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Yips ruined Hayden Hurst's baseball career, opened door to NFL

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Prospect Profile: Hayden Hurst (0:33)

Todd McShay considers former South Carolina TE Hayden Hurst as one of the two best tight ends in the 2018 draft class. (0:33)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Hayden Hurst was working in the bullpen for the Pittsburgh Pirates' instructional league team in the fall of 2014 when his fastball sailed over the catcher and into the fence. He dropped his glove on the mound, walked into the clubhouse and began to cry.

Uncontrollably.

Hurst knew then that his baseball career was over. He couldn't overcome the yips that had plagued him for three years.

Scott Elarton, Pittsburgh's special assistant for baseball operations who was the pitching coach for the Gulf Coast League Pirates at the time, knew it too.

"We got very close for two years," Hurst said of Elarton, a former major league pitcher. "He was working with me and trying to figure this thing out. The whole time he would ask me, 'What are you passionate about?'

"Every single time he asked me that my answer was football. It got to the point where he said, 'Just go do it, man!' After seeing that last bullpen and how I was all over the place and all the work I put in, I was like, 'Yeah, it's time.'"

Soon afterward, the Pirates' 17th-round draft pick began looking at a second career in football, which he played only his junior year at The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida. He wanted to walk on at the University of Florida, where his family had season tickets since 1961, but the Gators weren't interested.

University of South Carolina recruiting coordinator Steve Spurrier Jr., thanks to a call from Bolles assistant coach Kevin Fagan, took Hurst basically sight unseen. Spurrier played Hurst in the slot during the 2015 season just to get him on the field.

The next year the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Hurst -- 25 pounds heavier, almost 100 percent stronger and now on scholarship -- moved to tight end.

The rest is storybook.

Hurst, 24, is expected to be the first tight end selected next week during the NFL draft. He could go anywhere from middle to late in the first round. The Carolina Panthers with the No. 24 pick would have a hard time passing on a player who could be a long-term replacement for 33-year-old Pro Bowler Greg Olsen, who is entering the final year of his contract.

The Miami Dolphins at No. 11, Baltimore Ravens at No. 16 and Detroit Lions at No. 20 are among five teams that brought Hurst in for an official visit.

The dark days of not being able to hit the side of a barn with 95 mph-plus fastballs, of being so shaken by the yips that even a hypnotist couldn't cure them, are a thing of the past.

"The biggest thing that I take from my experiences from baseball, as hard as it was, what I went through in those three seasons, it's made me a pretty resilient person," Hurst said. "Having that all taken away from me lit a fire under me. I don't take anything for granted these days and I'm going to outwork the next guy. It's who I am and in my DNA right now."

Dark to glory days

Hurst began writing in a journal during his time with the Pirates to help get all of his negative thoughts and fears out in the open. He reached a low in June 2014 when he wrote, "I do not know why but I feel as though everything has gone to s---."

Said Elarton: "He hit so many points of being completely lost. ... 'What do I do? Where do I go from here?' There was just no progress.

"And even when there was a little promise, as soon as we'd get towards the pitcher's mound that's when everything would fall apart again."

It wasn't for a lack of effort.

"The kid did absolutely everything he could to piece things back together," Elarton said. "It just wasn't going to happen."

So Hurst headed home to Jacksonville in search of walking on to a college football team at an age when most top prospects were leaving for the NFL. He visited with the Gators and was disappointed when they told him they didn't have room for him.

He then had Fagan contact Spurrier Jr., also the wide receivers coach at South Carolina under his dad.

Spurrier Jr. was playing golf when he received Fagan's message and took a day-and-a-half to get back to him. When he heard about Hurst, a big kid who could run the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds, "I said, 'We'll take him.'"

Spurrier Jr. was at Bolles talking to Hurst face-to-face for the first time when Doug Nussmeier, who recently had been named the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Florida, came in to visit another prospect.

"He said, 'Who in the hell is that big-ass kid?'" Fagan recalled of Nussmeier pointing at Hurst. "I said he was a baseball player."

It didn't take long for Spurrier Jr. to start giving Nussmeier a hard time.

"Junior starts saying, 'Hey, Nuss. Meet Hayden Hurst. He's a Gamecock. All he ever wanted to be was a Gator, but y'all didn't want him,'" Fagan said.

It didn't take long for Spurrier Jr. to realize Hurst needed to be on the field. Initially brought in to play tight end, he moved him to wide receiver because the Gamecocks already had a solid tight end, Jerell Adams, now with the New York Giants.

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Bentley connects with Hurst behind Razorbacks' defense for TD

South Carolina QB Jake Bentley airs it out for TE Hayden Hurst over the middle for a 62-yard touchdown that gives the Gamecocks a 10-3 lead.

One catch by Hurst against Texas A&M in particular caught Spurrier Jr.'s eye.

"He caught a slant and went [47] yards," he recalled. "There's three guys chasing and he's outrunning all of them. I said, 'We've got to play him somewhere. We've got to get him on the field and let him do something.'"

The elder Spurrier says he isn't surprised Hurst is in the position he's in now because of his natural speed and good hands.

"He's got a chance to play in the NFL a long time," he said.

In many ways, Hurst says he believes this is what he was meant to do.

"Growing up everybody always told me I was a football player playing baseball," he said. "I just always had that mindset it's a one-on-one battle, I'm going to beat your tail. I don't back down from anything. I've always had that mindset.

"It just correlates with football. It's just a raw, intense sport and it clicks for me."

Move to tight end

Will Muschamp quickly became a believer in Hurst when hired to replace Spurrier, moving him to tight end for the 2016 season.

"It was pretty obvious God had blessed him with a lot of athletic ability, all the traits you look for in a tight end," Muschamp said. "But competitive edge is the most talented attribute he's got. This guy competes, he works. He just has that competitive edge that really good players have.

"He's fun to be around, too."

Hurst caught 100 passes for 1,281 yards and three touchdowns at South Carolina. All but eight of those receptions came during his final two seasons after moving to tight end, where he was a first-team All-SEC selection in 2017.

Those impressed with what Hurst did in college came out of the NFL combine feeling even better after he ran the 40 (4.67 seconds) and caught everything thrown at him.

"He's like a smaller [Rob] Gronkowski kind of guy," Fagan said. "Like a Jimmy Graham. He's a catch-and-run guy. His biggest catch-up point is the blocking."

Hurst has modeled his career after the Panthers' Olsen, who in 2016 became the first tight end in NFL history to record three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons.

He also likes the off-the-field philanthropy work done by Olsen, a finalist for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award the past two years. When Hurst starts his own foundation, he wants to focus on mental health work, in part because of all he has been through with baseball.

While he's not locked into any one team, Hurst would love the opportunity to play opposite Olsen.

"To be able to learn from him, a potential Hall of Fame tight end, in my opinion that would be huge for my career," Hurst said.

The biggest knock on Hurst is his age. He'll be 25 before his first NFL season, so he'll be 29 at the end of his first contract, 30 if he's a first-round pick and the team picks up his fifth-year option.

Hurst's age also works to his advantage. In many ways he's already a team leader just as he was when he arrived at South Carolina and was named a captain in his second season.

"He's going represent the organization in a first-class manner," Muschamp said. "Whatever team takes him, they're going to be happy."

Of the multitude of teams that have called Muschamp to inquire about Hurst, many haven't bothered to ask questions.

"They just say, 'Wow!'" Muschamp said. "And he's got a lot of room to grow, in my opinion."

Happy again

Elarton went to Columbia, South Carolina, in November to watch the Gamecocks face in-state rival Clemson. It wasn't a particularly good day for the home team, which lost 34-10.

Hurst didn't do anything spectacular, either, catching three passes for 28 yards.

But that's not what Elarton remembers most about that day.

"I was just so excited to see Hayden happy again," he said. "He's had a smile on his face, and I didn't see much of that before. So he's right where he's meant to be and it's fun to watch."

Hurst has changed a lot since his baseball days -- a path that began after he threw 92 mph following Tommy John surgery as an eighth-grader because his body was growing faster than others his age.

His red hair is long and wavy, down below his shoulders, instead of shaved like it was until he was 19. He couldn't have long hair in high school because Bolles is a private school. The Pirates didn't allow it either.

"To be honest, I hate getting haircuts," Hurst said with a laugh. "I hate getting bad haircuts. So I let it go. It's a little bit different and people kind of recognized me for it, so it'll stay."

Hurst also hasn't written in his journal in two years and no longer is in therapy. He no longer has panic attacks when competing.

Smiles come easy.

"Having the ability to be drafted in one sport and now ... my second sport, I'm just humbled and blessed to be in this situation," Hurst said.

This is a story of perseverance. Hurst didn't fail in baseball for a lack of hard work. Few if any put in more time or effort.

Elarton and others don't believe what happened on the mound will negatively impact Hurst's future in the NFL.

"I just don't see the correlation," said Elarton, who hasn't been questioned by NFL teams about Hurst's mental state. "Maybe if he was a quarterback, and even then it's different. I would have no hesitations with the kid. I think he's mentally stronger having gone through all this.

"He's had to chase a ton of adversity, so whoever is getting him is getting a heck of a product."

Hurst believes in himself more now than he ever did in baseball. He says whatever team gets him is "going to get a warrior."

He's not being cocky. Baseball taught him not to do that. Baseball also taught him not to have a big draft party because he went from expectations of being an early-round pick to the 17th round, although the $400,000 signing bonus he got from the Pirates was far more than others in the lower rounds received.

Next week's draft party will consist of his parents, sister and agent, Hadley Engelhard.

"That experience wasn't the greatest in baseball, sitting by the TV hearing guys get called before me that I thought I was better than," Hurst said. "I'm hoping in a week things will be different for me."

If Hurst had to write a post in his journal now, it wouldn't include the negative thoughts that haunted him in baseball.

"I'd just put down how proud of myself that I am," Hurst said. "Working myself out of that situation and doing what I've done in these short years, I couldn't be prouder of myself. It's just crazy. I don't know what my reaction is going to be Thursday night if I hear my name called.

"But it's going to be a lot of emotions because I've been through a lot. I don't think people understand the extent of what I went through."