How Hayden Hurst Went from Baseball Flameout to Potential 1st-Round NFL Pick

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistApril 4, 2018

South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst (81) warms up before an NCAA college football game against Florida on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina defeated Florida 28-20. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The big redhead takes the baseball from his old black mitt. The yellow stitching on the outside of the left thumb reads, "Tomorrow's Another Day." He looks at the ball and pauses for a second. He's standing in his backyard, in between the pool and the pond, where he used to play catch when he was younger and untouched by failure. He is facing a new wooden fence. He thinks about it and moves to the opposite side of the pool, where an errant throw wouldn't do any damage, as one of his throws did to the old fence long ago. He has not thrown a baseball since 2015, when he walked away from the sport after a three-year battle with the yips. But now, with his father on the other side of the yard, he cocks his arm, steps with his left foot and…

In the schoolyard, Hayden Hurst was the first one picked for whatever sport he played. And he played them all—baseball, football, basketball, hockey and wrestling. As a high school freshman, he was the winning pitcher in the state championship game. No wonder. He stood 6'3" and threw 90 miles per hour.

By the time he was a high school senior, his parents told him he should give up football because a Major League Baseball career was at stake. In the stands at his games, radar guns outnumbered video cameras.

He was named an Under Armour All-American and pitched in the all-star game at Wrigley Field. He was offered a full ride to play baseball at Florida State. 

On the night before the 2012 MLB draft, Hurst's adviser told him to be ready for a call near the end of the first round or at the top of the second, and for a signing bonus between $8 million (if he went at the top of the first) and $1 million (if he went at the bottom of the first). But both rounds came and went without Hurst being chosen. So did the third round...and the fourth...and every other round until he was finally chosen by the Pirates. In the 17th.

Hurst's father, Jerry Hurst, did some investigating and found out teams were worried Hayden intended to put his pro career on hold to attend Florida State. He also heard the adviser put the word out that Hurst would not sign for less than $1 million, even though neither Hurst nor his family members had ever said that. Faced with the possibility of drafting a player who wouldn't sign, teams backed off.

Hurst was disappointed, but he planned on enrolling at Santa Fe Community College and re-entering the draft the following year. Then the Pirates called and asked what it would take for him to sign. Hurst asked for $400,000. At the eleventh hour before the signing deadline, the Pirates agreed.

By the time he joined the Gulf Coast League Pirates in Bradenton, Florida, Hurst stood nearly 6'5" and was throwing 97 miles per hour. The Pirates had every reason to believe they had a steal, and it appeared Hurst would be on a fast track to the major leagues.

Then that fall, he was playing catch with a teammate on the foul line. He overthrew his partner.

Then he overthrew him again, and again.

The fall league was almost over, so Hurst went home for the offseason and put it out of his mind. He came back the following spring pitching the best he ever had, buzzing fastballs by overmatched batters.

But then he injured his biceps and missed a week. When he returned, everything had changed. He was skipping throws in the dirt at 45 feet, airmailing it over the catcher's head and sending balls into the lake behind the field.

He started feeling something funny in his hand when he threw.

Day 54 April 12th Saturday 2014

Threw with [Tyler] Glasnow on field 5 in between 2 guys AAA guy and Vance Worley and I was not able to throw it well. I kept missing high because I was flying open. I got to the point when I just stopped throwing and started lobbing the ball back. I got very discouraged because of the bad throws. I was pissed off and embarrassed of what I was doing. I thought about switching positions and or quitting all day long. It is tough at times but I have to stay focused and positive to get what I want one day. I'm only 20 years old I can do it. Keep grinding away at it. One day at a time.

—From Hayden Hurst's journal

The pitching gurus who spend their days on throwing motions initially thought his problems were mechanical. They made adjustments to his delivery. Try this. Do that.

One compassionless old-school coach's idea of helping was, "What the f--k are you doing? What's wrong with you? Why are you throwing like that?"

Most of his teammates offered little support. His closer friends just ignored Hurst's struggles, acted as if they didn't exist. Others just acted as if Hurst didn't exist.

One day in a bullpen session, Hurst hit the screen behind the catcher. The pitcher who was throwing next to him stomped off, telling the pitching coach, "I'm not throwing next to him. That's contagious, and I'm not getting near it."

Wild throws were begetting insecurities. Insecurities were begetting wild throws.

He was still in his home state, but Hurst was feeling a long way away from the Yum Yum Tree, a diner a few blocks from his home where the waitress will give him a hug and apologize if they are out of the cheese spread he's been ordering since he was five years old.

Some prospects would have packed up and headed home for comfort. Hurst persevered. He didn't want to waste his gift. He didn't want to let down the Pirates.

Day 73 Monday June 15th 2014

Today I was locked in confident and focused. I started out slow and controlled from 60ft then when I got out to 90ft and 120ft I put a little something on it. I was able to block out the nervousness and tentativeness. I was forgiving and self compassionate on my mistakes. I felt the badass/controlled craziness come on when I brought it back into 60ft in my "flat ground." I was in a groove throwing hitting spots. I took my risk of reckless abandon today and asked Scott to throw a bullpen tomorrow. I am not nervous about it, not anxious about the anticipatory side of it. I am going to do what I have been doing and do my best in my bullpen tomorrow. Keep grinding and working hard. One day at a time.

—From Hayden Hurst's journal

In the spring of 2014, a kind, caring coach was assigned to work with Hurst. He was a big flamethrower once, too, and was chosen in the first round of the draft when he was 18 years old. He lasted a decade-plus in the game, going from the Astros to the Rockies to the Indians to the Royals to the Indians again to the Charlotte Knights to the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. He went 17-7 in one glorious season. He went 3-11 in another, not-so-glorious season.

Scott Elarton had seen it all, and his perspective was exactly what Hurst needed.

Elarton and Hurst would wake up before the rest of the team and take the field so they could work in privacy. Whatever Elarton asked, Hurst would try.

Elarton used distraction techniques and external focus methods"—anything to get your mind off the little man who grabs your hand at the release point," he says. For instance, a five-step pitching delivery—the pitcher counts each step so theoretically he doesn't overthink the actual throw.

Once, Elarton had Hurst try to hit the batter's eye—the wall that's about 50 feet wide and 40 feet high. That was the objective of the day—just hit that wall. Then, the next day, the target got smaller. It kept getting smaller until he was trying to throw through a hula hoop. Another time, he had an exercise called "ring the bell" in which Hurst was told to hit the foul pole with his throws.

"He was able to do what he was asked to do for a while," Elarton says. "But without fail if we got anywhere near a pitching mound, it would just blow up again."

Dan Pompei @danpompei

This is what the yips looked like for former MLB prospect Hayden Hurst, now projected by many to be the first tight end taken in the NFL draft. https://t.co/eP7owr3z7P

Hurst's throws were rattling him. And they were rattling batters who had to face him. He was pitching in a spring training game against the Orioles when one got away. He hit the batter in the head.

"He was unconscious on the ground," Hurst says. "It shook me up pretty bad. Ninety four at his head. After that, it got a lot worse. That fear of guys making fun of me, of hurting someone, of looking like a clown…all of it got to me."

By now, Hurst was having panic attacks. Shaking hands. The sweats. Fear of a heart attack. Urges to run.

And he was depressed. He would stay in his room at the Pirates complex, avoiding people. When his parents would call, he'd fake it.

"Yeah, everything's going great, Dad."

Day 74-75 Tues-Thursday June 18th-19th 2014

Bad series of days. I do not know why but I feel as though everything has gone to s--t. I feel nervous and unable to focus. I can't get remotely close to obtaining the badass in me. And I have been doing a poor job at separating it on and off the field. I am lost, losing faith and searching for answers and stability in my life. This is getting hard to face each day and to be honest I feel like giving up. Why me? What have I done to deserve these 2 years of confirmed hell?

—From Hayden Hurst's journal

The Pirates sports psychologist suggested Hurst try journaling as a way to get his feelings out. Hurst kept the journal for two years, writing in it every day. There are pages and pages.

Many other mental health professionals would come into Hurst's life during his struggles. He sat through more than 75 appointments with eight doctors and spent thousands of dollars.

The Pirates sent him to a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with attention deficit disorder. Hurst said she pushed Prozac. He said no thank you.

Richard Crowley cured Steve Sax of the yips in the 1980s. Surely he could help Hurst. The psychologist told him to think of what caused him emotional distress. Then he told him to create an image, say, a tree. Then picture the source of the distress as the image. Finally, destroy the image.

There was a hypnotist who tried to put him under. "Bizzare," Hurst remembers. Another psychologist tried an emotional-freedom technique called tapping, which is supposed to release negative emotions or thoughts by tapping on energy meridians on the body.

Through it all, his aim remained scattershot.

He tried to switch positions to first base, but he was just another player off the mound.

It was a lost season in 2014. Then came 2015. One last shot.

"When he was leaving that last time for spring training, we almost had to push him out the door," his mother, Cathy Hurst, says. "He didn't want to go. But he did because he's strong, and he said he was going to try it one more time. As a parent, it was awful. It broke my heart."

Elarton remembers working alone with Hurst one day that spring. Nothing was going right. It was another in a long string of horrible, awful workouts. Right there on the field, they wept together.

"We were so at a loss for what to do, because we both were just trying so hard and it wasn't working," Elarton says. "You just get tired of fighting it. I couldn't imagine being in his shoes. He had all the ability in the world, and it was just gone."

Things seemed to be improving one day when he was working in the bullpen. Then he threw a pitch that sailed and hit the fence. He let his glove drop in the dirt, left it there and walked into the clubhouse. Elarton followed him in and found him sobbing.

"I think that was when I realized I wasn't going to keep trying to make this work," Hurst says. "I kind of lost it. This is it for me."

By then, Hurst had started using the "F word"—football.

Day 51 April 9th 2014 Wednesday

I threw with Jon again today and did well again. I could tell today I was a bit more nervous than usual for some reason but when we got to 60ft and I started to let some go I did fine… Today for some reason I had thoughts of quitting and playing football. I still feel like I am at a confusing time in my life and I don't know what I want. It's scary for me but I'm not giving up on baseball. Keep on grinding and busting your ass. Take it one day at a time and it will all work itself out.

—From Hayden Hurst's journal

Hurst's father tapes inspirational quotes on Hayden's bathroom mirror. One is from Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture. "We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand."

As baseball had become more and more burdensome, Hurst thought a lot about football. "I started thinking it would be a lot easier just to go hit someone," he says.

"What are you passionate about?" Elarton would ask him.

"Football," Hurst would say.

"He had poured everything into baseball," Elarton says. "He was completely beat down. We exhausted all avenues. We had a lot of heart-to-heart conversations. The long and short of it is I think his heart was on the football field. Somewhere along the way, we both knew it wasn't going to get any better."

But by this point, Hurst was 22. Could he really start over as a football player at that age?

His mother told him she thought he had no chance. "Almost everyone I told except Scott and my father thought I was crazy," Hurst says. "My teammates said, 'You're terrible at baseball. You aren't going to be good at football.'"

Elarton believed in Hurst's dream. Hurst's father did, too. Dad had seen him win too many athletic challenges to doubt him. So Elarton and Jerry Hurst encouraged him.

Elarton asked Jerry if he could drive to Bradenton to discuss Hayden's future. The three of them sat in the clubhouse and made a plan. Shortly after, Hayden called Pirates minor league director Larry Broadway and told him he was done. "Well, Hayden," Broadway told him, "I hope there's something you can stick to in your life."

There would be.

Season tickets for Florida football had been in the family since 1961. Becoming a Gator was Hurst's first choice. He was told the school had a preferred walk-on spot for him. But ultimately Florida gave the spot to someone else.

Hurst's friend Perry Orth was a backup quarterback at South Carolina, and he talked assistant coach Steve Spurrier Jr. into taking a look at Hurst. Spurrier liked what he saw and offered him a preferred walk-on spot.

As a wide receiver in the fall of 2015, Hurst wasn't a typical walk-on. He was as gifted as any scholarship athlete. And despite having no idea what he was doing, he was beating starting defensive backs in practice with regularity.

"My basic football knowledge was elementary—run a route really fast and catch a pass," he says. "Everything I did my freshman year was raw. I had no idea what a defense was doing schematically. I couldn't ID a single coverage."

That began to change in the offseason after Will Muschamp replaced Steve Spurrier Sr. and Hurst moved to tight end.

"I owe a lot of my success to those coaches because they enabled me to take my ability to the next level," Hurst says.

It was quickly apparent to Muschamp that Hurst was a football player. "In the first spring we were together, I knew," Muschamp says. "He was an explosive athlete, and then as I saw his work ethic and willingness to compete, the more excited I got about how good he can be."

Hurst worked out with weights twice daily and went from 225 pounds to 250. His maximum bench press went from 250 to 405. Muschamp says anytime the weight room was open, he knew where to find Hurst.

He wanted to do everything the right way. He hasn't had alcohol in three years. Instead, he goes through four gallons of milk in a week.

He also tried to meet every day with coaches to catch up with his teammates and opponents, most of whom had years of experience on him. "I did probably 10 times what the next guy was doing, if not more than that," he said.

Sean Rayford/Associated Press

Hurst became the only sophomore in South Carolina history to be voted a captain. "He earned it day to day with his work ethic, drive and competitive edge," Muschamp says. "With him, all of those things are off the charts."

Over the next two seasons, he caught 92 passes for 1,175 yards. Last season, he was voted first-team All-SEC. He had 100 catches in his college career, and only two drops, according to Sports Info Solutions.

In two years, he turned himself from an MLB bust into a projected NFL first-round pick.

Tues Feb 18th 1 p.m.

Strive for excellence. Excellence is doable. Perfection is not attainable—no one is perfect.

—Remember this feeling of happiness—There is more to your life than baseball. Don't let what you do on the field define you as a person.

Treat it like a game as you have been and keep not giving a s--t what happens. You are damn good. Believe in yourself.

—From Hayden Hurst's journal

The Pirates had a rule—hair could not touch the collar. So Hurst's hair was cut off around the middle of his neck. Now when he takes his hair out of his bun, it falls over his shoulder pads.

Hurst isn't just a different athlete. He's a different man. He is his own man, the man he was destined to be.

The sport that has broken so many has healed Hurst.

"Everyone told me growing up I was a football player who plays baseball," he says. "As a pitcher, I wasn't as concerned about throwing strikes as I was lighting up radar guns. I wanted to throw as hard as I could. When I would get mad, I'd try to throw even harder. And that doesn't correlate to success. In football, there is a mental side to the game, which is huge. But there is also that raw aggression. If I get pissed off, I can put my facemask in this guy's chin. That's where a lot of my success comes from, that pent up aggression from baseball."

From the time he was in high school, Hurst associated baseball with money because everyone told him there was so much to be made. He associated football, meanwhile, with freedom.

Baseball, with its slow pace and anticipation between plays, was draining. Football, with its explosive bursts, is exhilarating.

"It's a beautiful and perfect game," he says of his new sport. "At its purest form, it's I'm going to be better than this guy for three-and-a-half hours and kick his butt up and down the field."

It's an enticing combination for NFL teams—of unrealized potential, high-end ability and rare passion.

Though he will be 25 before the NFL season starts, he is a puppy of a tight end. "He has played this position for two years," Muschamp says. "He's in the infantile stage of his career. That's why I think he has tremendous upside."

His mother apologized long ago for doubting Hayden.

"To go from such a high in baseball to such a low, and now to have another opportunity, it's almost like, Pinch me, I'm going to wake up and it's all going to be a dream," she says.

Hurst had to go there to get here, and he knows it. All of it—football being taken from him in high school, falling in the baseball draft, the nasty pitching coach and the callous teammates, the hypnotism and tapping, having Elarton come into his life, being snubbed by Florida, Muschamp becoming his coach—all of it happened for a reason.

"I understand now what it's like to be at the bottom," he says. "I don't judge a lot anymore. I don't make fun of things. I know what it's like to go through something there is no explanation for. What I went through I wouldn't wish on anybody. I dug myself out of it and put myself in this position. Everything I've been through in my life has made me who I am. So I have no regrets."

Hurst understands failures can become the seeds of creation.

He wants to become a dominant two-way tight end. He wants to lift the Lombardi Trophy in the air. He wants to inspire others. And he wants to start a foundation for mental health.

Photo by Dan Pompei

The big redhead in his backyard unleashes the throw, his first in three years. It finds his father's mitt, not the dirt, not the pool, not a window on the neighbor's house. So he throws another into the mitt. And another, another and another. Now he backs up. Another good throw. He starts throwing harder. All good. The ball feels a little funny leaving his hand. But the throws are good. His mother can't believe what she is seeing.

"Maybe," he says, "it's because it doesn't matter now."


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