With a rare 6-foot-5, 235-pound frame as a teenager, when Hayden Hurst graduated from The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla., it wasn't just pro baseball scouts who were interested in him. Sixty-one miles down the road in Gainesville, Will Muschamp, who was the head coach of the Florida football team at the time, was quietly taking notes on Hurst.
Hurst's physical skill set was so unique that Muschamp had to do his due diligence on the star athlete in his state. But with a 95-mph fastball and .313 batting average, Hurst wasn't interested in playing anything other than hardball. Nor should he have been as he was one of the top baseball players in the nation.
The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Hurst in the 17th round and all signs pointed to a successful career on the horizon for Hurst. A year later, as Hurst took the mound for a spring game against the Baltimore Orioles' Gulf Coast League team, Hurst's hand went numb and his dreams of being a top pitcher in the Major Leagues dwindled away.
Hurst developed what baseball players call the "yips" in 2013 and his career was never the same. The yips are mental roadblocks that affect athletes differently. For Hurst, he couldn't throw the ball straight anymore. It affected him so much that after three years of what he says was "fighting through" it, he decided to call it quits. Hurst later learned the anxiety he had during this time would stay with him longer than he ever thought.
After playing just one year of high school football, Hurst decided to walk on as a wide receiver at the University of South Carolina, coached by Steve Spurrier at the time. One season later, Spurrier retired and Muschamp was hired to be the head coach of the Gamecocks' football team. Muschamp remembered Hurst from his time at Bolles and knew exactly how he wanted to use him in his offense and it would require a position change.
"I saw a big guy that was very athletic," Muschamp said. "I thought what we were going to do offensively from a schematic standpoint, he would really fit at the tight end position. There's a lot that goes with the tight end position because you've got to understand protections, the run game and passing game. It's all facets."
Hurst certainly went through a transition phase in learning his position but Muschamp never doubted he could do it. And he did. In three seasons with Gamecocks, Hurst caught 100 passes for 1,281 yards and three touchdowns. By the time his junior season was complete, Hurst had developed into one of the top players at his position heading into the 2018 NFL Draft.
But football wasn't the only place Hurst was having to go through a transition phase. In 2016, Hurst attempted suicide. After battling depression for years, Hurst developed an addiction to alcohol and said he started drinking every day. While under the influence of alcohol one night, Hurst cut his wrists and was found by his friend sitting in a pool of blood. He woke up in the hospital handcuffed to a bed.
Hurst calls that his "come to Jesus moment" and realized he needed professional mental health support. After long talks with Muschamp about how he wanted to proceed with his life, Hurst made it clear he wanted to continue his football career. Muschamp listened and offered support in the best way he knew how.
"His experience with baseball really drives him as a football player," Muschamp said. "His off the field issues really drove him as a football player, that was his happy place. And he enjoyed working to make himself the best player he can be. I'm so proud of him to be able to turn things around."
Hurst was selected as the No. 25 overall pick by the Baltimore Ravens in 2018 NFL Draft. At the age of 24, Hurst had been drafted by an MLB team and an NFL team.
The Ravens had high hopes for what Hurst could be in their offense that typically utilizes their tight end as a top receiving option. But things didn't turn out the way Hurst or the Ravens figured it would. Hurst suffered a foot injury that sidelined him for weeks in his rookie season. The Ravens also drafted tight end Mark Andrews in the third round (No. 86 overall) of the 2018 draft, who ended up beating Hurst out for the starting spot. During his two seasons in Baltimore, Hurst started just four games and caught 43 passes for 512 yards and three touchdowns.
Two months after his final game as a Raven, the Falcons traded a second-round pick to Baltimore to acquire Hurst. Another curveball was being thrown his way but this time, it was one that would set him up for more success than he'd ever had.
"It was a good thing," Hurst said of the trade. "I felt like I was kind of on the outside looking in and as we all know with football, your careers are kind of short. I wanted to get with a team that would utilize me and strike while the iron is hot. I was just ecstatic because I know Matt Ryan and his tight ends, the history they have. They utilize them, Dirk uses them. I'm ecstatic to be here, it's a great opportunity for me."
When asked how he would describe his journey, Hurst answered using one word: "Crazy."
Hurst's unique road to becoming the Falcons' starting tight end has shaped him and how he approaches each day. His mentality is one of the traits that stands out most to Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who has stated how much he liked Hurst during the pre-draft evaluation.
"I was first impressed by just how hard he was going," Quinn said. "What I probably didn't know was how fast he is. So, even from his time at Baltimore, when we were doing our evaluation prior to the trade, a long touchdown run where you saw his speed, but when you're around him every day, you feel how fast he is. So, that's the one thing maybe I was pleased to see. I certainly wouldn't say I was surprised. I knew he could run well, but I think it was better than even I thought."
Quinn consulted with Muschamp about Hurst and Atlanta's head coach had all the answers he needed. What Quinn wanted to know more than anything was regarding who Hurst was as a person.
"I told Dan what I thought of Hayden as a man," Muschamp said. "I said he would be a huge addition to the Atlanta Falcons and I know Dan's personality and Hayden's personality were going to fit very well. I'm glad it all worked out."
Although it's a small sample size, it sure looks like Hurst's acquisition has worked out for both parties. Hurst caught his first touchdown pass as a Falcon against the Cowboys on Sunday and caught a career-high five passes for 72 yards. His vertical speed is something the Falcons haven't had at the tight position during Dirk Koetter's second stint as offensive coordinator in Atlanta.
The Falcons have historically had strong play from their tight ends dating back to when Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez played in Atlanta from 2009-13. Austin Hooper was also extremely successful with the Falcons in his four years with the club. Hooper was one of the top tight ends available on the free agent market this offseason and signed a four-year deal worth a reported $44 million with the Cleveland Browns.
With Hurst's mindset to make the most of his opportunities in life and on the football field, it appears the stars have finally aligned in a way he could have never imagined.
"Hayden's probably got a little bit more speed than (Austin) Hooper had," Koetter said. "I've been really impressed with Hayden's ability to catch the ball in traffic and how hard he plays down after down. Both times I've been here we've had really good tight ends in Tony Gonzalez and Austin Hooper. I think Hayden is going to be the next in a long line of good tight ends for the Falcons."
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