Like any good son, when Terdell Sands visited his mother on her birthday, he brought flowers. Sadly, when Sands delivered the bouquet of red roses and white lilies, all he could do was place the vase next to Tandra Sands' tombstone and hope the afternoon breeze could somehow carry his words to her.
"I told her that not a day goes by that I don't miss her and think about all the things we would be doing together," Sands said. "And I told her that if she could see her sons now, she would be tickled pink. She would be so proud of the men and fathers and leaders we have become and that we are giving back to the community just like she would have wanted."
Not only would his mom be proud, but the entire community should appreciate the mentor Sands has become. Once the former Howard all-state defensive lineman finished his NFL career with the Raiders, he returned home and immediately began helping his alma mater.
It began with donating enough money to have the weight room remodeled and upgraded, but his contributions since John Starr arrived as head coach last year have been even more substantial.
"When I got the job, Sands was one of the first people I called, because I knew we needed help to bring the pride back into the program," Starr said. "He said, 'What do you need me to do?' and was at practice the first day ready to help. He's got a passion for his school, his community and the kids."
So for the past two seasons Sands has been a volunteer coach with the Hustlin' Tigers, donating something more valuable and needed than his money — his time.
"A lot of people on our team are missing a positive male figure to help guide you in the right direction," said Howard sophomore defensive lineman Davontay Smith. "He builds that bond and takes time to listen to any of us who need to talk. He's somebody we can look at as an inspiration, because we know that he walked the same halls and played on the same field, and he made it.
"He doesn't just talk about football. He told us to find our motivation, a reason that pushes us to want to be better players and in class. My motivation is my mom. I see what she goes through for her family, and I want something better for her and for myself."
Not only for the player he was on the field while at Howard, but for the example he is setting off it, Howard should consider retiring Sands' No. 77 jersey alongside another former Hustlin' Tigers defensive line great — Reggie White.
After working with the team last year, Sands realized the Hustlin' Tigers needed more depth to compete, so it wasn't uncommon to see the massive 6-foot-8 figure walking the halls, interacting with students and encouraging some of them to come out for football.
Not only are overall roster numbers up noticeably from last year, but Sands found several young men he felt had the size to be able to become immediate contributors. Neither of Howard's starting defensive ends played football last year: One was in the band, and the other was just hanging out.
Early this week, long after the rest of the team and coaches had left the practice field, Sands and a couple of defensive linemen were putting in overtime, taking a few extra reps as he instructed them on how to shed blocks and pressure the quarterback as Howard prepared for tonight's region game at Hixson.
By the time he walked wearily across the school parking lot toward his blue Ford F150, he noticed the truck's cab and bed already were filled with players waiting to catch a ride home with their favorite coach.
"I'm the school bus," Sands said with a chuckle. "I take them home after practice or to get something to eat or back to my house to hang out. I could be doing anything I want with my time, but this is all I want to do, because even if I just help one or two kids it's worth my time to be out here. Blessings don't work by being selfish: You have to give your time and give yourself.
"To see the kids push themselves on the field and overcome or achieve something they didn't know or believe they could, that can set them up to push themselves in class or in college or at their job. That's how they can be a success and make a better life than the situation a lot of them are in right now. I know football isn't the only way to make their situation better, but maybe this game is the way they get to go to college and make a better life for themselves and make our whole community better."
Those words and his actions are enough to make any mama proud.
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.