‘I’ve always taken the unconventional route:’ Hayden Hurst on his journey to Panthers

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At age 29, new Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst has already lived two athletic lifetimes. But he can summarize them both for you quickly.

On Monday, after a training-camp practice, I asked Hurst to describe the career path that brought him to the Panthers. He got it done in under 100 words.

“I’ve always taken the unconventional route,” Hurst said. “I started in baseball and when I graduated (from high school) in 2012, I got drafted by Pittsburgh and spent three years in their minor-league system. A lot of stuff went wrong, and I just fell kind of out of love with baseball. I walked on at South Carolina in 2015. Will (Muschamp, then the Gamecocks’ head football coach) put me on scholarship in 2016. Got drafted by Baltimore. Asked for a trade out of Baltimore. Went to Atlanta. Went from Atlanta to Cincy, and Cincy to here. So it’s been a helluva ride.”

You want someone new to cheer for, Panthers fans?

Put Hurst high on your list. Not only can he play — he caught 65 passes including the playoffs for a Cincinnati team that made it to the AFC Championship game last year — but his personal story is a saga of highs and lows that speak to Hurst’s bravery and perseverance.

I’m not as succinct as Hurst. So I’ll take a little more than 100 words to describe a little more about what has happened to him on the way to Charlotte.

But let’s start with this: he’s in a good place now.

In March, Hurst signed a new three-year deal with the Panthers, whose new head coach Frank Reich loves to feature the tight end on offense. In April, Hurst got engaged to his longtime girlfriend Brooke Sharp, asking her to marry him while the two were in Italy.

In Spartanburg, Hurst believes he’s in the “best shape of my life.” And on Monday, the first day the Panthers put on full pads for practice, he was one of the standouts. He made several tough catches in traffic and gave a couple of Cam Newton-esque first-down signals afterward — or maybe I should say Jeremy Shockey-esque, since Shockey was Hurst’s favorite tight end growing up.

“The other stuff that comes before pads? That’s just getting in shape,” Hurst said. “This is where the real stuff starts.”

3 years at South Carolina

A 6-foot-4, 260-pound tight end, Hurst first made a name for himself at South Carolina from 2015-17, where he picked up the nickname “Garnet Thor” for his muscular build and flowing red hair. He was a preferred walk-on for the Gamecocks under Steve Spurrier in 2015, got put on scholarship by Will Muschamp in 2016 and became an All-SEC tight end and a team captain in 2017. He went pro after his junior year and was taken in the first round, No. 25 overall, by the Baltimore Ravens. It was a spectacular rise, from walk-on to first-round pick.

South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst (81) takes off past Florida linebacker David Reese (33) after a reception during of the first half of a game at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC, Saturday, November 11, 2017. Hurst played three years for the Gamecocks from 2015-17, then went pro and became a first-round draft pick in the 2018 NFL draft, going No. 25 overall to the Baltimore Ravens.

But during much of his career with the Gamecocks, and before that in minor-league baseball, Hurst struggled with depression.

In high school, at The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida, Hurst was primarily a baseball pitcher who just dabbled in football. By eighth grade, he could throw a fastball 91 mph.

“When I was a kid, I was an All-American and everything,” Hurst said. “I just picked it up and threw it by people.”

The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him in the 17th round of the Major League Baseball draft, then offered him a $400,000 signing bonus that convinced Hurst to skip college. He reported to the minor leagues, seemingly destined for the majors one day…. until suddenly, he couldn’t throw the ball straight anymore.

The ball would be soaked in sweat as soon as it touched his hand. His fingertips would sometimes go numb. His heart rate would catapult.

A case of the yips

They call it the “yips” in baseball, and it sometimes affects even major leaguers. Rick Ankiel, Chuck Knoblauch, Steve Sax — they all had it at one time or another.

For Hurst, it never really went away, even after three years of trying. “I tried to talk to doctors, hypnosis — all sorts of stuff,” Hurst said. “I could never figure it out.”

During that time, as he failed at sports for the first time in his life, Hurst started medicating away his depression with alcohol. Finally, in early 2015, he decided he was done with baseball. And although most of his connections were in Florida, he decided to return to football and go to South Carolina.

In Columbia, Hurst quickly became a strong player. But the drinking continued, and the nights still felt very long. And one night in January 2016, he mixed alcohol with pills and tried to kill himself.

Hayden Hurst played three years for the South Carolina Gamecocks from 2015-17 after his minor-league baseball career flamed out.
Hayden Hurst played three years for the South Carolina Gamecocks from 2015-17 after his minor-league baseball career flamed out.

As Hurst wrote in a powerful essay in The Players’ Tribune in 2020: “When I woke up the next morning, my wrists were all bandaged up and handcuffed to the hospital bed. I still had my shirt on. It was covered in my blood.”

Bryce Young and Hurst as a combo

Hurst scared everyone, including himself, that night. He leaned on therapy, family, teammates, coaches and journaling to get himself back on track. He’s now a mental health advocate, telling his story publicly in schools and in interviews in the hopes that it will help others. He and his family have also established the Hayden Hurst Family Foundation.

Hurst’s career in the NFL has been solid. But he’d like a little stability, too — this will be the sixth offensive system he has learned in six years in the NFL. He said quarterback Bryce Young is “going to be a stud” and Hurst would probably know, having already caught passes in the league from Lamar Jackson and Joe Burrow (so Young is actually the third Heisman Trophy winner throwing to Hurst).

“You’ve got to have a guy who knows what he’s doing, breaks down coverages and can rip the ball to you,” Hurst said.

As for coming back to the Carolinas, Hurst said part of the reason was because of his experience at USC.

“I loved my three years in Columbia,” Hurst said. “It changed my life.”

Now Hurst would like to improve his life again, with Young as his quarterback. The Panthers, of course, have been looking for some Greg Olsen-type production from the tight end position ever since Olsen’s last year for Carolina in 2019.

They need each other. And after watching Hurst catch throws from Young, who’s obviously looking for him over the middle, it just might work. But knowing Hurst, it will be a little unconventional.