USA TODAY US Edition
Atlanta TE praises Dallas QB Prescott
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?’ ”