Carolina Panthers

Gamecocks TE Hayden Hurst’s wild pro baseball career turned him into an NFL prospect

South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst had to lose everything in one sport before finding himself in another.

And what Hurst lost was the ability to throw a baseball for strikes – or anywhere near its intended target.

“Couldn’t even play catch on the foul line, just how, like, kids do. I don’t know what it was,” said Hurst, who played parts of three seasons in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.

“My first season was fine. I actually did really well my first season. Then I came back and kind of developed that. It’s pretty bizarre.”

Hurst is not the first player to fall victim to what’s often referred to as Steve Blass Disease – the sudden, ineplicable loss of the ability to throw strikes.

The same thing happened to former St. Louis Cardinals Rick Ankiel, who lost the strike zone a few years into his big-league career only to reinvent himself as a major league outfielder.

Hurst reinvented himself as a football player, walking on at South Carolina after walking away from baseball.

Three years later, Hurst is among the top-rated tight ends in the run-up to the draft and says – because of what he endured in baseball – he’s ready for whatever the NFL throws at him.

“As hard as it was, what I went through in those three seasons, it’s made me a pretty resilient person,” Hurst said last week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

“I was pretty much at the bottom of the sports world. Stayed in the rookie league for three years, but battled my way out, made a life change and brought myself to this situation.”

Hurst, who would be a 25-year-old NFL rookie, was an All-American right-handed pitcher coming out of the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla.

He turned down a baseball scholarship to Florida State after Pittsburgh selected him in the 17th round of the 2012 draft. After a promising start in his first year with the Pirates, things began to unravel the following spring.

Hurst appeared in just one game in 2013 with the Pirates’ rookie league team in Bradenton, Fla. His pitching line was cringe-worthy: One-third of an inning, five walks, two wild pitches and a 27.00 ERA.

A change of course

Hurst never pitched in an official minor-league game again.

“It was tough. Like I said, I still haven’t found the root of it to this day,” Hurst said. “I was All-American everything in high school … never had any problems. Got with the Pirates. I played my first season. I dominated, did really well. Came back … and things just kind of fell apart. I exhausted all my resources trying to figure it out.”

Scott Elarton, who pitched 10 seasons in the majors, was the pitching coach for the Pirates’ Gulf Coast League team and started working with Hurst in the fall of ’13. While Hurst was game for anything that might help him regain control of his pitches – he tried hypnosis at one point – reality slowly started to sink in.

“What he was going through in baseball was something, I don’t know if anyone has ever really recovered from it. The struggles he was having generally don’t get better,” Elarton said.

“I think it was pretty apparent that he would rather be on the football field, maybe even from the very beginning. It just seemed like his heart was on the football field.”

The Pirates tried Hurst at first base in 2014 in the Gulf Coast League, where he batted .245 without an extra-base hit in 15 games.

Hurst, who played football as a junior in high school, was ready to try something else.

Kevin Fagan, an assistant at Bolles, called former South Carolina receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. and said he had a baseball player who wanted to walk on to an SEC team, but Florida didn’t have room for him.

Off to Columbia

Spurrier Jr. remembers thinking the situation sounded “kind of strange.”

Then Fagan told him Hurst was 6-5, 240 pounds and ran the 40 in about 4.55 seconds.

“I said, ‘I’ll take him. Tell him to come on,’” Spurrier Jr. said.

The Gamecocks weren’t sure where to play Hurst his first year in Columbia, where he started out as backup tight end. Spurrier Jr. moved him to the slot and he showed off his speed by turning a short slant into a 47-yard gain against Texas A&M.

“You knew he was talented. (But) that was the question, too – is he tough? Can he put all this equipment on and go play? He hadn’t done it in four years,” Spurrier Jr. recalled. “And he was really good.”

Will Muschamp switched Hurst back to tight end after replacing Steve Spurrier in 2016. In addition to setting the Gamecocks season records for catches (48) and receiving yards (616) by a tight end, Hurst also became the first sophomore to be named a team captain in school history.

Hurst caught 44 passes for 559 yards this past season as a junior, and declared for the draft in December. Hurst, who measured 6-4 and 250 pounds at the combine, tied for the second-fastest 40 among tight ends at 4.67 seconds.

South Carolina took tight end Hayden Hurst after his pro baseball career was tripped up by an inability to throw strikes. He was harder to stop on the football field. David Stephenson AP

A mismatch guy

NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock has Hurst rated as his top tight end in his latest position rankings, while ESPN’s Mel Kiper ranked Hurst third behind South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert and Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews.

“He’s big and he’s athletic. And the guys that play tight end in that league are the guys that are mismatch guys,” said Spurrier Jr., Washington State’s quarterbacks coach.

“(It’s) different by different teams on how much they’ll ask him to get in the trenches and block. Honestly, I didn’t watch him a lot this year on how well he did at that.

“But his athleticism and his ability to run and catch make him a pretty good NFL player, in my opinion.”

Elarton, the Pirates’ minor-league pitching coach, saw Hurst play a couple of times for the Gamecocks, including last season’s Clemson game. He says Hurst in a much better place than during those trying times in Bradenton.

“I know it became a huge grind mentally on him,” Elarton said. “It’s just been fun to see him smile. Whenever I see highlights of him, I can just tell he’s happy.”

South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst ran a 4.65-second 40 at the NFL scouting combine, tied for second-fastest among 40 tight ends. Darron Cummings AP

‘It’s who I am’

Hurst, who will participate in South Carolina’s pro day March 20, gave a shout-out at the combine to Greg Olsen, the Panthers’ Pro Bowl tight end.

“I think he does both phases of the game extremely well. He’s able to get his face in there at the point of attack. He loves to block,” Hurst said. “He definitely stretches the field vertically, which is something I try to model my game after.”

With Olsen turning 33 this week and backup tight end Ed Dickson set to become a free agent next week, the Panthers could be looking for a tight end.

But Hurst, who will be a 25-year-old rookie, says he’s just glad to be in this position – on the verge of turning pro in one sport after his baffling failure in another.

“That always comes up when the teams want to know your background, so I’m constantly telling the baseball story. I kind of have it memorized now,” Hurst said last week.

“At the point that I’m at now, as tough as it was to go through back then, it’s part of my story. It’s who I am today. So I love telling it.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson