Hayden Hurst awoke in a hospital bed, confused, covered in blood and alone.
To the outside world, he was a South Carolina football player with a flowing mane of red hair and a frame rippling with newly sculpted muscle, an athlete rising from the ashes of a failed professional baseball career.
But inside that room, Hurst was a sick young man who’d yet to master the demons that walked with him daily. He’d reached the bottom of a long, dark tunnel.
Almost four years later, Hurst still does not feel comfortable describing the circumstances of that day. When he discussed it on camera for a new NBC Sports documentary called “Head Strong: Mental Health and Sports,” the Ravens tight end broke down.
“It’s still kind of an ongoing thing that I’m trying to get comfortable talking about,” he said before practice Wednesday at the team’s facility in Owings Mills. “Hopefully, one day, I can get to the point where I want to tell the whole story. But yeah, a lot of bad decisions my freshman year led me to being put in a hospital one night. … I woke up, and I didn’t really know what happened, but I had some people explain to me what I guess I tried to do. I was just sitting there by myself for almost 24 hours. It was a confusing, hard time, but I’m glad it happened because it made me who I am now.”
Hurst has resolved to share his story with anyone who will listen. He knows plenty of people in the sports world still view mental illness as a form of weakness. For years, he buried his own difficulties, hiding them even from his tight-knit family as he descended into a fog of anxiety and depression. But he hopes to help erase that stigma for future generations.
“It’s tough at first, because you have to figure out what’s going on inside,” he said. “You have to be comfortable with who you are and who you’ve become. So it probably took me two or three years to figure out my story could really impact other people and hopefully shed some light that, ‘Hey, he was really hurting. He was in a dark place. But he was able to dig himself out.’ ”
Hurst, 26, has joined a growing list of athletes, including Towson-raised Olympian Michael Phelps, who are speaking out about depression and other forms of mental illness. The NBC documentary, which premiered in the Washington market Thursday and will appear on NBC Sports Network on Nov. 20, profiles Hurst along with NBA standout Justise Winslow, former NHL player Clint Malarchuk and Oregon State soccer player Nathan Braaten.
“I think in Hayden’s case, him taking the struggles he had and using them to help other people is just amazing and courageous,” said Ted Griggs, one of the documentary’s executive producers. “But you can also see how it helped him to expose his most vulnerable part, because it made him stronger. I think that’s really, really cool and powerful.”
Professional leagues and players unions are taking mental health more seriously as well. Earlier this year, for example, the NFL and the NFL Players Association announced that every team would be required to have a behavioral health clinician at its facility at least eight hours per week. Even before that policy was enacted, the Ravens contracted with an independent clinician to work at the team’s facility full-time from the spring through the season. The team also relies on chaplain Johnny Shelton and director of player engagement Jameel McClain to help players find the services they need.
Ravens president Dick Cass said teams have made progress in providing support but said players such as Hurst can hasten that process not just in the league but in society at large.
“I think when they talk about it openly, it really does help other young people who are undergoing some of the same issues,” Cass said. “If a player is willing to be open about it and share what he has endured, what kind of treatment he’s received and where he is today, I think that’s very helpful to thousands of people, athletes or not.”
Hurst was an all-everything athlete at The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida, big, fast and capable of whipping a 94-mph fastball past overmatched prep hitters. Scouts said he was destined for the big leagues, and that prediction seemed on target to Hurst and his parents as he thrived in the first few months after the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him in 2012.
Then, just like that, a game of catch became the most terrifying thing in his life.
The yips seized Hurst to the point his hands trembled when he contemplated picking up a baseball. With every failure — a practice toss sailed 20 feet over his teammate’s glove or worse, a fastball that crashed into an opponent’s head — his anxiety mounted. He thought he’d give his family a better life with his mighty right arm, and the weight of self-imposed pressure threatened to crush him.
On phone calls with his parents, Hurst said he felt fine. But in reality, he shut the blinds in his apartment, avoided human contact and tried to dull his pain with alcohol and drugs. He became, in his father’s words, a mean drunk, the opposite of the buoyant, family-oriented spirit he’d been growing up.
Hurst’s uncle had died by suicide and so had his first cousin, so his parents knew how frightening depression could be.
“The first fear for us was genetic, and are we going down the same road?” his father, Jerry, says in the documentary. “What's his next step going to be? We need to make sure it’s not that.”
Hurst retired from baseball in 2015 and walked on as a football player at South Carolina. In one sense, he’d found a healthier endeavor. He felt less alone and could simply “cut it loose” on the field. Coaches and teammates were pleasantly surprised that the big redhead distinguished himself so quickly after years of frustration in a different sport.
But on another level, Hurst had solved nothing. Until he woke up in that hospital bed, he did not realize how much help he needed.
“I found out that I really needed to talk to somebody,” he said. “Because it wasn’t going to get better on its own.”
Hurst saw therapists and laid his soul bare to his parents and his sister (the “core four,” they call themselves). He also found an outlet in journaling, a practice suggested to him by his baseball buddy, Stetson Allie, who’s currently pitching in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.
“I bought the journal, and from the time I woke up in the morning to the time I went to bed, everything that went on in my head, I would write it down,” Hurst said. “Because I’m not big on talking to people. I’m not comfortable expressing my emotions. But it was a way for me to get everything out instead of internalizing it.”
He keeps the journal with him but does not open it often these days. So many dark thoughts on which he has little desire to dwell.
“I am lost, losing faith and searching for answers and stability in my life,” he wrote in a June 2014 entry, which he shared with Bleacher Report last year. “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?”
After he pursued the help he needed in 2016, Hurst built himself into one of the more improbable first-round NFL prospects in recent times.
But it’s not as if all his problems melted away when the Ravens drafted him last year. He broke his foot before the start of his rookie season, and though he returned to the field after missing the first four games, the injury did not fully heal until February.
Fans said vicious things about him on social media, a treacherous dimension for modern athletes trying to maintain their mental health.
“One thing on the field can go wrong, and people have a direct line of communication to you,” Hurst said. “They can tweet at you and say, ‘You’re the worst thing that ever happened to this city. Why did we draft you?’ And then the next week you make a play and you’re the greatest thing that ever happened. So it’s weird. I try not to pay attention to it. I don’t read my mentions at all.”
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Hurst, who’s flashed his receiving skills in a back-up role this season, said he hasn’t returned to the dark thoughts that haunted him in past years. He credited his family and the coping mechanisms he learned but also the rare, goofy camaraderie he’s built with fellow Ravens tight ends Nick Boyle and Mark Andrews. They’re among the few people in the locker room who know his story.
“It’s huge,” Hurst said. “They just take the pressure off of everything. You don’t have that anxiety, that fear.”
Andrews agreed and said he’s proud of his friend for speaking out about his experiences. “It takes a strong person to come out and be an advocate and most importantly, to be honest,” he said. “There’s such a stigma, where you’re expected to be emotionless and strong, to not let anything faze you. But people have to understand that football players have feelings and football players go through things, just like anybody else. And I think his story shows that. For him to stand out and be honest with people, it’s impressive.”
There's a scene in the NBC documentary that captures Hurst speaking with students in his native Jacksonville. One moment, they're staring in awe as he reveals he can bench press 405 pounds. The next, he's describing how he couldn't even grip a baseball because his palms were slick with anxiety-induced sweat. This juxtaposition is everything. If Hurst can get across that physical strength is no protection against psychological strain, perhaps next-generation athletes won't instinctively bury their troubles.
He has no illusions that widespread understanding will be achieved overnight. But he hopes that by appearing in the film and working to raise mental health awareness through his foundation, run by his mother, Cathy, he can do his part. He no longer worries whether coaches or peers might consider him weak.