af20_web_hurst-longform_cp_v1
'I feel for you, and I'm here for you'
Hayden Hurst and Dak Prescott shared a beautiful moment in September that ended up being captured on video, going viral and ultimately turning into a blessing for both men
By Matthew Tabeek Dec 03, 2020
Photographs By The Associated Press and Atlanta Falcons

"Divine intervention."

Those are the words Cathy Hurst used to describe the moment when her son, Hayden Hurst, managed to catch up with Dak Prescott in the moments immediately following the Atlanta Falcons-Dallas Cowboys game back on Sept. 20.

Players and coaches from both teams were making their way across the field at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, for the customary postgame handshake and Hayden desperately wanted to speak with Prescott.

What happened in the weeks leading up to that moment and since has not only changed the way many of us view and talk about mental illness, but may have saved lives.



Cathy had talked to Hayden the week before the game about Prescott.

The Hursts had heard about Prescott's story, about how his older brother Jace – the primary caregiver for their mother, Peggy, who died of colon cancer in 2013 – had committed suicide in April, and how Prescott talked openly about his own battle with depression during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I said to Hayden, 'You're playing the Dallas Cowboys. Wouldn't it be awesome if you got an opportunity to talk to Dak?'" Cathy said.

What the Hursts didn't know at the time was that Hayden would end up being randomly selected for the team's "Mic'd Up" video series in Week 2 when the Falcons traveled to Texas to play the Cowboys.

It turned out to be a blessing.

'A brave thing'

On Sept. 9, the day before the 2020 regular season kicked off, portions of an interview Prescott did with Graham Bensinger aired on YouTube. Prescott not only talked about the moment he awoke to learn that his older brother Jace had killed himself in April, but Prescott also explained how he struggled with anxiety, depression and sleeplessness during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The next day, after the Cowboys finished practice, Prescott met with the media and talked about coming out publicly to discuss mental health, noting "that it's important to be vulnerable, to be genuine and to be transparent. I think that goes a long way when you are a leader and your voice is being heard by so many and you can inspire."

While Prescott was widely praised for his comments, well-known television columnist and commentator Skip Bayless said on the Fox Sports show "Undisputed" that he didn't have sympathy for Prescott going public, adding that "he's the quarterback of America's Team … if you reveal any little weakness it can affect your team's ability to believe in you in the toughest spot."

"It drove me crazy because that's exactly what we're trying to break down; is being able to have these athletes and these strong people talk about their emotions." – Cathy Hurst

Bayless was condemned on social media by fans, writers, athletes and even his own employer, Fox Sports. Kevin Love, a five-time NBA All-Star for the Cleveland Cavaliers who has been outspoken about mental illness in the past, tweeted that "Dak saved lives by what he said" and was also quick to note that Bayless's remarks just happened to come on World Suicide Prevention Day.

Still, neither Hayden nor Cathy could believe some of the backlash Prescott received. Hayden called it "completely outrageous" while Cathy couldn't even bring herself to mention Bayless by name.

"I'm not going to mention the sportswriter's name, but he sat there and said, 'Oh he's the quarterback. He has to be strong. He can't show his emotions.'

"And it just," Cathy paused, and was clearly frustrated as she raised her hands to her face. "It drove me crazy because that's exactly what we're trying to break down; is being able to have these athletes and these strong people talk about their emotions."

Hayden called it "a brave thing to come out and talk about."

And he would know.

'One night it just caught up to me'

Hayden's own battles with depression, substance abuse and attempted suicide have been well-documented. He wrote a first-person account of those struggles for The Players' Tribune and he's also appeared on ESPN's "Outside the Lines" to discuss mental illness. Hayden also talked to AtlantaFalcons.com about how hitting rock bottom ultimately led him to find his happy place.

Listening to both Hayden and Prescott, one thing is clear: The more it is out there, the more it is talked about, the better it can be for everyone. That said, it's still sometimes hard to find the right words to describe the effects of depression.

"I can't really explain it. It's hard to unless you've been through it," Hayden said. "But, depression, when you feel like nobody's there … when you're in the headspace and in that dark spot, you do – you feel alone. Nobody's there. Nobody cares."

"For some reason I got a second chance at this thing and I really have never looked back. It was the best and worst thing that ever happened to me.” – Hayden Hurst

Like Prescott, Hayden also experienced loss and struggled to make sense of a lot of the things he was feeling. Like, for instance, when he could no longer throw a baseball straight and was forced to come to grips that his once-promising baseball career was over.

"When it first started happening to me, I had no idea what the hell was going on," Hayden said. "I've always lived my life minute-by-minute, I never let really anything affect me. Then all of the sudden this thing I've been doing since I was a toddler was being taken away from me."

The whole three-year ordeal, Hayden said, created a downward spiral in his life. Then, on Jan. 17, 2016, Hayden bottomed out. Still drinking, still taking drugs, still "trying to numb that pain" of having his childhood dream ripped away, he tried to take his own life.

"One night it just caught up to me," he said. "At that point, I just wanted out. I fought for so long and I wanted it to be over. … For some reason I got a second chance at this thing and I really have never looked back. It was the best and worst thing that ever happened to me."

'We can collab one day'

The Falcons and Cowboys ended up playing one of the wildest games of what has been a season unlike any other in league history. Despite jumping out to a 20-point lead and leading by 19 at halftime, the Falcons ended up losing 40-39 as Dallas kicker Greg Zuerlein booted a 46-yard field goal in the final seconds of regulation.

Hayden caught five passes for 72 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown reception from Matt Ryan in the first quarter to put Atlanta up 14-0. While it may have been one of his best days as a pro, the Falcons' loss was as disappointing as they come.

Hayden still sought out Prescott after the game. The conversation he had with Cathy about all of the negativity Prescott went through stuck with Hayden.

"When you are the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys and you're scrutinized so much already and you come out and you talk about, 'Hey, I was feeling this way with depression. I suffered loss in my family with suicide.'

"You don't realize how much courage that takes to come out and talk about that," Hayden said.

Hayden caught up with the Cowboys quarterback. He praised Prescott for being so brave and let him know about the foundation that he and his mother established – the Hayden Hurst Family Foundation – to raise awareness for mental health issues in children and adolescents.

The beautiful moment between Hayden and Prescott was captured by the Falcons on video and the exchange ended up going viral.

Hurst: Hey, I've got a lot of respect for what you did and came out and talked about. Me and my mom have a foundation about suicide prevention.

Prescott: Yeah!

Hurst: Respect the hell outta you for talking about it, man.

Prescott: We can collab one day.

Hurst: Absolutely.



The Hurst-Prescott exchange lasted all but 10 or so seconds and as awesome as it was to watch unfold, it was hard to not think about some of the sharp criticism aimed toward the Cowboys quarterback only 10 days earlier.

In many ways, it felt like redemption, and Cathy still couldn't believe it was all caught on video.

"It was like almost a divine intervention that it happened," she said. "It was from the heart. And for it to be captured on the Falcons mic was just … unbelievable because he was just letting Dak know I understand your feelings. I feel for you, and I'm here for you. And that's what it's all about."

"It’s a beautiful thing when people start talking about it because at the bare minimum it makes you more relatable to people." – Aaron Rodgers

A few days after Falcons-Cowboys game, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was asked about mental health. In his response, Rodgers said "strength is taking care of yourself, taking care of your mind and understanding how important your thoughts are because they become things and understanding how important positivity is and your attitude."

Rodgers then singled out Prescott and Hurst.

"I think it's phenomenal in speaking out. Because that's true courage and that's true strength. That's not a weakness at all. … I applaud Dak and I think Hurst as well had some words for him after the game. It's a beautiful thing when people start talking about it because at the bare minimum it makes you more relatable to people. We have the same struggles and the same issues."

81-4_lf2

'Event' inspires donations of $8.14

When asked if the foundation has experienced any success stories or if it has made a positive difference in people's lives, Cathy beamed as she rattled off a handful of feel-good stories.

She talked of successful fundraisers, golf tournaments, and of a man whose daughter overcame anxiety issues thanks to guidance provided through the foundation.

And then Cathy mentioned "the Dak Prescott event" again.

"I mean, we had over 100 people reach out to the foundation, many of them being Dallas Cowboys fans, and they're like, 'We love what your cause is and thanks for reaching out and supporting Dak and here's $8.14' – which was Hayden's number, 81, and then of course Dak is No. 4," Cathy said.

Wearing their emotions on their feet

The NFL's My Cause My Cleats campaign launched Tuesday and for the fifth-straight year, players like Hurst and Prescott will try to raise awareness for non-profit organizations and causes that are important to them by wearing their hearts and emotions on their feet. According to NFL.com, popular causes picked by players this year include "tackling social injustice, supporting families in the wake of COVID-19 and bridging the digital divide."

RELATED CONTENT

On Sunday, Hurst will wear cleats representing both his and Prescott's foundations. Prescott suffered a gruesome leg injury back in Week 5 against the New York Giants, which led to an outpouring of support from players around the league.

Cathy said the idea to start a foundation was "100 percent Hayden's idea" right after he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 2018. Hayden wanted it to focus its efforts on mental health and suicide prevention in young people, and one of the Hurst's mantras is, "It's OK to not be OK" because, as Cathy says, "no one is perfect in this world."

"Young people think these athletes are on these pedestals, so they've got everything together," Cathy said. "They have all this money, they're powerful, they can play well – they can't have any problems. And that's not true. They still have anxieties and issues that they work with."

And Hayden wants young people to realize that – that it's OK to not be OK – and talk about it. The program survives through donations and fundraising events. While Prescott's Faith Fight Finish foundation focuses on fighting cancer it also assists "those facing life-challenging hardships."

Those hardships, says Prescott, now include depression and anxiety.

"I know I have the obligation to live on and carry on another legacy," Prescott told Jori Epstein of USA TODAY. "So now it's not just my mother, it's my brother as well."



MAKE A DIFFERENCE, TAKE CONTROL

If you or someone you care about is struggling with feelings of anxiety and depression, talk to someone. If you'd simply like to help, please consider making a donation.

Take a look through tight end Hayden Hurst's life on and off the field in this player spotlight gallery.

back to top

Related Content

Advertising