February 5, 2010 10:06:00 AM
Billy Autrey knew he was going to have to make a decision.
Unfortunately, that choice was going to spell the end for one sport and the continuation of another.
Autrey''s decision Wednesday to sign a National Letter of Intent to play football at the University of Alabama at Birmingham signified the realization of a dream.
Following a strong freshman season on the offensive line at East Mississippi Community College, the former Columbus High standout will have an opportunity to realize his goal of competing at the Division I level.
The flip side is the next few months likely will be the last Autrey will have to play college baseball. The pitcher/first baseman will do everything he can to enjoy his first and only season on the diamond with Lions.
"I have always loved baseball, and I have been blessed with the opportunity to get to play both," Autrey said. "It is sad (he is going to have to give up baseball) because I have been playing all my life. I have loved the game so much, but I was going to have to make a decision sooner or later. Football seems like the right thing to do right now."
Autrey is just one of many former local standouts who is moving on from EMCC. Former West Point High standout Quartney Cox will join Autrey at UAB. Autrey, Cox, quarterback Randall Mackey (University of Mississippi), and Derrick Steele (Central Arkansas) signed letters of intent Wednesday to finalize their choices.
The players who signed Wednesday join an impressive list of players who will play later this year at four-year schools. The list includes: Brandon Lewis (Alabama), Diavalo "Boogie" Simpson (East Carolina), Pat Shed and T.J. Ballou (UAB), Claude Davis (South Florida), John Rice (Western Michigan), C.J. Jenkins and Luther Chambers (Southeastern Louisiana), Cedrick Blanks and Dujuan Brown (Tennessee-Martin), Avis Shelton and Kenny Roby (Alcorn State), Bill Franks (Delta State), Alvin Ellis and Gabe Poe (West Alabama), Anthony Hines and Maurice Owens (Arkansas Tech), Jermayne Lett (Central Arkansas), Stephon Johnson (Kentucky Wesleyan), Jeremiah McDonald (Belhaven), and DeJay Watkins (Stillman College).
Wide receiver Lance Lewis is expected to sign today with East Carolina.
Autrey said Wednesday that he hasn''t been contacted by a member of the UAB baseball team''s coaching staff. He said he is fine with the prospect of focusing on football at UAB because he knows he will have plenty of hard work ahead of him as he jumps from EMCC to Conference USA.
He said UAB recruited him out of high school and didn''t offer him a scholarship. He said he always has like the school and Birmingham, so it was an easy decision when the Blazers'' coaches re-established contact and offered him a scholarship late in EMCC''s season.
The decision wraps up a solid season in which Autrey helped EMCC win a state title and the Mississippi Bowl en route to program-best 11-1 finish.
"When coach (Buddy) Stephens came in and recruited me he said I would get a chance to play and that he would do his best to get me out in one year," Autrey said. "It ended up we had a great season, won a state title and a bowl game. I guess that was enough publicity for us and for me, and I am just glad it happened in one year."
Autrey said he surprised himself that he did so well because he didn''t know what to expect when he arrived at EMCC. By the end of the season, the 6-foot-1, 295-pounder played like a polished veteran and had one of his best games of the season in the state title game against Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C.''s James Carmon, a 6-7, 360-pound defensive lineman who signed with Mississippi State.
"The rest of the offensive line was great and helped me out," Autrey said. "It just all fell into place and ended up being a great year."
Stephens praised the play of Autrey and Cox and said both were key components of the offensive line that helped Mackey earn First-Team NJCAA All-America honors.
"Billy whipped a lot of people," Stephens said. "He had some great games against some very good football players.
"Quartney had a very good year. He really set himself apart from the day he came in. UAB is getting a very good football player."
Cox, who earned Second-Team All-America honors, also considered East Carolina, Alabama State, and Oklahoma State. He said he was impressed with the UAB coaching staff and the reports he received from the Blazers.
Cox said it doesn''t matter where on the line -- he played right tackle and guard the past two seasons -- he plays at UAB because he just wants to show he can contribute. He thanked Stephens and the rest of the coaches for giving him a chance after many people thought he was too small coming out of high school.
"I got a second chance to get my grades right, to get bigger, to understand the game better, and to block Division I talent," Cox said. "When I get (to UAB) there won''t be anything different and I will be able to start strong."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.