Hayden Hurst hopes to make a difference by discussing his suicide attempt

How Hayden Hurst's response to mental illness changed his life (7:10)

Hayden Hurst discusses how addressing his depression in college changed his outlook on life. (7:10)

Editor's note: Hayden Hurst named Week 13 NFLPA Community MVP after he publicly shared his battle with depression, leading to more than $45,000 being raised to implement mental health programs in schools and more than 50 people being referred to treatment facilities for help.

This story was originally published on May 30, 2020.

Atlanta Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst impacted at least one teenage boy’s life by opening up about what led him to almost taking his own.

Last May, Hurst, then with the Baltimore Ravens, was at South Hagerstown High School in Maryland -- the final stop on a four-school mental health education campaign -- sharing how he dealt with depression and anxiety, which began during an unsuccessful stint as a pitcher in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. Although he left baseball to play college football, his struggles with depression persisted, and he started drinking heavily and using drugs and, eventually, attempted suicide in January 2016, when he was playing tight end at South Carolina.

Hurst refers to it at his “come to Jesus moment."

After Hurst shared part of his story with the South Hagerstown group, he said, a boy approached him, still in tears.

“He was pretty short in his response," Hurst recalled, “and he was just like, ‘Hey, thank you for telling your story. I really appreciate it. It meant a lot to me.'"

A woman then stopped Hurst before he exited. It was the boy’s mother, and she explained how her son was going through the loss of his father and had attempted suicide himself.

“She said, ‘Your story really hit home with him,'" Hurst said. “I always say that to all the kids: ‘Hey, if I just affect one of you today, that’s my goal.’"

Hurst, who was drafted 25th overall by the Ravens (seven spots ahead of former teammate Lamar Jackson), was traded to the Atlanta Falcons this offseason. He hasn’t played for the Falcons yet but has already made an impact by devoting much of his spare time during the coronavirus pandemic to promoting the importance of mental health treatment through appearances on The ESPN Daily podcast with Mina Kimes and ESPN’s Outside the Lines.

As May, and Mental Health Awareness Month, comes to a close, Hurst wants folks to know there is still much work to be done. According to statistics last compiled in 2017 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States. More than 47,000 deaths by suicide occurred that year, more than twice the number of homicides. Suicide was also the second-leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, behind only unintentional injury.

“My uncle committed suicide when I was younger, and then my cousin, as well," Hurst said. "I understand that state of mind that you’re in. You want the hurting to go away. It just feels like this cloud of darkness is over you and the only way to make it go away is to take your life, and it will be over. You don’t think about other people in those moments. I understand depression. I’ve been there.

"Now, when things get tough, I can reflect back to that moment and just know that nothing that I’m faced with in life will ever be as hard as that was."

'I really didn’t understand what the hell was happening'

Hurst couldn’t cope with his depression and anxiety, at least not initially. The Jacksonville, Florida, native was picked by the Pirates in the 17th round of the 2012 MLB draft. While playing in the minor leagues, the right-handed pitcher became overwhelmed by the "yips," a performance anxiety disorder that caused his pitches to sail uncontrollably. The guy with a mid-90s fastball suddenly couldn't throw a strike. It turned into a three-year saga of troubles he couldn't overcome.

“I guess that’s when it all started, because I had never really experienced failure in sports," Hurst said of his depression. “I usually would just show up and always be better than everybody. When that [yips] started, I really didn’t understand what the hell was happening."

The tipping point for Hurst came when he hit a Baltimore Orioles player with a pitch in a 2014 spring training game and knocked him unconscious. Hurst said he spent thousands of dollars trying to find a remedy.

“I couldn’t even play catch on a foul line like T-ballers do. I was overthrowing guys and skipping balls. I was just mortified because obviously people noticed. Guys didn’t necessarily want to be around me. I heard everything like, 'That stuff's contagious. I don’t want to be around this kid.' So I was just embarrassed, and it really affected me off the field."

Hurst tried counseling, but it didn’t solve the problem. He started binge drinking in hopes of drowning the pain. He remembered sitting alone in his dark dorm room in Bradenton, Florida, wanting nothing but to be isolated from the rest of the world.

He started experimenting with drugs, including cocaine.

“Like I said, anything I could do to kind of mask that pain and that embarrassment, I tried," he said.

Hurst credited his former pitching coach Scott Elarton for working tirelessly with him to resolve the pitching problem. Each time they spoke, football seemed to come up. Hurst said that Elarton was the one who gave him the final nudge to leave baseball and go walk on at South Carolina to return to playing football, a game he had loved -- and excelled at -- in high school.

“I left Bradenton and figured I’d leave all that behind me, but the drinking and stuff still happened," Hurst said. “Then I had my moment: I tried to commit suicide. When I woke up covered in my blood, I was just sitting there thinking, ‘What are you doing with your life?’

“I got lucky for some reason and was given a second chance at this thing. And now, I haven’t looked back."

Hurst's second chance

Hurst credited Dr. Timothy Malone, the University of South Carolina’s director of athletics mental health and a psychiatrist, for guiding his recovery after the suicide attempt. Hurst said therapy was very hard for him initially because he is private and doesn’t like to show emotions. He said the best recommendation he received from a therapist was to start journaling, basically keeping a diary of events going on in his life. He called that his saving grace. Hurst met with Malone every other day for a month, then graduated to once-a-week sessions as he improved.

The South Carolina football staff, including then-newly named head coach Will Muschamp, showed empathy for Hurst’s plight and applauded his progress.

“It’s awesome to see him grow up in front of your eyes and to see how he is handling the situation now moving forward," Muschamp said of Hurst. “To be honest with you, I’m a football coach, not a psychiatrist, so I felt a little hopeless when the situation arose. But we have a wonderful support system here at the University of South Carolina.

“You have to compliment Hayden and his family. He’s got a great support system at home with his parents and sister. And Hayden himself, you have to credit the young man for recognizing some things he needed to deal with in life. That’s why I think he has such a strong voice."

Hurst repeatedly praises his parents, Jerry and Cathy, and his sister, Kylie, for keeping his spirits up. The four of them refer to themselves as the “Core Four" because of their tight bond. Kylie, a veterinarian in Atlanta, now gets to see her brother on a regular basis. And Cathy, who is retired in Jacksonville with her husband, runs her son’s foundation.

The work ahead

Hayden Hurst created the Hayden Hurst Family Foundation in 2018 to focus on mental health awareness and suicide prevention. His story is a powerful tool in accomplishing the foundation's mission.

“When I heard Hayden’s story, I was like, ‘Man, this is what kids need to hear, especially student-athletes,’" said Chris Simon, founder of BTST Services (BTST for "a better tomorrow starts today"), a partner with Hurst's foundation. "People like to go to games and support these athletes but never think about the pressure that they have to deal with on a daily basis and how those pressures impact their lives and their mental health."

Added Hurst: “We kind of target adolescents just to get them in that age range so they have the tools to deal with it when life kind of kicks you. Unfortunately, everyone deals with some sort of trauma in their life. The goal is to kind of clip the kids now before something dramatic happens and they don’t have the tools to deal with it."

Cathy Hurst, the foundation's vice president, has made connections with Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and the Hilinski’s Hope Foundation (H3H), created after Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski died by suicide in January 2018. She has already reached out to the Falcons and team owner Arthur Blank’s family about partnering for mental health awareness events. Hurst's foundation has held fundraising golf and dinner events in Baltimore and Jacksonville, and it will look to do the same in Atlanta as Hurst settles into his new home.

Hurst, who wears No. 81, helped cover the cost for 81 free therapy sessions for Baltimore kids through BTST. He also took a group of 20 students to a Bengals-Ravens game last season.

“Two or three of them came up to Hayden afterward and shared their stories about struggling with anxiety," Cathy Hurst said. “And they told him, ‘It’s so nice that you were able to overcome it. And you give me strength.’ That’s why he tells his story: to be able to help these young people be able to realize, ‘It’s OK not to be OK.'"

Hayden Hurst, now sober for 4½ years, is willing to share his story with anyone who will listen. He hopes doing so will dispel the stigma around mental health issues and make the same type of impact it did on that young boy who approached him at South Hagerstown High.

“Like I said, I pretty much hit rock bottom," Hurst said. “But in hindsight, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me because it kind of flipped a switch for me internally that I needed to turn my life around. I’m sober now, and I haven’t touched any [drugs]. I think I’m a way better person without all that stuff.

“What’s going to keep me happy moving forward? Family. They’ll be with me in Atlanta. They’ll always keep me grounded. They’ll never let my head get too big, and they’ll never let the lows get too low. They’re a great group of people, and I love them to death. They’re going to stick with me through this whole thing."