ROCKTON — Anthony Billups sat blind and alone in a Nashville, Tenn., hospital room, a handful of CDs and a hardly-used guitar by his bedside.
A former star pitcher for the Hononegah High School baseball team, Billups was 20 years old, between junior colleges, and had been playing in a summer league in hopes of getting drafted into the pros.
Suddenly, in the spring of 2003, he couldn't see. He found himself in the hospital with no idea why he'd lost his vision or whether he would ever get it back.
His first stay in the hospital lasted six days. He listened to CD after CD. He couldn't see the frets of his guitar, so he felt out the few basic chords that he knew and started writing songs.
Now a country singer and songwriter, Billups is coming back to Rockton to perform at Old Settlers Days.
He still doesn't know why he went temporarily blind eight years ago. He saw a number of doctors who administered dozens of tests, but he was never diagnosed.
After two months of blindness, his vision inexplicably returned.
Music began as a way to escape the stress and anxiety of losing his sight. It turned into a lifelong pursuit.
Billups will open for headliner Luke Bryan on July 14. The concert is expected to draw up to 5,000 people as Billups and his band promote their first album, "Yank-a-billy Blues."
"It's amazing how you can be certain that all you're going to do in life is one thing, and then you end up finding something else that makes everything before seem like a lifetime away," Billups said.
Two years before he lost his sight, Billups' 90-mph fastball helped Hononegah win its first regional championship. He drew the attention of Major League scouts and major colleges around the country.
After his sight returned, Billups tried to resurrect his baseball career, but his heart wasn't in it. He received a full scholarship to pitch for Eastern Illinois University.
He played for a year but didn't "focus one iota on playing sports," he said.
It was at Eastern Illinois that Billups got his first taste of playing music in front of a crowd.
During spring break, he jumped up on a small stage in front of no more than 50 people and played the only song that he could sing and strum on the guitar — "Let Her Cry" by Hootie and the Blowfish.
"I got an awesome ovation," Billups said. "So the next night I got up on the big stage in front of a few hundred people, and played 'Let Her Cry' again and it brought the house down. People were singing along and cheering.
"Once you feel that one time you want to feel it again all the damn time."
After a year at EIU, Billups moved back to Nashville to study art at Cumberland University. He graduated in 2006 and briefly took a job as a salesman.
He was successful in sales, he said, but "eventually that suit started feeling really heavy."
Billups traded in the business suit for jeans and boots, and for the past four years he's made a living playing music around Nashville and selling his drawings and paintings.
He says he doesn't dwell on the two-month ordeal that flipped his life around.
He isn't bothered that he doesn't know exactly what caused the temporary blindness that may have cost him a chance to play professional baseball.
Billups remembers those days well.
He remembers that he was admitted to the hospital on a Wednesday. He remembers the release he felt as he struck those first few basic chords on the guitar while stuck in his own personal darkness. He remembers a specialist coldly telling him that he might have multiple sclerosis and would never play baseball again, just before turning and walking out of the room.
He remembers how his mother grabbed his hand then, and promised that he would prove the doctor wrong.
"It almost feels like it was so long ago," Billups said. "It definitely led me here, and I love what I'm doing now. I think I'm a better song writer than I ever was a pitcher. With songs, at least, you don't have to worry about throwing strikes."Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.