Falcons cornerback AJ Terrell prioritizes the Atlanta high school that shaped him

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ATLANTA — He snuck in the back entrance this Friday night: no massive entourage, no announcement, not even a big cheer from the Westlake High School crowd. He hugged his family, who had been hanging out on the sidelines before this high school football game, then turned toward the field.

The game against Carrollton started, and Atlanta Falcons cornerback AJ Terrell, dressed in an army green hoodie with a black T-shirt underneath, green pants and camo-colored Nikes, stood at the goal line near the goal board and watched intently. On the field, his younger brother, Avieon, did exactly what AJ had done years earlier.

When an NFL player returns to his high school, it’s usually a big deal. There is a festive atmosphere or some kind of recognition. Not for Terrell — at least not on this day — and for good reason.

AJ Terrell is always around.

“He’s such a familiar face,” Westlake athletic director Carl Green said. “So it’s a sense of normalcy for him because everybody’s treating him like he probably wasn’t here. It’s not a star-struck mentality … it’s a familiarity. It’s a comfort. It’s a situation, where he feels he is at home.”

Westlake has been home to all four Terrell children, Avieon, a senior, being the youngest. His family has been intertwined with Westlake for close to a decade. His parents are constantly at events and have worked the concession stand.

That’s why Terrell wanted to give back to Westlake by donating his time and money. Terrell’s agent, David Mulugheta, usually advises his rookie clients to focus on football by making the team and settling in.

With Terrell it was different. As soon as he signed his contract, he was confident that he would start giving back to Westlake, especially since he was lucky enough to be home in Atlanta.

“It’s all the years we went through and just the brand and all the people there and the school itself,” Terrell said.

“It’s just something I love and want to take care of.”

What started as an idea has turned into something more — a symbiotic relationship between Terrell and his alma mater, especially the football and track programs. He has invested emotionally and financially.

He also has bigger goals to help more of the city he grew up in and represents on Sundays as one of the better young cornerbacks in the NFL. But it all starts at the high school that shaped him.

TERRELL CAN slipping in and out of a Westlake game unnoticed is how he prefers it. It suits his personality. He has never sought attention. The more understated, the better.

For this game against Carrollton, he has a larger personal crowd than usual. Terrell had a security guard escort him — mostly at the school’s request — along with his agents, Mulugheta and Trey Smith, and Smith’s young son. His parents, Aundell and Aliya, were there when he arrived to say hello and give him a hug. Then they went to watch from the stands. Sometimes Aundell also watches from the sidelines, but not on this October night.

On a typical night, it’s Terrell and the security guard. Maybe another person. He is not happy, although he will take pictures if people ask him to, and a few people stop him.

Otherwise, when he shows up to as many games, he is there to pay attention, not to be fooled.

“I’m locked in. I’m there for a reason,” Terrell said. “I’m not there just to show face and not see the game and not have a clue what’s going on.”

When Terrell made it clear to his agents and business manager, Denise Thompson, that Westlake was the first place he wanted to help, they got down to business. Thompson set up a donor-advised fund for Terrell and his family, and they met with Fulton County Schools and Westlake in 2020.

Westlake presented Terrell with a budget with requests for what they were looking to upgrade or replace. Every year it is updated and Terrell does what he can to help. So far, Thompson said, Terrell has donated between $40,000 and $50,000.

His generosity has helped upgrade the team’s weight room with new equipment, including treadmills. He replaced the school’s hurdles — about $200 each. He also helped build a track and field record board that is displayed next to the football field — a board with “Terrell Jr.” on it as part of 4×100 meter relay of 40.72 seconds in 2017 and “Terrell” for Avieon’s records in the 4×400 meter relay (3:14.04 set in 2022) and 4×200 meter relay (1:28.11 set in 2022 ) and championship rings.

Terrell’s track coach, Jason Cage, said Terrell is the program’s biggest booster.

“He’s really helped bring the program along,” Cage said. “You know, he’s really been the person behind it.”

THE TRACK PROGRAM had a surprise for Terrell. When he pledged his support — something Cage said he didn’t expect, especially since track wasn’t his primary sport at Westlake — it also committed him.

Cage approached the Terrell family with an idea for the AJ Terrell Relays, which included red-and-black poles with Terrell’s name and face on them. The team presented him with his track jersey, framed. T-shirts bearing his likeness were distributed. The boys and girls winners of the 4×100 relay, for which he holds the record, were presented with autographed No. 24 Terrell jerseys.

Cage said they did this because of “his given spirit, man. We just wanted to honor AJ” Terrell didn’t ask for this, but he had no problem supporting it. It was a high school reunion that was held, which was a help and part of his goal to give back.

“It was an honor for them to even bring my name up to hold a track meet for me,” Terrell said. “So it was definitely big for me and something I really wanted ASAP. They offered it and I took it.”

In some ways, it fits with his broader plan. Nothing about what he does is a one off or just while his brother remains connected to the school. This is deeper. In June, he held his first free AJ Terrell football camp for Atlanta-area kids 12 and under.

Wearing a highly visible red shirt and a red hat with “ATL” emblazoned across the front, Terrell led one of the drills. He observed children working through the ladder drill and said “set…start” before each duo took off.

His family helped run the camp, and Terrell brought teammates Avery Williams, Richie Grant and Isaiah Oliver with him. He distributed the cones for drills and talked to a camper about a 3-point stance. He joked with another player who asked, “How fast are you?” by answering “How fast are you?” and then pretended, they pretended to race him.

Terrell loves teaching football, his passion, while being surrounded by family and giving back to the city and community that has meant so much to him.

Last December, he donated $1,000 to five separate families in need through 100 Black Men in America to help during the holidays with necessities. It’s something Thompson says is in their plans every year.

“He started at Westlake, but now he goes and works with different programs,” Thompson said. “He wants to be Mr. Atlanta when it comes to community.”

There is one thing he would like. When Avieon is done, he hopes the No. 8 jersey at Westlake will be retired. Not only in his name, but also in his brother’s.

Green said it hasn’t been discussed yet, but isn’t off the table. A lot of Westlake football alumni have made it to the NFL and made an impact in sports, so they’re figuring out a plan.

But those are Terrell’s thoughts.

“It would just mean a lot,” Terrell said. “You’re talking about a shirt that will never be used again because of excellence, commitment, sacrifice, dedication to the game, to the school, leadership, all those kinds of things. It means a lot.

“It’s bigger than just the jersey. The jersey being retired symbolizes all of that.”

Terrell won’t brag about it, though. It’s not like he asked for it. Thompson calls Terrell a “quiet giver.” He’ll talk about his plans if you ask, but he won’t just push it out there.

He likes to keep things in his life – whether it’s his gifts or his football or his family – simple. That’s why he wanted to start giving with Westlake. He had attended football games at the school since he was 8, when Cam Newton was the quarterback. Just because his family’s time as students at the school ends this year, it won’t stop his plan for the future because of what it meant to him.

HOLDING A SMALL COFFEE, Terrell watched intently. When Avieon intercepted a pass on the first drive, Terrell smiled and raised his right arm in the air as his brother returned it for a touchdown. Terrell beamed. “He’s got the tools,” he said, and he wanted to know. Avieon follows his brother’s path, verbally committed to Clemson.

As much as he is a follower and a booster, Terrell is a fan. He complained when Westlake allowed big plays. He rubbed his hands together in anticipation of Westlake’s second offensive drive and was annoyed when Carrollton went up 21-7.

Westlake was struggling for a loss and in the final quarter, Terrell told the team to play and stay in the game. It almost happened. Fly appeared to intercept a pass in the end zone. Terrell began to celebrate. But there was a passport interference flag.

As the final minutes ticked away, Terrell prepared to leave. He didn’t have to wait for Aircraft; they would talk later. Also, Terrell would be back.

He is scheduled to attend a parent-athlete workshop for the track team on Dec. 10. His dad will also talk about being a supportive sports dad.

It won’t strike anyone as a big deal. That’s what Terrell and his family do. They’ve been around. They are part of this community.

“It put me in position for my future,” Terrell said. “Not only having relationships with the coaches and the ADs and stuff, but my teachers, all hands on deck, help me become who I am today, help me get to college and be mature and go to class and do certain things.

“Just getting everything rolling in that aspect. It helped me get to where I am.”

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