Hayden Hurst back on top after Tommy John

Bolles (Jacksonville, Fla.) senior right-hander Hayden Hurst pitched in the 2011 Under Armour All-America Baseball Game just three years after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Courtesy of Terry Iverson

All it took was a glance at a Major League Baseball player to ease the nerves of right-handed pitcher Hayden Hurst.

Of course, he had every reason to be nervous.

Just an eighth-grader at the time, Hurst sat in an Alabama doctor’s office and was minutes away from having major elbow surgery on his pitching arm.

“Then (current New York Yankees pitcher) Rafael Soriano walked right by me,” said Hurst, now a senior at the Bolles School (Jacksonville, Fla.). “I wasn’t nervous after that.”

It helped him realize pro players get hurt, too, and that they can bounce back from Tommy John surgery, a procedure where the damaged ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow is replaced with another tendon on the body, such as from the forearm or hamstring.

It also didn’t hurt that the doctor who performed that same surgery on Hurst happened to be Dr. James Andrews, arguably the world’s most famous and best orthopedic surgeon.

“Imagine my shock when I call on a Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. and I hear "Jim Andrews, can I help you?” Hayden’s father, Jerry, said. “I froze. It was like, here I am on the phone with the most famous orthopedic surgeon in the world.”

One might think it’s uncommon for an eighth-grader to have Tommy John surgery performed by Andrews, who is known more for operating on professional athletes than high school athletes.

But it’s a growing trend, Andrews said. He sees more teenagers like Hurst than pro players like Soriano. He used to see about three to four teenage athletes a year on his operating table. Now he sees three to four a week who need the Tommy John surgery.

“Oh Lord, it is surprising,” Andrews said. “Kids are growing up too fast. They are outgrowing the development of their ligaments. They are getting too big and too strong too quick. Their ligaments in the elbow aren’t ready.”

That was the case for Hurst, who at the time of his surgery was already 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds. He injured his elbow while pitching on varsity for Bolles in the eighth grade.

Andrews used a tendon in Hurst’s hamstring to perform the surgery. And for 12 months, Hurst rehabbed his pitching arm three times a day.

“I knew the surgery wasn’t just going to fix everything,” he said. “So I looked forward to working out and rehabbing.”

Hurst ended up missing most of his freshman campaign while rehabbing. Before the surgery, he was throwing 88 miles per hour. When he returned to the mound 12 months later, he was topping out at 94 miles per hour.

During his second appearance on the mound after the surgery, Hurst was one out away from throwing a no-hitter in the District 4-3A championship game. He fanned 11 and walked just two in the 4-0 win over Fernandina Beach (Fla.).

Hurst went on to help Bolles win the state title that season and was the starting pitcher on the bump when the Bulldogs repeated as state champs the following year. Bolles fell to Episcopal (Jacksonville, Fla.) in last year’s district semifinals.

Hurst helped Bolles win the state title that season and the following year, while the Bulldogs missed the playoffs last season.

Four years after the surgery, Hurst believes his elbow is stronger than ever.

“I definitely can feel the difference,” he said. “Before the surgery it felt like I had a bum arm. Now it feels alive.”

But Tommy John surgery isn’t magic and it’s definitely not for everyone, Andrews said.

“A myth is the surgery will just fix your elbow,” Andrews said. “You still have to develop correctly. You still have to rehab correctly. A lot of people think the surgery is just going to turn you into a great baseball player.

“I knew (Hurst) had potential and that is one reason why I did the surgery. He did all the things correctly that you have to do after the surgery. Yes, the surgery helped, but the rehab and development plays a bigger factor.”

Hurst certainly put in the time rehabbing his elbow, and now he’s reaping the benefits. The 6-foot-5, 235-pounder is one of the elite pitchers in Florida and has signed to play for Florida State next season, though he’s also considered a top prospect for June’s MLB Draft.

And just like his sophomore and junior years, he will be the ace on staff.

“I just let (my arm) loose when I returned to the mound,” he said. “I have no concerns about my elbow. My confidence is right where it needs to be. I knew I could bounce back.”