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The first time A.J. Terrell remembers coming across Jeff Okudah was almost a decade before they would become defensive backfield mates for the Atlanta Falcons.

In high school, Terrell was one of the top-ranked cornerbacks in Georgia, Okudah respectively so in Texas. As they topped the 2017 recruiting class, Terrell and Okudah were both invited to attend the Under Armour All-American camp in Terrell's hometown of Atlanta the year prior. 

In the tale of these two cornerbacks, though, it's hardly coincidental. Their football journeys ran in parallel lines until finally intersecting with the Falcons this past offseason. 

"We always clicked," Terrell said. "... Fast forward to now, I was just like, 'It was destined to be.'"

Terrell and Okudah didn't become good friends at that high school camp. No, that would come much later. Instead, the two got acquainted by competing with each other to be the top of their budding position group. 

Their shared competitive nature acts as a mirror for each other now as teammates. 

"I think he brings us a mentality that defenses love to have," Okudah said. "Just corners coming up tackling (with) a certain type of swagger that I think it's contagious." . 

There's a mutually understood mentality between the cornerbacks. 

"(We) both take our job serious," Terrell said, "and I just feel like we play with a chip on our shoulder."

The stellar showings both Terrell and Okudah had at the many camps they participated in together in high school caught the attention of the top college programs in the nation. Terrell eventually chose Clemson; Okudah committed to Ohio State. 

Terrell and Okudah wouldn't compete against each other on the field again until the end of their collegiate careers — and in Okudah's case, his final game as a Buckeye. On college football's biggest stage, Terrell's Tigers met Okudah's Buckeyes in the 2019 College Football Playoff semifinal. 

Clemson bested Ohio State in a 29-23 victory, overcoming a 16-point deficit. Though, it didn't come without controversy. With the Buckeyes down a touchdown late in the third quarter, Okudah forced a fumble which was returned for a defensive touchdown. That was until it was overruled as an incomplete catch. 

Now, in the present day, the Falcons locker room holds space for the "who should have really won?" debate. The cornerbacks' lockers sit side by side. After practice, they can almost always be found joking around, and while they have many inside jokes that remain a secret, the CFP semifinal controversy remains something to banter over. 

"That's my guy for real," Okudah said. "We're always in constant communication."

While they can laugh about it now, when the two saw each other again shortly after at the 2020 NFL Combine, there wasn't a peep about the championship game. It was all business.

Much like those high school camps, Okudah and Terrell were stuck competing at the highest level to be the best cornerback. This time, though, they started picking each other's brains —something that would become commonplace in they're day-to-day lives as teammates.

"It was already in the making then," Terrell said. "Just having fun and building that connection."

In the draft that followed, Okudah was the first cornerback taken at No. 3 overall by the Detroit Lions. Terrell was the third cornerback off the board when Atlanta drafted him in the No. 16 slot. They both heard their names called over TV screens rather than in the same building with the commissioner, as the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic required virtual arrangements. Terrell said he and Okudah can relate to starting their professional careers in a way no one had before.

For better or worse, the then-rookies walked into their NFL careers shrouded in uncertainty. Terrell did his best to block out expectations that weighed on him as a first-rounder and learned how to play free. Okudah ruptured an Achilles tendon and was forced to learn more off-the-field lessons.

"I think you just build a certain type of resilience coming into the NFL," Okudah said. "I didn't have a lot of injuries (in college). So dealing with some of those injury experiences, it was my first time, I think you get a chance to figure out what you're made of in those moments."

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Before Okudah officially landed with the Falcons, he'd come across Terrell several times at workout sessions held by their shared trainer. The most recent time before the trade that sent Okudah to Atlanta was, well, in Atlanta.

Two weeks later, Terrell got a text from an unsaved number. It was Okudah. Despite running in the same circles for years, the two had never exchanged contact info. But that night, for the first time, they talked on the phone and visualized the kind of duo they could be.

Finally, their parallel journey's intersected. The Falcons traded for Okudah in April, sending a 2023 fifth-round pick to Detroit.

Because of their similar stories and backgrounds, the friendship between Terrell and Okudah blossomed quickly. Terrell said their chemistry was built off the field, especially as Okudah rehabbed a foot injury sustained in training camp. Okudah missed the first two games of the regular season, but the cornerbacks remained in lockstep, simultaneously connecting as young fathers, too.

"Off the field, we're human, chillin', talking about life," Terrell said. "We both got kids, so there's more to it than football."

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On the field, however, they're pushing to get better, to set the standard higher.

"We feel that we can have the potential to be a special tandem in this league." Okudah said. "(We) really want the best for each other. So, when I see him make a play, I know I gotta turn up a little bit now."

With just four years of NFL experience, both Terrell and Okudah still have room to grow. Terrell said they can relate as "young vets" who have experience under their belt but a lot left in the tank. As they said themselves: Their shared goal is to be one of the best cornerback duos in the league.

How might they do that? Just like they did in those high school camps: By pushing each other to be a better cornerback. Only this time, they're on the same team.

"It's kind of like a full-circle moment," Okudah said.

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