Open mobile menu

Inside The Chart: Together Again

Together Again:  Juanyeh Thomas and Azende Rey last teamed up together six years ago. They didn’t know if they’d ever have a chance again. The brothers have since reunited at Tech – and they’re embracing every minute of it.

By Andy Demetra (The Voice of the Yellow Jackets | Inside The Chart

For the past three years, Juanyeh Thomas and Azende Rey developed a routine born in the darkness.

Both had to rise early for their respective football programs – Juanyeh as a safety for Georgia Tech, Azende as a wide receiver for Florida A&M – so the brothers would FaceTime each other first thing in the morning, often before 6 a.m.

The calls served as much as a motivational session as an extra wake-up call.

“We tell each other what we’re going to do today. Wish it into existence,” Rey said.

The FaceTime routine carried over to game days. Both knew to expect a call while the other was getting ready for kickoff. Azende started the tradition when Juanyeh was a freshman.

“He’d ask me if I’m ready for the game. What are you going to do? What kind of plays are you going to make?” Thomas recalled.

After three years, Thomas and Rey can finally ditch their phones and hold those conversations in person. This summer, the transfer portal ushered in a family reunion for the Yellow Jackets: to complete its 2021 recruiting class, Georgia Tech signed the 5-10, 215-pound Rey to bolster its special teams and wide receiver corps. Rey scored 14 total touchdowns at Florida A&M from 2017-2019, splitting time between receiver, running back and wildcat quarterback.

It marks the first time Thomas and Rey have been teammates since 2015, when Rey was a senior and Thomas was a sophomore at Walton High School in DeFuniak Springs, Fla. Thomas played his final two seasons at Niceville High in Niceville, Fla.

“It still doesn’t feel real that he’s here,” Thomas said.

“It’s been quite an adjustment, but it’s been really good,” added Rey, who’s taking courses in public policy at Tech. “It’s a championship culture. I’m glad I fit in here.”

Both are coming off impressive days in Georgia Tech’s 31-27 win over Duke at Wallace-Wade Stadium. Thomas recorded a career-high 11 tackles and had the game-clinching interception en route to earning ACC Defensive Back of the Week. Rey, who had a punt return for a touchdown wiped out by a premature whistle against Pittsburgh, ripped off a 35-yard return against the Blue Devils, the longest by a Tech player since 2015. He nearly became the first Yellow Jacket to score a special teams touchdown against an ACC opponent since … his brother, who had a kick return for a touchdown against Virginia in 2018.

Juanyeh Thomas (1) celebrates his game-clinching interception at Duke with Wesley Walker (13)

 

Rey and Thomas honed their athleticism early on together, thanks in large part to some not-so-subtle nudging from their mother, Stephanie.

As kids, Rey recalled, “She literally threw us outside and was like, ‘Have fun.’ We had soccer, football, basketball, baseball. She just told us to have fun outside. Then when it was time to come in [we returned home.] But we always competed against each other. We always had that competitive nature in our blood.”

That competitiveness elevated them to decorated careers in high school. Rey graduated as a first-team all-state running back and earned a scholarship to Florida A&M in Tallahassee, Fla. That same year, as a sophomore, Thomas set a national high school record by returning an interception for a touchdown in five-straight games. He developed into a three-time all-state safety who became a celebrated signing in Georgia Tech’s 2017 recruiting class.

Thomas confesses that when his brother graduated from high school, he wondered if they’d ever share a field again.

“At first I was like, ‘Dang, I’m never going to be able to play with him again,’” he said.

Yet as their college careers unfolded, Rey and Thomas couldn’t shake the idea of a reunion. They said they started gaming it out as soon as Thomas’ first season at Georgia Tech. Rey redshirted as a freshman and was on track to graduate from FAMU in four years. If he had a year of eligibility remaining, could he hypothetically team up with Juanyeh one last time as a grad transfer?

“It was always a ‘What if?’” Thomas said.

Rey was a multifaceted playmaker for the Rattlers, finishing third on the team in rushing as a freshman before switching to wide receiver as a sophomore. Lining up primarily in the slot, Rey caught 61 passes and six touchdowns over the next two seasons. He even tossed a pair of goal-line touchdowns as a wildcat quarterback.

Thomas said his Mom has all of his and Rey’s highlights recorded at home. Whenever he came back to visit, he’d invariably cue them up.

“I’m just sitting there, watching his highlights. I would literally tell other people, ‘My brother, he is that dude. He’s good enough to come here and play,’” he said.

Rey’s highlights went on pause last fall: Florida A&M, like all programs at the Football Championship Subdivision level, delayed its season to the spring of 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Rey practiced with the Rattlers during the week, but on weekends he traveled to almost all of Georgia Tech’s home games to watch Thomas play.

In addition to seeing his brother, those visits allowed him to further visualize a future for himself at Tech.

“I’m looking at it like, ‘These guys are having fun out here. The energy just attracted me. I’m like, ‘Okay, this is where I want to be,’” Rey recalled.

Ultimately Florida A&M opted out of playing football in the spring. Rey stayed on campus to earn his degree in criminal justice with a minor in political science, then began exploring his options in the transfer portal. His numbers suggested he could level up to a major conference program. Other schools reached out to him, he said, but his heart was set on Tech.

Azende Rey awaits a punt versus North Carolina at Mercedes-Benz Stadium

 

Would the interest be mutual though? Rey remained optimistic, and he knew his brother would vouch for him to head coach Geoff Collins. But there was no guarantee Tech would have a spot for him, especially so late in the summer. Need and timing have thwarted many a potential scholarship.

Rey was at his apartment in Tallahassee in mid-July when his phone rang with an Atlanta area code. It was Tech safeties coach Nathan Burton, armed with an offer to join his brother. A short time later, Collins broke the news to his Mom. Thomas happened to be with her.

For three years Stephanie had meticulously plotted out her falls so she could watch Azende and Juanyeh’s games equally. That’d no longer be a concern.

“She couldn’t hold back tears. She was crying. But these were tears of joy. Everybody doesn’t get a chance to play with their brother,” Thomas said.

“It puts a lot of weight off her shoulders when she can actually just come here and be comfortable instead of traveling a lot,” added Rey.

Both recall their first day of preseason practice, when they lined up opposite one another for the first time as Georgia Tech teammates.

“We were doing one-on-ones, and I’m just going to skip to the end. He didn’t catch the ball,” Thomas said, smiling.

Azende – known almost universally as “AZ” to his teammates – laughed it off. They battle almost every day in practice, and they’ve each had their share of victories.

“When we’re on that field, we’re not brothers. We’re opponents. But at the same time, we’re competing against each other, no matter if we’re blood or not,” he said.

Due to the lateness of his signing, Rey admits he had to learn the Tech playbook quickly, a process that put him behind his fellow wideouts. While he hasn’t recorded a catch yet, Collins has praised his work on the Yellow Jackets’ developmental offense. In addition to platooning at punt returner with fellow transfer Kyric McGowan, he also plays on three of Georgia Tech’s four special teams units. The 6-3, 217-pound Thomas has been his usual steady self at free safety: in addition to ranking fourth on the Yellow Jackets in tackles (42), he has a forced fumble and a team-high three pass breakups.

Their sibling bond rolls into Charlottesville on Saturday when Georgia Tech faces Virginia at Scott Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech Sports Network from Legends Sports). Thomas and Rey know they only have six regular-season games left as teammates. It’s a goal they had dreamed about for so long, and a reality they had worked so hard to will into existence. They’re determined to make the most of it.

Rey was asked what he has enjoyed most about playing his final season at Georgia Tech. Whether he meant it figuratively, literally, or unintentionally, he gave an answer that may have perfectly summed up his experience on The Flats.

“The culture is great,” Rey said.  “The teammates are like family or a brotherhood.”

RELATED HEADLINES

Football Five Jackets Named Preseason All-ACC by Phil Steele

Singleton, King, Haynes, Williams and Birr round out Tech’s honorees

Five Jackets Named Preseason All-ACC by Phil Steele
Football Tech Football Officially Adds Six Transfers

Six student-athletes – all with Power Five experience – join Yellow Jackets

Tech Football Officially Adds Six Transfers
Football Five Kickoff Times Announced for Tech Football

Primetime games versus Georgia State, Georgia highlight the Jackets’ newest 2024 game times

Five Kickoff Times Announced for Tech Football
Partner of Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Legends Partner of Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Partner of Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Partner of Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets