CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As Juanyeh Thomas made the rounds at the ACC Kickoff media event Wednesday, it would have been possible to draw a number of conclusions about the Georgia Tech safety.
As he spoke about himself and his team in interviews on live radio, on ACC Network, on a stage by himself in a news-conference setting with a battery of bright lights trained on him and then sitting alone at a raised table as a series of media members asked questions on a variety of topics, an observer might have made note of his eagerness to praise his teammates, his pleasant and respectful manner and the number of times he referred to himself as blessed. But, probably only someone really paying attention would have been clued into a central piece of his identity. Namely, that he was managing this exercise of several hours of public speaking – with people he’d never met and in potentially stressful settings – with a speech impediment.
“I stutter,” Thomas said. “I’m going to forever stutter. But I have gotten better at it. But, like I said, the more I talk, the more I get better at it, then the more confident I feel about it to talk.”
When Thomas was a child growing up in the Florida panhandle, he lived with a stutter that, on a scale of 1 to 10, was a 10, he said.
“Back then, it was bad to where almost every sentence I said, I would stutter,” Thomas said.
His life changed when he was a fourth grader at West DeFuniak Elementary School in DeFuniak Springs, Fla. His teacher was Cindy Busbee.
“Every time I would have a problem with it, she would be like, Slow down. Slow down and talk,” Thomas said. “And she told me, ‘Don’t be afraid to speak. Because deep down, when you’re afraid to speak, when you talk, you’re going to stutter more.’”
Busbee recalled his stutter similarly. (“It was a 10,” she said.) On top of that, he came from difficult circumstances and struggled academically, the latter in no small part because of his impediment and kids teasing him.
“That was part of his not wanting to speak and not wanting to tell people that he didn’t understand, because of his impediment,” Busbee said.
Busbee poured herself into Thomas with private tutoring, her patience with his impediment and with her intolerance of kids teasing him. Busbee, too, had grown up with a speech impediment.
“I would call on him quite frequently and encourage him to talk. ‘Take your time,’” she said. “And I’d wait. Kids can be anxious. ‘I know the answer!’ I’d be like, ‘He knows the answer.’”
Busbee’s encouragement and counsel made a dramatic difference. Even within the first nine weeks of school, as she recalled it, his speaking had markedly improved.
“Just that little bit of encouragement was what he needed,” she said.
Said Stephanie Thomas, Juanyeh’s mother, “Miss Busbee was an inspiration to him. Not only to him, but to me as well. There’s nothing like having a teacher that’s understanding.”
Juanyeh and Busbee have remained connected. Busbee now teaches at the high-school level in Panama City. Thomas said she is someone, “I will forever be locked in with.”
Busbee uses Thomas as an example to students feeling discouraged about their trials, showing them his picture and telling his story.
“If there’s anyone I would ever want to succeed, it’s him,” she said. “Because I know his story. I watched him grow up. He has a place in my heart, and he’ll always have a place in my heart. Always.”
To the untrained eye and hear, it really is difficult to notice an impediment. His voice sometimes catches, and he occasionally repeats a word or phrase, but hardly in a way that distinguishes him from his teammates. He smiles when he speaks and looks at conversation partners in the eye. The words seem to pour forth from his heart.
“A lot of people might say, ‘I want to be remembered playing good on the field,’” Thomas said in response to a question about his legacy. “But overall, and I live by this daily – I want to be remembered as being a good person to everybody.”
When he speaks, Thomas said he tries to keep his mind clear.
“You don’t even think about stuttering or what you’re saying,” he said. “You’re just fluently speaking and letting it flow.”
Busbee loves to watch videos of his media interviews.
“My heart is happy,” she said. “It’s exploding. To me, it’s like, Oh, my gosh, he’s come so far. And I love the fact that he gives it all to God. He is so humble, and that just makes it even better.”
Coach Geoff Collins said there was no hesitation when considering whether to bring Thomas, a two-year starter and a player voted one of four captains for the spring game, to an event whose primary purpose was for coaches and players to talk with media members. Quarterback Jeff Sims and linebacker Ayinde Eley, also voted spring-game captains, joined Collins and Thomas.
As he and Thomas moved from interview to interview, “there was a couple times that it almost brought a tear to my eye, just how proud I am of him,” Collins said. “(Public speaking with a speech impediment) is not easy, but he does it with poise and with class and does a tremendous job and has confidence with it, too.”
“Juanyeh has a message he’s trying to get across, that he wants to get across,” Stephanie Thomas said. “And I told him, ‘When God gives you the words to say, speak freely,’ and that’s what he does.”
Thomas figures to continue to be a public face for his team as a senior, a role that encompasses duties like Wednesday’s. If the Jackets can win after two consecutive three-win seasons – Thomas proclaimed that “this is the year to make some noise” – the speaking demands will increase even more.
It’s good with him. He called the assignment to go to Charlotte “a blessing” and “a dream come true” to share the stage with the ACC’s best players and bask in the attention.
“Honestly, getting over stuttering and dealing with it all has made me a more confident person in every aspect of life,” Thomas said.
Fate and recruiting delivered him a most favorable ally at Tech – safety Tariq Carpenter, whose close bond with Thomas has been tightened by the fact that he also has a speech impediment.
Carpenter and Thomas call themselves the “Stutter Gods” and have discussed finding ways to speak with children with speech impediments, passing along the same encouragement that Busbee once gave Thomas. He has a message prepared.
“Don’t worry about what other people say,” he said. “Just keep talking. One day, you will get better at it, and then you will look back at it and be thankful for that.”
Among the many questions he was asked Wednesday was about one thing he’d like to accomplish in life. He said he wanted to become a motivational speaker and a traveling preacher, proclaiming the name of Jesus.
“I love talking,” Thomas said. “It’s my thing.”