ATLANTA. Friday night, he made his way through the back door: no huge entourage, no announcements, not even applause from the Westlake High School crowd. He hugged his family, who were hanging out on the sidelines before the school football game, and then turned to the field.
The game against Carrollton began, and Atlanta Falcons defenseman A.J. Terrell, dressed in a green military-style hoodie with a black T-shirt underneath, green pants and Nike camo sneakers, stood at the goal line near the scoreboard and watched intently. On the field, his younger brother, Avion, did the same thing that AJ had done a few years earlier.
When an NFL player returns to their high school, it usually makes a big difference. There is a festive atmosphere or some kind of recognition. Not for Terrell—at least not this day—and for good reason.
AJ Terrell is always there.
“He’s such a familiar face,” said Westlake athletic director Carl Green. “So it’s a normal feeling for him because everyone treats him like he probably wasn’t here. It’s not star mentality…it’s familiarity. This is comfort. This is a situation where he feels at home. .”
Westlake was home to all four of the Terrell children, of whom Avion, the eldest, is the youngest. His family has been closely associated with Westlake for nearly a decade. His parents are constantly present at events and work in retail outlets.
That’s why Terrell wanted to thank Westlake by donating his time and money. Terrell’s agent, David Mulugeta, usually advises his rookie clients to focus on football, build a team and settle in.
Terrell was different. He was adamant as soon as he signed the contract, especially since he was lucky enough to be home in Atlanta and he wanted to start giving away Westlake.
“It’s all the years we’ve been through, and just the brand, and all the people, and the school itself,” Terrell said.
“It’s just something I love and want to take care of.”
What started as an idea became something more, a symbiotic relationship between Terrell and his alma mater, especially the football and athletics programs. He invested emotionally and financially.
He has bigger goals as well: helping more of the city he grew up in and representing him on Sundays as one of the best young cornerbacks in the NFL. But it all starts in high school, which shaped him.
WHAT TERREL CAN he prefers to slip in and out of the Westlake game discreetly. It suits his character. He never sought attention. The lower the better.
In this game against Carrollton, he had a larger than usual private crowd. Terrell was accompanied by a security guard – mostly at the request of the school – along with his agents, Mulugeta and Trey Smith, and Smith’s young son. His parents, Ondell and Alia, were there when he arrived to say hello and hug him. Then we went to watch from the stands. Sometimes Aundell looks on as well, but not this October night.
On a typical evening, it’s Terrell and the security guard. Maybe one more person. He’s not welcoming, although he does take pictures if people ask him to, and a couple of people stop him.
Otherwise, when he appears for the same number of games, he should be attentive and not fuss.
“I’m locked up. I’m here for a reason,” Terrell said. “I’m not here just to show my face, not to watch the game and have no idea 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 to work. Thompson created a donor-recommended fund for Terrell and his family, and in 2020 they met with Fulton and Westlake County schools.
Westlake submitted a budget to Terrell with requests for what they wanted to upgrade or replace. It’s updated every year and Terrell goes above and beyond to help. So far, Thompson said, Terrell has donated between $40,000 and $50,000.
Thanks to his generosity, the team’s gym was upgraded with new equipment, including treadmills. He replaced the school barriers at about $200 each. He also helped build the track and field record board that is displayed on the side of the football field, a board that reads “Terrell Jr.” on it in the 4×100 meters relay in 40.72 seconds in 2017 and Terrell for the Aveon records in the 4×400 meters relay (3:14.04, set in 2022) and 4×200 meters relay (1:28.11, set in 2022) – and championship rings.
Terrell’s track and field coach Jason Cage said that Terrell is the program’s most vocal supporter.
“He really helped bring the program to fruition,” Cage said. “You know, he really was the man behind it.”
PROGRAM TRACK was a surprise for Terrell. When he declared his support—which Cage said he did not expect, especially since athletics was not his primary sport at Westlake—it also buoyed him.
Cage approached the Terrell family with an idea for AJ Terrell Relays, which included red and black batons with Terrell’s name and face on them. The team gave him his framed jersey. T-shirts with his image were handed out. The winning boys and girls of the 4×100 relay, in which he holds the record, were presented with autographed No. 24 Terrell T-shirts.
Cage said they did it because of “his generous spirit, man. We just wanted to honor AJ’s memory.” Terrell didn’t ask for it, but he had no problem supporting it. It was high school athletics, which was a help and part of his goal of giving back.
“It was an honor for them to even mention my name to arrange a track for me,” Terrell said. “So that was definitely important to me and that’s what I really bit into in ASAP. They offered it and I accepted.”
In a way, this fits in with his larger plan. Nothing he does is one-time or just as long as his brother stays connected to the school. It’s deeper. In June, he hosted his first free AJ Terrell football camp for Atlanta kids ages 12 and under.
Wearing a highly visible red shirt and a red cap with “ATL” written on the front, Terrell was in charge of one of the exercise stations. He watched the kids work during the stair practice and said “start… go ahead” before each duo took off.
His family helped run the camp, and Terrell brought along teammates Avery Williams, Richie Grant, and Isaiah Oliver. He set up exercise cones and talked to the camper about the three-point stance. He joked with another player who asked, “How fast are you?” answering “How quickly you?” and then pretending to compete with him.
Terrell loves teaching football, his passion, surrounded by family and giving back to the city and communities that mean so much to him.
Last December, he donated $1,000 to five separate needy families through 100 Black Men of America to help out during the holidays. According to Thompson, this is part of their plans every year.
“He started out at Westlake but is now working on other programs,” Thompson said. “He wants to be Mr. Atlanta when it comes to society.”
There is one thing he would like. When Aveon finishes, he hopes the number 8 jersey at Westlake will be retired. Not only on his behalf, but also on behalf of his brother.
Greene said it hadn’t been discussed yet, but hadn’t been taken out of the discussion. Many Westlake football alumni have made it to the NFL and made an impact on the sport, so they’re devising a plan.
But that’s on Terrell’s mind.
“That would mean a lot,” Terrell said. “You are talking about a jersey that will never be worn again because of superiority, dedication, self-sacrifice, dedication to the game, school, leadership and all that. It means a lot.
“This is more than just a T-shirt. The fact that the jersey has been discontinued symbolizes it all.”
However, Terrell won’t brag about it. Not that he asked for it. Thompson calls Terrell a “silent giver”. He’ll talk about his plans if you ask, but he’s not going to readily advertise it.
He likes to keep everything in his life, whether it’s his donations, his football or his family, kept simple. That’s why he wanted to start his charity work with Westlake. He has been attending high school football games since he was 8, when Cam Newton was a quarterback. Just because his family’s time as students at the school ends this year won’t stop his plans for the future because of what it meant to him.
HOLDING A SMALL COFFEE, Terrell watched closely. When Avion intercepted a pass on the first drive, Terrell smiled and raised his right hand in the air as his brother returned it for a touchdown. Terrell beamed. “He’s got the tools,” he said, and he’ll know. Avion follows the path of his brother, in words devoted to Clemson.
As much of a supporter and supporter as he is, Terrell is a fan. He complained when Westlake let him play big. He rubbed his hands in anticipation of Westlake’s second attack and got pissed when Carrollton went 21-7 up.
Westlake struggled with the loss, and in the last quarter, Terrell begged the team to play and stay in the game. It almost happened. Avion intercepted the pass in the end zone. Terrell began to celebrate. But there was a flag of obstruction to the passage.
As the last minutes ticked by, Terrell prepared to leave. He didn’t have to wait for Avion; they will talk later. Besides, Terrell will be back.
On December 10, he will take part in a workshop for parents and athletes for the track and field team. His father is also going to talk about how to support his father in sports.
This will not seem like much to anyone. This is what Terrell and his family do. They were around. They are part of this community.
“It put me in a position for my future,” Terrell said. “Not just relationships with coaches and ads and stuff, but with my teachers, all hands on deck helping me become who I am today, helping me get into college, mature, go to classes and do certain things.
“Just run everything in that aspect. It helped me get to where I am.”