Baltimore Sun Sunday - - SPORTS -

my fresh­man year led me to be­ing put in a hospi­tal one night. … I woke up, and I didn’t re­ally know what hap­pened, but I had some peo­ple ex­plain to me what I guess I tried to do. I was just sit­ting there by my­self for al­most 24 hours. It was a con­fus­ing, hard time, but I’m glad it hap­pened be­cause it made me who I am now.”

Hurst has re­solved to share his story with any­one who will lis­ten. He knows plenty of peo­ple in the sports world still view men­tal ill­ness as a form of weak­ness. For years, he buried his own dif­fi­cul­ties, hid­ing them even from his tight-knit fam­ily as he de­scended into a fog of anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion. But he hopes to help erase that stigma for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

“It’s tough at first, be­cause you have to fig­ure out what’s go­ing on in­side,” he said. “You have to be com­fort­able with who you are and who you’ve be­come. So it prob­a­bly took me two or three years to fig­ure out my story could re­ally im­pact other peo­ple and hope­fully shed some light that, ‘Hey, he was re­ally hurt­ing. He was in a dark place. But he was able to dig him­self out.’”

Hurst, 26, has joined a grow­ing list of ath­letes, in­clud­ing Tow­son-raised Olympian Michael Phelps, who are speak­ing out about de­pres­sion and other forms of men­tal ill­ness. The NBC doc­u­men­tary, which pre­miered in the Washington mar­ket Thurs­day and will ap­pear on NBC Sports Net­work on Nov. 20, pro­files Hurst along with NBA stand­out Jus­tise Winslow, for­mer NHL player Clint Malarchuk and Ore­gon State soc­cer player Nathan Braaten.

“I think in Hay­den’s case, him tak­ing the strug­gles he had and us­ing them to help other peo­ple is just amaz­ing and coura­geous,” said Ted Griggs, one of the doc­u­men­tary’s ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers. “But you can also see how it helped him to ex­pose his most vul­ner­a­ble part, be­cause it made him stronger. I think that’s re­ally, re­ally cool and pow­er­ful.”

Pro­fes­sional leagues and play­ers unions are tak­ing men­tal health more se­ri­ously as well. Ear­lier this year, for ex­am­ple, the NFL and the NFL Play­ers As­so­ci­a­tion an­nounced that ev­ery team would be re­quired to have a be­hav­ioral health clin­i­cian at its fa­cil­ity at least eight hours per week. Even be­fore that pol­icy was en­acted, the Ravens con­tracted with an in­de­pen­dent clin­i­cian to work at the team’s fa­cil­ity full-time from the spring through the sea­son. The team also re­lies on chap­lain Johnny Shel­ton and di­rec­tor of player en­gage­ment Jameel McClain to help play­ers find the ser­vices they need.

Ravens pres­i­dent Dick Cass said teams have made progress in pro­vid­ing sup­port but said play­ers such as Hurst can has­ten that process not just in the league but in so­ci­ety at large.

“I think when they talk about it openly, it re­ally does help other young peo­ple who are un­der­go­ing some of the same is­sues,” Cass said. “If a player is will­ing to be open about it and share what he has en­dured, what kind of treat­ment he’s re­ceived and where he is to­day, I think that’s very help­ful to thou­sands of peo­ple, ath­letes or not.”

Hurst was an all-ev­ery­thing ath­lete at The Bolles School in Jack­sonville, Florida, big, fast and ca­pa­ble of whip­ping a 94-mph fast­ball past over­matched prep hit­ters. Scouts said he was des­tined for the big leagues, and that pre­dic­tion seemed on tar­get to Hurst and his par­ents as he thrived in the first few months after the Pitts­burgh Pi­rates drafted him in 2012.

Then, just like that, a game of catch be­came the most ter­ri­fy­ing thing in his life.

The yips seized Hurst to the point his hands trem­bled when he con­tem­plated pick­ing up a base­ball. With ev­ery fail­ure — a prac­tice toss sailed 20 feet over his team­mate’s glove or worse, a fast­ball that crashed into an op­po­nent’s head — his anx­i­ety mounted. He thought he’d give his fam­ily a bet­ter life with his mighty right arm, and the weight of self-im­posed pres­sure threat­ened to crush him.

On phone calls with his par­ents, Hurst said he felt fine. But in re­al­ity, he shut the blinds in his apart­ment, avoided hu­man con­tact and tried to dull his pain with al­co­hol and drugs. He be­came, in his fa­ther’s words, a mean drunk, the op­po­site of the buoy­ant, fam­ily-ori­ented spirit he’d been grow­ing up.

Hurst’s un­cle had died by sui­cide and so had his first cousin, so his par­ents knew how fright­en­ing de­pres­sion could be.

“The first fear for us was ge­netic, and are we go­ing down the same road?” his fa­ther, Jerry, says in the doc­u­men­tary. “What’s his next step go­ing to be? We need to make sure it’s not that.”

Hurst re­tired from base­ball in 2015 and walked on as a foot­ball player at South Carolina. In one sense, he’d found a health­ier en­deavor. He felt less alone and could sim­ply “cut it loose” on the field. Coaches and team­mates were pleas­antly sur­prised that the big red­head dis­tin­guished him­self so quickly after years of frus­tra­tion in a dif­fer­ent sport.

But on an­other level, Hurst had solved noth­ing. Un­til he woke up in that hospi­tal bed, he did not re­al­ize how much help he needed.

“I found out that I re­ally needed to talk to some­body,” he said. “Be­cause it wasn’t go­ing to get bet­ter on its own.”

Hurst saw ther­a­pists and laid his soul bare to his par­ents and his sis­ter (the “core four,” they call them­selves). He also found an out­let in jour­nal­ing, a prac­tice sug­gested to him by his base­ball buddy, Stet­son Al­lie, who’s cur­rently pitch­ing in the Los An­ge­les Dodgers or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“I bought the jour­nal, and from the time I woke up in the morn­ing to the time I went to bed, ev­ery­thing that went on in my head, I would write it down,” Hurst said. “Be­cause I’m not big on talk­ing to peo­ple. I’m not com­fort­able ex­press­ing my emo­tions. But it was a way for me to get ev­ery­thing out in­stead of in­ter­nal­iz­ing it.”

He keeps the jour­nal with him but does not open it of­ten these days. So many dark thoughts on which he has lit­tle de­sire to dwell.

“I am lost, los­ing faith and search­ing for an­swers and sta­bil­ity in my life,” he wrote in a June 2014 en­try, which he shared with Bleacher Re­port last year. “This is get­ting hard to face each day and to be hon­est I feel like giv­ing up. Why me? What have I done to de­serve these 2 years of con­firmed hell?”

After he pur­sued the help he needed in 2016, Hurst built him­self into one of the more im­prob­a­ble first-round NFL prospects in re­cent times.

But it’s not as if all his prob­lems melted away when the Ravens drafted him last year. He broke his foot be­fore the start of his rookie sea­son, and though he re­turned to the field after miss­ing the first four games, the in­jury did not fully heal un­til Fe­bru­ary.

Fans said vi­cious things about him on so­cial me­dia, a treach­er­ous di­men­sion for mod­ern ath­letes try­ing to main­tain their men­tal health.

“One thing on the field can go wrong, and peo­ple have a di­rect line of com­mu­ni­ca­tion to you,” Hurst said. “They can tweet at you and say, ‘You’re the worst thing that ever hap­pened to this city. Why did we draft you?’ And then the next week you make a play and you’re the great­est thing that ever hap­pened. So it’s weird. I try not to pay at­ten­tion to it. I don’t read my men­tions at all.”

Hurst, who’s flashed his re­ceiv­ing skills in a back-up role this sea­son, said he hasn’t re­turned to the dark thoughts that haunted him in past years. He cred­ited his fam­ily and the cop­ing mech­a­nisms he learned but also the rare, goofy ca­ma­raderie he’s built with fel­low Ravens tight ends Nick Boyle and Mark An­drews. They’re among the few peo­ple in the locker room who know his story.

“It’s huge,” Hurst said. “They just take the pres­sure off of ev­ery­thing. You don’t have that anx­i­ety, that fear.”

An­drews agreed and said he’s proud of his friend for speak­ing out about his ex­pe­ri­ences. “It takes a strong per­son to come out and be an ad­vo­cate and most im­por­tantly, to be hon­est,” he said. “There’s such a stigma, where you’re ex­pected to be emo­tion­less and strong, to not let any­thing faze you. But peo­ple have to un­der­stand that foot­ball play­ers have feel­ings and foot­ball play­ers go through things, just like any­body else. And I think his story shows that. For him to stand out and be hon­est with peo­ple, it’s im­pres­sive.”

There’s a scene in the NBC doc­u­men­tary that cap­tures Hurst speak­ing with stu­dents in his na­tive Jack­sonville. One mo­ment, they’re star­ing in awe as he re­veals he can bench press 405 pounds. The next, he’s de­scrib­ing how he couldn’t even grip a base­ball be­cause his palms were slick with anx­i­ety-in­duced sweat. This jux­ta­po­si­tion is ev­ery­thing. If Hurst can get across that phys­i­cal strength is no pro­tec­tion against psy­cho­log­i­cal strain, per­haps next-gen­er­a­tion ath­letes won’t in­stinc­tively bury their trou­bles.

He has no il­lu­sions that wide­spread un­der­stand­ing will be achieved overnight. But he hopes that by ap­pear­ing in the film and work­ing to raise men­tal health aware­ness through his foun­da­tion, run by his mother, Cathy, he can do his part. He no longer wor­ries whether coaches or peers might con­sider him weak.

“I re­ally don’t care what peo­ple think about me,” Hurst said. “I’m so com­fort­able with who I am and who I’ve be­come.”


Hay­den Hurst of the Ravens warms up be­fore a pre­sea­son game on Aug. 15.

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