February 5, 2009
One opportunity was enough for Johnny Cockrell.
Picking one destination proved to be a little tougher than Billy Autrey imagined.
But Autrey found you can''t go wrong when your options include playing football at two Southeastern Conference schools, the possibility of playing professional baseball, or taking a scholarship to play two sports in junior college.
On Wednesday, Columbus High School''s Cockrell and Autrey signed letters of intent to continue their athletic careers at East Mississippi Community College.
Cockrell, a 6-foot-1, 198-pound running back/outside linebacker, projects as a running back for coach Buddy Stephens'' team.
"The fact that this was my only opportunity is going to make me work even harder to make the most out of it," Cockrell said.
Autrey, a 6-2, 290-pounder, played center this season for the Falcons (1-10). He also is a standout on the school''s baseball team.
"I am very blessed to have the opportunity to play both sports at the next level," Autrey said. "I am going to go to summer school at EMCC for football. When football is over, baseball has me, so that worked out well."
Autrey had a tryout with a scout from the St. Louis Cardinals last week. He believes he did well at the workout and that he impressed the scout. He said the only question the scout asked him was what round in June''s major league draft would it take for him to be drafted in to get him to sign a contract to play professional baseball.
Autrey won''t know until June if he will have to make that decision. In the meantime, he plans to play football for Stephens and then transition back to baseball and play for coach Tony Montgomery.
"It was definitely crazy," Autrey said. "I had a St. Louis Cardinals scout come down a try me out for baseball. The next day, Alabama called me and invited me to walk on. I have always wanted to go to Alabama. My parents went there and my sister goes there, so it was a tough decision.
"The next day, Mississippi State called me and invited me to walk on."
Autrey said Alabama and Mississippi State offered to have him come to campus as a preferred walk-on. But the opportunity to play both sports and to have EMCC pay for what could be the first two years of his education proved to be a better choice right now.
"You just keep your options open," said Autrey, who also received interest from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Louisiana Tech but no offers. "I can leave after one year because I qualified (academically to play at a four-year school). Playing both sports helped me make my decision."
Autrey said both EMCC coaches have told him they don''t have any problem with him playing two sports.
Columbus coach Bubba Davis credits Cockrell and Autrey for being building blocks who played key roles in his first year with the program. He feels both players have the potential to make the most of their opportunities.
"Both of them did a very good job for us," Davis said. "We felt like we got a whole lot out of both of them. I think their future is ahead of them. Both of them should be able to come out of junior college and get two years somewhere else."
Cockrell admitted to thinking Columbus'' lack of success record wise was going to hurt his chances to earn an opportunity to play football in college.
"I really didn''t think I would get this opportunity," Cockrell said. "We had a tough season, but I stuck it out and I have this opportunity. Some of my other teammates didn''t get this opportunity, but I am glad I did, and I am going to take advantage of it."
Davis feels Cockrell would be an ideal strong safety in college. Whether Cockrell transitions to that position remains to be seen, but Cockrell said it doesn''t matter where he plays because he is eager to make the most of his chance.
"He has great hands and good speed," Davis said. "We ended up playing him on offense because we thought it would be better for our program to play them on offense."
Davis said Autrey has great size, strength and has great feet for an offensive lineman. He also said Autrey, a first baseman/pitcher, can "knock the cover off the baseball" when he takes the diamond, so he isn''t sure which sport he will pick.
"Billy is probably the best center in the state who didn''t play a down at center," Davis said. "To help our football team, it was better for us to put him at guard.
"He is probably the best offensive lineman I have ever had, and I have had some good ones."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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