By Johnny Jackson
Twenty-year-old Jason Heyward, on Tuesday, shared with students at his former high school the kind of quiet confidence, and ability, which has propelled him to become a top-rated prospect in Major League Baseball.
"Stick to your plan, and you can really go somewhere," Heyward told seniors at his alma mater, Henry County High School in McDonough.
The six-foot, four-inch-tall athlete towered over students gathered in the school's gymnasium to hear his message of hope and tenacity.
Heyward, an outfielder for the Gwinnett Braves, joined several other members of the Atlanta Braves organization as they took the message on the road as part of the Atlanta Braves Country Caravan, an annual tour to fan-friendly venues around the Southeast.
The tour, presented by Academy Sports and Outdoors, included Braves pitchers Tim Hudson and Todd Redmond and back-up catcher, David Ross. Also along for the ride were Glenn Hubbard, the Braves' first-base coach, and a former player; Bruce Manno, the Braves' assistant general manager; Jim Powell, a Braves broadcaster, and Brad Clontz, a Braves broadcaster and former player.
Heyward hopes this spring to earn a spot on the Atlanta Braves roster.
"I wouldn't be here if I was impatient," said Heyward, a 2007 draft pick.
Heyward said he knew early on he wanted to become a professional baseball player and has dedicated himself, and his efforts, to that goal.
"His work ethic even showed that," said Jason Shadden, Heyward's former high school baseball coach.
Shadden credits Heyward with helping lead the Henry County High School Warhawks baseball team to a state title in 2006, during his junior year, under then-head coach Troy Baker.
Shadden said he has tried to follow Heyward's progression through the Braves' minor league system. The last time he saw Heyward play was with the Rome Braves about two years ago. He said he plans to see Heyward try out for the Atlanta Braves this spring as well.
Shadden said he is particularly proud of his former outfielder, for the hope he provides students now, and the lesson in persistence necessary to reach their goals.
"I think they look up to him, and it gives them motivation to do their best," Shadden said. "It can be done. It's just something you have to stick to."
"I'm very proud of him," said Tammie Ruston, Heyward's senior English teacher. "[He offers] a marvelous, positive example of what they can accomplish with hard work and dedication."
Ruston said she has gotten to know Heyward over the years, through their passion for baseball.
"Jason, I only taught one year, and that was his senior year," Ruston said. "I've known Jason since his freshman year and got to know him first through working with the baseball team and through my son, who played on the team with him."
Heyward said his senior year remains a hallmark year in his life, in part, because of Ruston and her dedication in teaching him.
"[Ruston] taught us English, but she taught us things about life," Heyward said. "My senior year was my best year. I was determined, and I didn't want my grades to be the thing to hold me back."
Heyward paid a visit to his former teacher on Tuesday. He frequently visits Ruston at the school when he returns to his McDonough home to visit his parents, Eugene, Jr., and Laura Heyward.
"Jason is a cool person to be around," said Javonti Shavers, a former teammate. Shavers, 18, played alongside Heyward during his freshman year at Henry County High School.
"He [Heyward] was an awesome player, and a team leader," said Shavers, now a senior shortstop and second baseman for the Warhawks. "He's the number one player in the minors, now. You can't beat that. [But] he's not an arrogant person. That inspires me. It makes me play harder."
Heavily recruited, Heyward said he had signed a letter of intent with UCLA when the opportunity arrived for him to play professionally for his hometown team. A 2007 first-round draft pick for the Atlanta Braves, Heyward could become his dream.
"He had a phenomenal spring training last year," said Hubbard. "He's a classy guy the way he handles himself. He's our future. He's one of our pieces to the future."