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Hayden Hurst knows there’s no chance like a second one


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It was Jack Daniel’s. Or Maker’s Mark. Whatever. There was a lot of it. And it was mixed with Xanax, as it had been many times before.

Hayden Hurst had recently completed his freshman football season at South Carolina, but still was carrying the yoke of a failed baseball career. Getting high until he blacked out was a part of his routine.

After the bars in Columbia closed on Jan. 17, 2016, he somehow drove himself to the parking lot of his apartment. He sat in his car for a minute and put his right hand around the camo grip of a Mossy Oak hunting knife, dug the six-inch blade into his left wrist, and sliced a cut about an inch and a half long.

His next memory is from the following morning.

“I woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed wearing jeans from the night before covered in my own blood,” he says. “I looked around and wasn’t sure what was happening.”

Hurst was sure of only one thing. “For some reason,” he says, “God was giving me a second chance.”

Hurst laid in a hospital bed for one week, courtesy of the Baker Act. No laptop or iPad. No mobile phone. No television. His family was allowed to visit him for five minutes a day initially, then for an hour after he was transferred to the psychiatric ward.

When his parents, Jerry and Cathy, and sister Kylie had an hour to talk to him, they told him they just wanted him to be happy. Their love for him wasn’t about what he could do on a football field or baseball diamond. It wasn’t about his potential earning power.

“Having that verbalization that we are going to be with him no matter what, and we’ll love him regardless of his salary, that released him to be able to do what he loves to do because he loves to do it,” his sister Kylie Hurst says. “He got very emotional, which is not like Hayden.”

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The scar that’s still on Hayden Hurst’s wrist, courtesy of Hayden Hurst.

When he was alone in the hospital, Hurst didn’t have anything to do except think.

“I was pretty disappointed in myself, the decisions I made that led me there,” he says. “I was drinking, doing all this stuff, living life in the fast lane. I sat there, looked at the walls, and made a promise to myself. I was going to change my life. I wasn’t going to keep doing the things I was doing. I knew if I kept doing what I was doing, I was going to end up dead. I didn’t want to disappoint my family.”

He says he has not had alcohol or taken drugs since.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “There is nothing life can throw at me now that will derail me because I was sitting in that room after those decisions. That was rock bottom. Nothing will ever be that bad.”

Hurst, who was traded to the Falcons from the Ravens in the offseason, knows there is no chance like a second one.


When he was 18, Hurst stood nearly 6-5 and could throw a baseball so hard it seemed to leave a tail in its wake, like a comet. The Pittsburgh Pirates gave him $400,000 to sign, and he appeared to be on a fast track to the major leagues.

Then one day, he overthrew a partner while playing catch. It happened again and again. Soon, his pitches were going everywhere — left, right, high, low — except where he was trying to aim them.

He would come to learn more than he ever wanted to know about the yips.

Hurst tried everything pitching coaches could think of and went to at least 75 therapy appointments. There was journaling, hypnosis, tapping, and more.

Nothing worked. His baseball career was over.

That’s when he joined the football team at South Carolina as a walk-on.

Over time, football became his salvation. In his second season, he became a standout, being named team captain and voted All-SEC. The Ravens chose him with the 25th pick of the 2018 draft.

Hurst was starting to feel comfortable in the Ravens’ offense in August of his rookie year. Then in the third quarter of his third preseason game, he ran a seam route and felt something unusual in his foot.

He didn’t think it was anything to worry about at the time. After all, he had never had a football injury in his life.

About a week later, it still was bothering him, so he told a team trainer. X-rays showed a Jones fracture — a break of the fifth metatarsal.

A screw was inserted in his foot. He missed the first month of the season, and in his absence Mark Andrews, a tight end chosen two rounds after him, became the starter. When Hurst came back, he wasn’t the same. Ravens coaches had no reason to take away time from Andrews, who had eight first-down catches and a touchdown in his first four games.

“Mark is an incredible player,” Hurst says of the player he roomed with on the road. “I don’t want anything I say to take away from that. But with my foot injury, I fell behind the eight ball. Mark didn’t miss a beat.”

In his second season, Andrews continued to show why he won the Mackey Award as the best college tight end in the country after the 2017 season. And now he fit the Ravens’ unconventional, cutting-edge offense better than any other tight end could have.

Andrews stood between Hurst and what Hurst wanted. “I felt I was practicing really hard and really well,” Hurst said. “But Sunday, I wouldn’t be in the fold. I was being told be patient, be patient, be patient. It was tough. I’m a competitor. I don’t want to sit on the bench and watch other guys do things.”

Hurst talked to Andrews about it all the time. Dude, why am I not catching more passes? Andrews didn’t have many answers, but he listened like a good friend does.

Andrews led the AFC in touchdowns and was voted to the Pro Bowl. In two years, Andrews had 55 more catches, 892 more receiving yards and 10 more touchdowns than Hurst.

The frustration wore on Hurst, who struggled to reconcile how things were with how he thought they were going to be. His parents spent the season with him in Baltimore, and he vented to them. “When I had negative thoughts about not playing, I talked things through with them and was able to approach the next day more positively,” he said. “Having them around was crucial.”

He was particularly frustrated after the Ravens were upset by the Titans in the playoffs. Hurst had four catches for 53 yards in the game.

He asked coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman if they thought he would get more opportunities in the future. They believed in him, but couldn’t make him any promises.

This wasn’t a bad marriage. Hurst just wanted a better one. And his biological clock was ticking. After playing baseball for two years after high school, he will be 27 years old before the 2020 season starts.

Hurst told his agent Hadley Englehard to ask Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta to trade him. “We made the decision that if we had the opportunity to trade him to a team in the NFC and could get something of significance, we would do that,” DeCosta says. “Would we be better with Hayden Hurst? Probably. But we want to win with guys who want to be on the boat with us, and he felt a change was best for him.”

DeCosta and Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff usually sit next to each other during weigh-ins at the combine. That’s when Hurst’s future began to take shape.

After the trade — Hurst and a fourth-round pick for a second-round pick and a fifth-round pick — Hurst received a text message from Lamar Jackson, who had been chosen by the Ravens seven spots after Hurst. The quarterback told him he wasn’t thrilled with the trade, he was confident Hurst would take off this year, and that he was going to miss him.

Hurst will miss Jackson, too. And he will miss watching his magic. “I don’t know if I’ll ever see anything like that in person again on the same side of the line of scrimmage,” Hurst says. “He improvises so well. It’s nothing short of remarkable what he does on Sundays. During the week, he’s so laid back, hammering his preparation out, having that easy go lucky attitude. All of a sudden, on Sunday he turns it on, and he’s incredible. There is no one who can replicate what he does or even come close. And he’s a better person off the field. He still checks in on me even though I’m not a Raven anymore. He’s just an awesome dude.”

Although Hurst wanted to be a former Raven, he will cherish his time in Baltimore. “Being part of a 14-2 team, winning AFC North back to back years, playing with an MVP quarterback, those are things I’ll remember forever,” he says. “The coolest part about Baltimore is not only were the guys impressive on the field, but that locker room was different. I’ve never been in a locker room where guys are so close.”

Leaving that behind is difficult. Leaving that behind is best.


As players were being selected in the first round of the 2018 draft, Kylie crossed her fingers, hoping her brother would fall to the Falcons. Isaiah Wynn was taken by the Patriots with the 23rd pick, then D.J. Moore went to the Panthers at 24. One more pick before the Falcons could have a shot.

The Falcons had done quite a bit of work on Hurst before the draft. He had spent time with Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn, and there was a feel-good on all sides. “He literally was one of my favorite full-package tight ends over my years in pro football when he was coming out,” Dimitroff says.

Kylie is a veterinarian who works in the Atlanta area. It seemed like Atlanta — a five-hour drive from where they grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., and a three-hour drive from where he went to college in Columbia, S.C. — was where her brother belonged.

But the Falcons never had the chance to take him. After Hurst went to the Ravens, the Falcons chose Calvin Ridley, who addressed a more pressing need as the No. 2 wide receiver to Julio Jones.

Now opponents are trying to figure out how to defend all three of them. I’ve never seen a talent remotely close to Julio,” Hurst says. “Any ball that Matt (Ryan) throws, he plucks it out of the air and just continues with long strides. We all know he’s going to draw double teams, and Calvin, what he does, is pretty special. He’ll put some stress on defenses. I think we can work really well together.”

In the offseason, Hurst regularly practiced with the other offensive skill position players in Atlanta. Ryan also brought them to Los Angeles for a week of running routes.

“Matt, the way he does things is different,” Hurst says. “Listening to him break down the offense is like having a coach on the field. We’re talking steps, where my head needs to be, where my eyes need to be. Every single throw with Matt is kind of in a box. It’s pretty remarkable. It makes my job easy knowing he’s going to be consistent every single time. He understands the ins and outs of the offense, which makes the game slow down a little bit.”

The colors Hurst is wearing now are similar to the colors he wore at South Carolina, and Hurst is starting to look like the player he was in college.

Ryan recently called Hurst “one of the fastest and most athletic tight ends I ever played with.” Among the tight ends he has played with are Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez and Pro Bowler Austin Hooper. “He’s a mismatch problem, and he’s going to create separation and win in different ways than those guys did,” Ryan told reporters.

The plan is to take advantage of his athleticism in a way the Ravens never did. “We really want to feature him with the seam routes and the things we can stretch the field,” Quinn says. “With Julio and Calvin outside, there are some matchup opportunities for a tight end in this system. You have a clear role for the player.”

Last year Ryan threw 58 more passes to Hooper than Jackson threw to Hurst. The Falcons led the league in pass attempts, throwing 224 more than the Ravens, who finished last in the league.

Hurst could get used to that. And he can get used to southern living.

In the offseason, he stayed with Kylie in her two-bedroom apartment. She showed him around, taking him around to see neighborhoods like Inman Park, Virginia-Highland, Buckhead, and Duluth. He identified some favorite restaurants, including Grindhouse Killer Burgers, D.B.A. Barbecue, and Antico.

Hurst recently purchased his own house, about halfway between the team’s Flowery Branch practice facility and Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta. “It’s the perfect spot,” he says. “I plan on staying a while.”


Hurst can’t wait to play in a game as a Falcon and start a new chapter of his life. Since putting away his baseball mitt, he has found freedom in football, and now he feels that freedom more than ever.

He is confident he can make a difference here, in his team and in his community. The Hayden Hurst Foundation will soon be raising awareness for mental health issues in adolescents and teens in Atlanta, as it previously did in Baltimore.

He is born again.

Again.

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The Hayden Hurst Foundation will soon be raising awareness for mental health issues in adolescents and teens in Atlanta, as it previously did in Baltimore. (Photo: Hayden Hurst)

Early mornings never were his thing. But he has discovered the glory of the new day, another chance to get it right. All offseason, Hurst woke when the birds started making music, and when bright pinks, yellows, and oranges were breaking through the dark blue.

There were weights to be lifted, routes to be run, a playbook to be studied, virtual meetings to be attended, and life to be lived. “It was exciting to see how passionate and excited he is for what’s coming,” Kylie says.

Later in the day, when his work was done, he usually played Call of Duty with Andrews. “We do it mostly to be on the microphone talking to each other,” Hurst says. “He’s like my brother. I hope he breaks the bank. He deserves it.”

Hurst has two years and an option year left on his rookie deal, but the time to start proving his worth is now. “I was the 25th pick for a reason,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve shown what I’m capable of in the NFL. Now I finally will get to show it.”

He is thinking of his tomorrows now, which is not insignificant given his yesterdays.

“I told my mom this,” he says. “When I was in my early 20s, it was partying, drinking, drugs. I never really had a plan for the future because I didn’t see myself making it out of my 20s. It sounds awful, but that’s how I was living life. When I crashed and burned and was sitting in that hospital room, I was like is this really what you want? Do you want to die at 27 and not live out your potential?”

Living out his potential means more to Hayden Hurst than it does to most.

That happens when you get a second chance.

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If anyone is still trying to find their purpose in life, find others suffering through pain you’ve overcome.  It’s super, super, super powerful. When humans are down they feel isolated, hopeless, alone and that no one else can understand. But when someone has walked through your pain and tells you it will be ok, it is a message that can reach the hopeless.

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