him by his given name until this season, which will continue Saturday when UNT hosts Old Dominion in a Conference USA game at Apogee Stadium.
"My grandma got a TV and can watch the games this season," Tauaalo said. "She would be livid if she heard the announcer call me T.J. instead of Ulaiasi.
"She hadn't had a TV since I came here in 1995."
Tauaalo's family moved to the United States from Tonga, a group of islands in the South Pacific, so that its children could have a better life. He is the second-oldest sibling in a family that includes four sisters and his two brothers.
Heritage is important to the family, which settled in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Tauaalo started going by T.J. in grade school despite the way his family values its background. He made the switch out of necessity.
"I always wanted to go by my first name growing up," Tauaalo said. "It was confusing for my teachers in middle school. When they couldn't pronounce it, I'd just say, 'I'm here.'"
The 6-2, 290-pound defensive tackle was hard to miss even then, and quickly developed into a standout player for Keller Central. Tauaalo received Class 5A all-state honorable mention as a senior when he finished with 94 tackles, including 10 for loss, and three sacks.
Several programs pursued Tauaalo, who signed with UNT and stayed closer to home and his family. He redshirted in his first season with the Mean Green and has quietly developed into an impact player.
Tauaalo finished with 27 tackles as a redshirt freshman and added 25 more as a sophomore, including three in UNT's loss to Army in the Heart of Dallas Bowl last fall. That performance was a sign of what was to come from Tauaalo.
He's already posted 17 tackles, including a career-high 2 1/2 for loss, to help lead the Mean Green to a 4-3 start. Tauaalo has been credited with two quarterback hurries and returned a fumble 27 yards.
Tauaalo's performance has been vital in a season that has seen UNT's depth along its defensive front tested by a series of injuries to key players, including tackles Bryce English and Tony Krasniqi and end Tillman Johnson.
English has yet to play this year, while Johnson and Krasniqi are among the UNT linemen who have missed time.
"Up front has been our biggest strength, and T.J. is a big reason for that," UNT coach Seth Littrell said. "He's a big, strong guy and is great at using his hands. He has been solid."
Tauaalo has always been popular among his teammates and talks about his heritage. He occasionally wears a lavalava at the Mean Green Athletic Center. The native garment is a piece of cloth people from Tonga wear around their waist that resembles a skirt.
"He's proud of his heritage," said Andy Flusche, a senior defensive end who is one of Tauaalo's closest friends on the team. "He has every reason to be. He comes from a great Tongan community back home."
The pride Tauaalo has in his heritage was another reason he decided to go back to using his given name this year.
"I wanted to embrace my culture," Tauaalo said. "It's not only good for me to acknowledge where I'm from, but also for everyone to know about my background."
A few people, including UNT's coaches, asked Tauaalo about it when he elected to start using his given name this season. He's provided a simple answer every time.
"It's time to go back to my roots, embrace it and everything that goes with it," Tauaalo said.
Hearing from his grandmother, who finally got to see him play on television and hear his Tongan name called, convinced Tauaalo that he made the right decision.
"My grandma called me and was going crazy," Tauaalo said.
That conversation was particularly rewarding for Tauaalo, who is hoping his small gesture will please his extended family and set an example of how to keep their heritage alive.
"My parents decided to come to the country so that we could have a better life," Tauaalo said. "It has worked out so far. My job is to open up doors for my younger sisters and little brother. Everything I do is for them."
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.
FEATURED PHOTO: North Texas defensive tackle Ulaiasi Tauaalo (15) tackles Texas-San Antonio running back Jalen Rhodes during the Mean Green's 29-26 win Oct. 14 at Apogee Stadium. (Jake King/DRC)