J.T. Autrey always kept his head up, his eyes on the light at the end of the tunnel.
Through a pair of shoulder surgeries that took years to overcome, the 2010 Stephenville High School graduate believed in his potential. He believed he was destined to be a professional baseball player.
On Saturday, that dream became reality.
Autrey was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays as the 954th pick in the 32nd round of Major League Baseball's First-Year Player Draft Saturday. He will be working out as a pro by noon on Wednesday.
"The whole experience has been awesome. I had quite a few teams talking to me throughout the year. The Angels, Indians and Tigers were all on me hard," said Autrey, a right-handed pitcher coming out of Lamar University in Beaumont. "I hadn't really communicated with the Blue Jays, but I got a phone call from them in the 32nd round saying they were about to pick me. It was really exciting."
Autrey flies out of Dallas today and by noon Wednesday will be in Dunedin, Florida to begin working out in Blue Jays Minor League system.
"I have to take a physical (Wednesday) morning, then I'll get all my gear and start working out right away," said Autrey. "One journey ends and another begins."
The journey certainly had its ups and downs. In fact, Stephenville fans may struggle to recall ever seeing Autrey pitch for the Yellow Jackets thanks to the shoulder injuries that could have wrecked his budding career.
"I had shoulder surgery in the fall of 2010, then I rehabbed, got the shoulder back near full strength and was throwing up to 93, 94 miles per hour," Autrey said.
But only a few weeks passed before familiar feelings of discomfort returned.
"I went back to the Texas Rangers doctor who did my first surgery and he sent me to a neurologist," Autrey explained. "It turns out I had nerve damage and had to had to have another surgery to fix that."
Autrey could have given up, but instead he went to Navarro College - where older brothers Leighton, a 2004 pick of the Seattle Mariners and currently the head baseball coach at Corsicana High School, and Garrett also played - and ultimately on to Lamar, which competes in NCAA Division I as a member of the Southland Conference.
"I'm a competitor. I think you have to have a bulldog mentality to be a successful pitcher, and I definitely have that. It's how I was raised," Autrey said. "If you get knocked down, you always get right back up and keep fighting.
"The rehab was tough," he added. "But I knew I had the potential, and I knew I wasn't a quitter."
And this spring, he was finally healthy enough to make serious contributions from the hill. He fired 40 strikeouts over 42.2 innings in 20 appearances for Lamar, five of them starts. He was 6-2 with a 3.59 earned run average, allowing just 31 hits and 17 walks, for a ratio of just 1.35 hits plus walks per inning pitched. Opposing batters hit just .215 against him.
"There was nothing better than just getting the chance to play the game again," Autrey said. "And not just play, but to play it to the level I know I'm capable of."
Nothing better. Until being drafted, that is.
"I had hopes, and I knew I had put in the hard work that was necessary, but you never know for sure until you get that call," Autrey said. "It really was a dream come true."