Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell prioritizes the Atlanta high school that shaped him

A.J. Terrell keeps a watchful eye at a football game at his high school alma mater, Atlanta Westlake. Michael Rothstein/ESPN.com

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

The game against Carrollton started, and Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell, decked out in a military-green hoodie with a black T-shirt underneath, green pants and camo-colored Nikes, stood by the goal line near the scoreboard and watched intently. On the field, his younger brother, Avieon, was doing exactly what A.J. had done years earlier.

When an NFL player returns to his high school, it's usually a big deal. There's a celebratory vibe or some sort of acknowledgement. Not for Terrell -- at least not on this day -- and that's for good reason.

A.J. 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 is treating him like he probably wasn't here. It's not a star-struck mentality ... it's a familiarity. It's a comfortability. It's a situation where he feels like he's at home."

Westlake has been home for all four of the Terrell children, of which Avieon, a senior, is the youngest. His family has been intertwined with Westlake for close to a decade. His parents are constants at events and have worked the concession stands.

It'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 getting settled.

With Terrell it was different. He was adamant as soon as he signed his contract, especially since he was fortunate enough to be home in Atlanta, that he wanted to start giving back to Westlake.

"It's all the years we went through and just the brand and all the people there and the school itself," Terrell said.

"It is just something that I love and want to take care of."

What started as an idea has become something more -- a symbiotic relationship between Terrell and his alma mater, particularly the football and track programs. He's invested emotionally and financially.

He has bigger goals, too, 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.

THAT TERRELL CAN slip in and out of a Westlake game unnoticed is how he prefers it. It fits his personality. He's never been one to seek attention. The more understated, the better.

For this game against Carrollton, he has a larger-than-usual personal crowd. 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 watches on the sideline, too, but not on this October night.

On a typical night it's Terrell and the security guard. Maybe one other person. He's not glad-handing, although he'll take pictures if people ask him to, and a couple of people do stop him.

Otherwise, when he shows up for as many games, he's there to pay attention, not be fussed over.

"I'm locked in. I'm there for a reason," Terrell said. "I'm not just there to show face and not watch the game and not have a clue of 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 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. Each year, it's updated, and Terrell does what he can to assist. 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 -- approximately $200 each. He also helped build a record board for track and field that is displayed to the side of the football field -- a board that has "Terrell Jr." on it as part of the 4x100 meter relay run in 40.72 seconds in 2017 and "Terrell" for Avieon's records in the 4x400 meter relay (3:14.04 set in 2022) and 4x200 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 committed his support -- something Cage said he wasn't expecting, especially since track wasn't his primary sport at Westlake -- it also committed to him.

Cage went to the Terrell family with an idea for the A.J. Terrell Relays, which include red-and-black batons with Terrell's name and face on them. The team presented him with his track jersey, framed. T-shirts with his likeness were given out. The boys and girls winners of the 4x100 relay, for which he holds the record, were presented with autographed No. 24 Terrell jerseys.

Cage said they did this because "of his giving spirit, man. We just wanted to honor A.J." Terrell didn't ask for this, but he had no issue supporting it. It was a high school track meet being put on, which was a help and part of his goal of giving back.

"It was an honor for them to even bring my name up to have a track meet for me," Terrell said. "So it was definitely big on my behalf and something I really bit at ASAP. They offered it and I took it."

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

Wearing a very visible red shirt and a red hat with "ATL" written in script on the front, Terrell led one of the stations of drills. He observed kids work through the ladder drill and said "set ... go" before every duo took off.

His family helped to run the camp, and Terrell brought along teammates Avery Williams, Richie Grant and Isaiah Oliver. He spaced the cones for drills and spoke with a camper about a 3-point stance. He joked with another player who asked, "How fast are you?" by responding "How fast are you?" and then pretending to race him.

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

Last December, he donated $1,000 to five separate families in need through the 100 Black Men of America to help during the holidays with whatever was necessary. It's something Thompson says is in their plans yearly.

"He started at Westlake, but now he's going and working 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's hoping the No. 8 jersey at Westlake gets retired. Not only in his name, but in his brother's, too.

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

But it's on Terrell's mind.

"It would just mean a lot," Terrell said. "You talk about a jersey that's never going to be worn again because of excellence, commitment, sacrifice, dedication to the game, to the school, leadership, all that type of stuff. It means a lot.

"It's bigger than just the jersey. That jersey being retired symbolizes all of that."

Terrell won't boast about it, though. It's not like he asked for it. Thompson calls Terrell a "quiet giver." He'll talk about it his plans if you ask, but he isn't going to readily push it out there.

He likes to keep things in his life -- whether it's his giving or his football or his family -- simple. It's why he wanted to start his giving with Westlake. He'd been attending football games at the school since he was 8, when Cam Newton was quarterback. Just because his family's time as students in the school ends this year, that won't stop his plan for the future of it because of what it meant to his.

HOLDING A SMALL COFFEE, Terrell watched intently. When Avieon intercepted a pass on the first drive, Terrell smiled and raised his right arm into the air as his brother returned it for a touchdown. Terrell beamed. "He got the tools," he said, and he would know. Avieon is following his brother's path, verbally committed to Clemson.

As much as he's a supporter 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 became annoyed when Carrollton went up 21-7.

Westlake struggled to a loss, and in the final quarter, Terrell implored the team to make a play and stay in the game. It almost happened. Avieon appeared to intercept a pass in the end zone. Terrell started celebrating. But there was a flag for pass interference.

As the final minutes ticked away, Terrell got ready to leave. He didn't need to wait for Avieon; they'd talk later. Besides, Terrell would be back.

He's scheduled to take part in a parent-athlete workshop for the track team on Dec. 10. His dad is going to speak, too, about being a supportive sports father.

It won't strike anyone as a big deal. It'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 helping me become who I am today, helping me get to college and be mature and go to class and do certain things.

"Just get everything rolling in that aspect. It helped me get to where I am."