USA TODAY US Edition

At­lanta TE praises Dal­las QB Prescott

- Jori Ep­stein

Hay­den Hurst jogged across the field of AT&T Sta­dium to find Cow­boys quar­ter­back Dak Prescott in the postgame chaos on Sun­day in Ar­ling­ton, Texas.

The two were still in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of Prescott and the Cow­boys’ stun­ning come­back to edge Hurst’s Falcons 40-39. But be­fore At­lanta lost, be­fore Hurst caught five passes for 72 yards and a touch­down and be­fore Dal­las re­cov­ered an on­side kick in the fi­nal 2 min­utes of the game, Hurst had told his mother: “Hey, I re­ally want to go up to (Prescott) and tell him how much I re­spect him.”

The im­pe­tus had nothing to do with football.

So Hurst found Prescott amid the crowd, high-fived him and then em­braced the quar­ter­back who had just

thrown for 450 yards and rushed for three touch­downs.

“Hey, I’ve got a lot of re­spect for what you did, came out and talked about,” Hurst told Prescott as pub­lic re­la­tions staffers and Cow­boys of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Kellen Moore looked on. “Me and my mom have a foun­da­tion about sui­cide preven­tion. Re­spect the hell outta you for talk­ing about it, man.” Prescott told Hurst he ap­pre­ci­ated that.

“Maybe we can collab one day,” Prescott added.

The cause, for both play­ers, is per­sonal.

Hurst played base­ball in the Pitts­burgh Pi­rates’ mi­nor league sys­tem from 2012-15 un­til his anx­i­ety — the yips, as he says — be­came so bad he couldn’t throw any­more. So he re­versed course and joined South Carolina’s col­lege football team, where “I thought I left all that stuff be­hind me,” Hurst told USA TO­DAY by phone Tues­day night. “But un­for­tu­nately it fol­lowed me.”

De­ci­sions with drink­ing and drugs pre­cip­i­tated his spi­ral, Hurst said. One night in 2016, he tried to kill him­self. A friend found him, and Hurst was ad­mit­ted to a lo­cal hos­pi­tal.

“I try to put it out there be­cause I want peo­ple to see it,” Hurst said. “I know it’s pretty in­ti­mate stuff talk­ing about my at­tempted sui­cide with peo­ple that I don’t even know. But I see it as if I can put my story out there and some kid can see it and save one life, that’s the point.”

Hurst and his mother, Cathy Hurst, started the Hay­den Hurst Fam­ily Foun­da­tion two years ago to spear­head a series of ini­tia­tives to sup­port chil­dren and ado­les­cents’ men­tal health. Pro­grams range from fund­ing out­pa­tient ser­vices to pi­lot­ing school pro­grams that pro­mote so­cial and emo­tional well­be­ing.

He was in­spired to find Prescott ad­vanc­ing the mis­sion, too. Prescott be­gan suf­fer­ing anx­i­ety and depression dur­ing iso­la­tion amid the coro­n­avirus pan­demic. Shortly af­ter, Prescott’s 31-year-old brother Jace died by sui­cide on April 23.

Prescott opened up about his own emo­tional chal­lenges, work with a sports psy­chol­o­gist and need to talk to oth­ers. He ad­dressed the is­sues in a doc­u­men­tary with jour­nal­ist Gra­ham Bensinger and dur­ing a Sept. 10 news con­fer­ence with Dal­las re­porters.

When a na­tional TV per­son­al­ity crit­i­cized Prescott’s open­ness as a sign of weak­ness that com­pro­mised his abil­ity to lead, Prescott re­futed the no­tion.

“Be­ing a leader is about be­ing gen­uine and be­ing real,” Prescott told Dal­las re­porters on Sept. 10. “If I wouldn’t have talked about those things to the peo­ple I did, I wouldn’t have re­al­ized my friends and a lot more peo­ple go through them. And that they are as com­mon as they are.

“I don’t think for one sec­ond, lead­ers or not, I don’t care how big a per­son you are — if you are not men­tally healthy and you’re not think­ing the right way, then you are not go­ing to be able to lead peo­ple the right way.” Hurst saw the af­ter­math of the crit­i­cism dis­cussed on ESPN while at home and found the cri­tique “just dis­gust­ing.” The con­fi­dence with which Prescott owned his strug­gles Hurst found “ab­so­lutely re­mark­able.”

“I’m a huge Dak Prescott fan now,” Hurst said. “I just wanted Dak to know how much I re­spected him be­cause when I told my story, I know how much you get scru­ti­nized be­cause of that back­wards think­ing. ‘Oh you’ve got to be strong, you’ve got to be a leader, you can’t show weak­ness.’ But it is so coura­geous to come out and talk about that stuff when other peo­ple won’t.

“I think it takes more courage to come out and talk about it than to sit and not talk about it. … It’s go­ing to save a ton of lives.”

Cathy Hurst echoes the sen­ti­ment, amazed how much she’s learned about men­tal ill­ness and sui­cide in the af­ter­math of her son’s at­tempt. Like Prescott, the Hursts have lost fam­ily to sui­cide. Hay­den Hurst’s un­cle and cousin — a fa­ther and son — each took their lives, the Hurst fam­ily sub­se­quently wrestling with guilt.

The Hurst fam­ily works to raise aware­ness in teach­ing that even young chil­dren can ex­pe­ri­ence depression and sui­ci­dal thoughts.

“I’m find­ing out more and more,” Cathy Hurst told USA TO­DAY on Tues­day. “So we want to try to get to these young peo­ple early so they learn tech­niques to be able to deal with anx­i­ety and depression and be able to talk about it with their par­ents, coach, teacher.

“When Hay­den was suf­fer­ing with depression in the mi­nor leagues of base­ball, he didn’t come to my hus­band and I. He went to a pitching coach. At first, I was like, ‘Wow, why didn’t he come to us?’ But I’m just grate­ful he spoke to this pitching coach be­cause he felt com­fort­able with him and was able to be vul­ner­a­ble.”

Kids look­ing up to Prescott will re­al­ize they can speak up too, she said.

“That might save a young per­son’s life,” Cathy Hurst said.

“To say, ‘Hey, if he’s able to ad­mit it, why can’t I?’ ”

 ?? RON JENK­INS/AP ?? At­lanta’s Hay­den Hurst, right, cel­e­brat­ing a TD against Dal­las Sun­day, spoke to Cow­boys quar­ter­back Dak Prescott about depression.
RON JENK­INS/AP At­lanta’s Hay­den Hurst, right, cel­e­brat­ing a TD against Dal­las Sun­day, spoke to Cow­boys quar­ter­back Dak Prescott about depression.

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