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Falcons’ first pick A.J. Terrell a lesson in the power of family

Clemson's A.J. Terrell intercepts a pass for a touchdown against Alabama. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)
Clemson's A.J. Terrell intercepts a pass for a touchdown against Alabama. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

No man is an island, not even one who plays a position most likened to life as a lonely castaway.

When cornerback Aundell Terrell Jr. – A.J. is the handy handle he goes by – had an Aundell of his own last year, it certainly altered his outlook. Becoming a father before his 21st birthday, he now had some re-prioritizing to do, and yet another reason to treat football like a serious, career craft. It could never be only about him ever again.

The youngest Aundell is walking at 10 months old and is bright as a new day, his father, the Falcons' first-round draft pick out of Clemson, reports. To hear the new dad talk is to know the kid clearly has sublet one chamber of his heart.

Asked during a phone interview Friday about the challenges of fatherhood so soon in life, Terrell turned the question all around: "It hasn't been a struggle, it has been a gift. It gave me a lot of motivation, having somebody to do this for aside of myself. It's definitely a blessing."

He can't mess this up. Sure, there is a lot on him as the top pick of the Falcons, a team that requires him to step in immediately and cause consternation in the NFC South among the likes of Tom Brady and Drew Brees. But to another degree, he dares not mess up this fatherhood thing, either.

After all, as he’ll attest, he had a very good mentor for that duty, so he is light on excuses. The first of the three generations of Aundells and his wife raised four children, all of them of an athletic bent. Both daughters ran/run track in college. A.J. hastens to point out that neither ever beat him in a footrace.

His younger brother will be a sophomore defensive back at the same Atlanta school where A.J. went, Westlake. The scouting report is glowing. “He’s going to be good. I’ve got real, real, real high hopes for him,” A.J. said. “I know he’s going to be dominant. He just got done his freshman year and led the team in picks. I’m just trying to keep him level-headed and continuing to work. And I want to be an example for him to look up to.”

They currently are all hunkered down at the family’s Atlanta home here in the time of coronavirus. The same weight room A.J. and his father used during early morning workouts years ago is being put to good use by the two again, just like old times.

This are the draft-night impressions from the Atlanta Falcons draft pick A.J. Terrell

There’s much about life in a strong family that can prepare someone for football. There are even more important lessons it can impart. Such as what A.J. figures Aundell the elder taught him about being a father: “Always being a stand-up guy, leading by example, being a role model, priding myself in everything I do and knowing that everything I do is a reflection on my son. He let me know all the sacrifices and love you have to give to your children. He taught me unconditional love.”

With the Las Vegas draft night gathering called off and replaced by a virtual draft, the Terrell family celebrated Thursday at home. But they still kept Vegas hours. “I stayed up all night, didn’t get any sleep,” A.J. said. “It was life-changing excitement.”

The word surreal kept popping up in his reviews of a night a cornerback from Atlanta was drafted by the Falcons. Yes, he did grow up with the obligatory Michael Vick jersey in his closet.

Physically, Terrell brings to the Falcons a 6-foot-1 defender with 4.4 speed who is known to get up close and personal to the receivers he’s covering.

“He’s played a lot of press coverage,” said Falcons coach Dan Quinn, illustrating how he fits the system here.

“That’s good where he’s had some experience doing that, it’s not teaching a new technique. We have expectations for him to come in and play well, that’s why he’s such a good fit for how we want to play,” Quinn said.

Before Terrell was a blip on Quinn’s radar, Kareem Reid was wearing him out at Westlake on defense, offense (catching passes and taking wildcat snaps) and special teams (returning kickoffs and punts).

“I love his physicality,” said Reid, who’s now coaching at Griffin High. “He has a lot of dog (in a good way) in him – he loves to compete and accept challenges. He doesn’t back down from anybody. Even if you get the best of him, he’s going to keep competing.”

As for the unmeasurables, Terrell has the deluxe package, they say. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney spent a good part of Friday comparing his corner to one of his former quarterbacks, Deshaun Watson, because of the way “he’s handled himself like a pro since the day he got here as far as his maturity, his love of preparation, his mindset, and the type of teammate he is.” When discussing Terrell’s serious approach to a game, Swinney also will put him in the class with Grady Jarrett, the Tiger who now leads the Falcons from the defensive line.

Video: Falcons coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff share their thoughts on first-round pick A.J. Terrell. Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter.

If players were drafted according to snapshots rather than collages, Terrell might well have gone undrafted Thursday. His final game at Clemson, a national championship, no less, was a nightmarish loop of LSU’s Joe Burrow throwing pinpoint passes and freshman receiver Ja’Marr Chase running under many of them at Terrell’s expense. Chase had 221 receiving yards that game, along with a pair of touchdowns. A Terrell missed tackle on LSU first-round back Clyde Edwards-Helaire is also on that tape.

“One game doesn’t define anyone,” said his high school coach, Reid. “People are prisoners of the moment. They forget all those other games, or that he had a pick-six and locked up all those first-rounders from Alabama (in the preceding championship). Why doesn’t anybody talk about that?”

The right people do talk about it.

“We look at the full picture,” Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff said. “He had a very substantial game in the national championship the year before in the Alabama game and a number of games where he stood out in our mind. One game does not dissuade us.”

In his own defense – he’ll play press coverage on the critics, too – Terrell says he uses that game as a potent reminder to never get satisfied and to never dwell on the last play, the last game.

He’ll put his big-game experience during three years at Clemson up against almost any other player in this draft. “Playoffs all three years, won three ACC championships, played on a lot of big stages, a lot of big games,” he said. “It definitely will be beneficial for me going into the league. With winning coaches and the competitiveness we were taught at Clemson, it definitely prepares me for this moment.”

And don’t forget that one familial advantage that he claims to possess, one that he surely intends to pass on.

“I already got a winning gene inside me,” Terrell said.