Don’t let the looks, or backstory, confuse you.
The dynamic between N.C. State’s Thomas brothers fits the standard, chronological “older bother, younger brother” mold.
It might not look that way from the outside, or if you go by recruiting profile, but that’s the way it really is.
Thayer, a sophomore receiver on the N.C. State football team, is the older brother and fills the appropriate duties as such with Drake, a freshman linebacker for the Wolfpack.
“He’s going to try to tell me what to do and stuff,” Drake, who is 19, said.
Mid-sentence, with a hint of older-brother-knows-best satisfaction, Thayer interjects: “He’s starting to listen more now.”
“In high school, he was hard-headed,” Thayer, who is 21, continues. “I couldn’t tell him anything. He was like, ‘I have offers like ...’ “
Drake interrupts before Thayer can finish.
“No, that’s not how it was,” the freshman says.
Before a disagreement can escalate, Drake puts a pin in it.
“Really when he came here, is when we really got closer than we ever have,” Drake said. “We’ve always been close but N.C. State has made it even a better relationship for us.”
The path to NC State football
The Thomas brothers took different paths to get to the same spot. N.C. State was a destination neither expected to reach, at least not together.
Drake was a football star at Heritage High School in Wake Forest, right from beginning. He was recruited by Clemson and Alabama as a sophomore. He was one of the top prospects in the state and country, at his position.
Thayer, who also had excelled in baseball and basketball, figured his football career would end in high school.
“I really took my senior year of (high school) football as my last go-round,” Thayer said.
Thayer thought his future was in baseball. (And he was drafted by the Boston Red Sox this past June). He was hardly recruited in football and didn’t have a scholarship offer.
“They’re two totally different kids,” said their dad, Trevor, who played college football at Marshall. “The process was totally different for both.”
Thayer, who is expected to be one of N.C. State’s top receivers this season, is focused and task-oriented. He has a lean build (6-0, 195 pounds) and could pass for a Justin Timberlake stunt double. He is tattoo-free and averse to loud proclamations.
“He lets his actions speak louder than words,” said Dewayne Washington, who coached the Thomas brothers at Heritage. “It’s a cliché but that’s the way he is. He doesn’t say much.”
Drake, with the trademark long-flowing hair (which he has been letting grow since sixth grade), has a California cool vibe. He could pass for a young A.J. Hawk (the Ohio State or early Green Bay Packers version). Tattoos cover his biceps. He has the birth year of Trevor in Roman numerals on one arm and the birth year of his mom, Shelly, on the other.
There’s a palpable magnetism, as seen in his recruiting ability, to Drake’s personality.
At 6-0 and 236 pounds, Drake can pack a punch at the “mike” linebacker spot. He already has been making an impression in preseason camp and is practicing with the second-team defense and is expected to play a key role on special teams.
“He’s going to be a really good football player,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “It’s just when does it happen.”
Early impression on an NFL veteran
Washington, a former N.C. State standout, needed one look at Drake, who was 6-0 and 200 pounds as a high school freshman, to figure out the younger Thomas’ future.
“First time I saw him, he ran down on a kickoff in practice,” Washington said. “Just by his movement, he was ahead of his years with his understanding of the nuances and angles and how to play the game.”
Washington, who played in the NFL for 12 years and came into the league in 1994 as a first-round pick, got all of that out of one look?
“Yep. One drill,” Washington said. “You could see the things he did. You didn’t have to tell him. He already knew how to do it.”
While Drake was on the fast track, Thayer was versatile and skilled but undersized. Thayer was only 5-5 and 120 pounds in ninth grade.
“(Drake) has been bigger than me since the third grade,” Thayer said, only half-joking.
Thayer was still “about 100 pounds” behind Drake, according to their dad, when the two started their first varsity game together in 2015. Thayer was a junior and Drake was a freshman.
Their first high school season together was cut short when Thayer suffered a collarbone injury. The next year, Drake started to get recruiting attention from all over the country.
“Always growing up, people would make fun of me saying, ‘You’re the younger brother’ because of the size,” Thayer said. “But I was fully confident in myself.”
Overlooked in the recruiting process, Thayer gets his chance
The older brother had a standout senior season — including a 7-catch, 104-yard effort in a win over Sanderson which caught Doeren’s attention. Heritage won 11 games, including two in the state playoffs, but Thayer was mostly overlooked.
It would have been easy for Thayer to have been jealous of his younger brother. He wasn’t.
“He was getting a lot of attention but I was always just happy for him,” Thayer said.
Thayer would get his own opportunity in football. Doeren offered him a chance to be a walk-on. He redshirted his freshman year at N.C. State and earned a scholarship in the spring of 2018.
Drake committed that summer to the Wolfpack, eschewing the chance to play for the Crimson Tide or Tigers, who have combined to win the past four national titles. He would play an integral role in putting together N.C. State’s recruiting class, which included seven of the top 25 players in the state.
Thayer grew almost two inches during his first year at N.C. State and is up to 195 pounds heading into the 2019 season. He caught 34 passes for 383 yards with three touchdowns last season. In his lone start, subbing for an injured Jakobi Meyers against Georgia State, Thayer caught nine passes for 114 yards.
Meyers finished the season with 92 catches for 1,047 yards in an All-ACC season. Thayer will be filling his spot as the primary slot receiver this season.
Baseball rewind, football reunion
After a year away from baseball, Thayer had a chance to play in 14 games for the Wolfpack in 2019. He got a hit in his first at-bat and had a home run and two doubles in a reserve role.
The Red Sox, impressed enough by his Heritage career and his athleticism, took a flier on him in the 33rd round of the Major League Baseball draft in June. Thayer turned down a six-figure offer from Boston to continue to play both sports at N.C. State. But after being the one pushed to the side stage for so long, Thayer suddenly finds himself in the spotlight.
No one is happier about that development than Drake.
“He deserves (the attention),” Drake said. “You only see what comes out of it, but the work he puts in is borderline crazy.”
It’s a week before preseason camp will start. The Thomas brothers are in the weight room at N.C. State’s Murphy Center and posing for pictures. Thayer starts to explain how he keeps up with his hectic schedule and balances his football and baseball responsibilities.
Thayer has a notebook, he says, with a daily list of goals. He writes them out by hand, the old-fashioned way.
If he doesn’t complete the list each day, “he’s going to be sick to his stomach. He’s not going to be able to go to sleep,” Drake says.
Thayer interrupts to correct his brother.
“That’s somewhat true,” Thayer says.
Drake shoots back, “That’s 100 percent true.”
They go back-and-forth. What else would you expect? That’s what brothers do.