OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Hayden Hurst has gone to a handful of schools over the past month with an important message.
"It's OK to not be OK," Hurst tells students.
Six years before Hurst was a first-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens, he was a promising pitcher in the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system who went from throwing 97 miles per hour to not being able to throw the ball straight. He had suddenly developed the "yips," a performance anxiety disorder that affected him so badly that pitches would sail over batters' heads.
Hurst couldn't hold a ball without his hand shaking. He experienced panic attacks. For the better part of three years, he spent his days sitting in a dark room watching TV.
"I didn't really want to associate myself with anybody," Hurst said. "I felt embarrassed."
Hurst eventually sought help, and he wants his story to inspire others to do the same. His goal is to educate the younger generation about the necessity to address mental health issues.
For the month of May (mental health awareness month), Hurst's foundation partnered with Maryland's BTST mental health services to start Hayden's Critical Catch, which provides 81 (his jersey number) therapy sessions to student-athletes in the Baltimore area.
"By me coming out and I’m supposed to be this rough, tough football player and I can say, ‘Hey, I have these issues. I went through this,'" Hurst said. "If they can see that, they can relate to it. I don’t think that’s a weakness at all. I’m so comfortable with where I’m at. I genuinely don’t really care what people think about me. If I’m going to be the one that comes out and breaks that stigma, let’s do it. I have no problem being that guy."
When Hurst was going through his struggles, he never imagined he would talk about mental health in front of others.
Not even the closest people to him knew he had a problem at the time. He was a four-hour drive away from his family, and he put on a brave front for them whenever he called.
"I think that’s why I’m so adamant about watching your kids and looking for signs," said Cathy Hurst, Hayden's mother.
It wasn't until a bad early-morning throwing session that Hurst finally broke down crying. Scott Elarton, his pitching coach, spoke to Hurst's parents to get him the help he needed.
Hurst's family understands the toll depression can take. His uncle died by suicide in 2008, and his cousin did the same two years later.
Cathy Hurst later met Elarton in person and told him, "You saved my son’s life."
Hurst went to "a ton of doctors" to try to figure out his issues. As a last-ditch effort, Hurst started journaling.
He wrote every single thought or emotion that went through his head, from the time he woke up to the moment he went to bed. He ended up writing pages at a time.
"It was my saving grace," Hurst said. "I’m not big on opening up to people. I’m not very emotional. It was a way for me to connect with myself and get those thoughts out of my head."
Hurst is now expressing those thoughts in talking to students. He has spoken at three high schools and three colleges, and he has seen some become so moved that they tear up.
"Him having mental issues; kids suffer from depression, anxiety, there's a lot of suicide," Baltimore Polytechnic student Kamani Larmouth told WMAR-TV. "I think it's inspirational to share his information."
Hurst successfully made the move to football, and he became the first tight end drafted in 2018. But he faced challenges early in his NFL career, too.
A stress fracture in his foot toward the end of the preseason sidelined Hurst for the first four games of the season, and it derailed most of his rookie season. He finished with 13 catches for 163 yards and one touchdown.
Hurst said that there are minor issues that everyone battles through but that he's not even remotely close to the emotional rough stretch he endured as a minor league pitcher.
"I’m in such a better place," Hurst said. "I’m so much better equipped now than I was to deal with things. I have my family, my support system, things I can lean on and go to, and I’m able to decompress a lot better than I did back in the day."
Hurst has used this setback as motivation, adding 20 pounds of muscle this offseason. He believes he has a lot to prove.
But, considering how far he has come, Hurst has already succeeded.
"I’m comfortable where I’m at, what I’ve been through and where I’ve gotten," Hurst said. "I’m totally OK with sharing my story. If it helps the next kid, I really hope it does."