By Denise Koch

BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Ravens rookie tight end Hayden Hurst was the 25th pick in the 2018 NFL draft, but he began his professional career as a pitcher in the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system.

At 24, he is at the beginning of what should be a phenomenal NFL career, but what may be his greatest accomplishment is overcoming a personal battle that often sidelines a lesser man.

“When I first started noticing it, my palms would get kinda sweaty,” Hurst said. “When I would hold the baseball, my hands would shake.”

Hurst suffered from the “yips.” When he was 19 and pitching in the minor leagues, he suddenly couldn’t throw. The team then sent him to a series of doctors.

“I was reaching for everything, you know, hypnotist, tapping methods on your forehead. I exhausted every resource possible to try and fix the problem,” he said.

Finally, he found the answer, at home. A talk with his dad, who shared his history of anxiety and panic attacks, helped him realize what was happening to him.

“Mine really came from pitching. That’s where most of my anxiety revealed itself,” Hurst concluded. “I would be on the mound and I would want no part of it. I would not want to be out there. My palms would get sweaty. I would start shaking. I would want to vomit.”

Hurst worked his way through it for a couple of years, learned resilience, and made a change, when he traded a mitt for a helmet. Regaining what he calls his “badass” self.

“For me, the “badass” is when I just stop thinking. I can go out on a football field and that’s where I can just cut it loose. In baseball, when you’re a pitcher, there’s so much thinking and it’s such a slow pace, those thoughts just creep into your head. In football everything happens so fast. For me, I can just come out here and be the athlete God intended me to be and cut it loose,” Hurst said.

[REPORTER: “So you don’t have the anxiety you had in baseball?”] “No, not at all,” he replied.

Anxiety and depression, Hurst knows them well, and he’s making it a mission to share his experience to destigmatize mental illness and help other young people.

[REPORTER: “I think it’s rather brave of you to be public about this because people don’t associate big, tough football players with weakness and some people view anxiety or depression as weakness. how do you view it?]

“You know, it has the stigma behind it. When you ask for help, people view it and perceive it as a weakness,” Hurst added. “But the more we talk about it, if affects everybody. You can deny it all you want, but I think in some way, shape, or form, anxiety or depression slips into everybody’s lives.”

A foot injury early this season offered a new physical and emotional challenge.

“Yea, it was hard. I’d never had a football injury before, so that was my first one. So, having to deal with that for 6 1/2 weeks was stuff, but I’m starting to break through,” Hurst said.” “I just try and stay as even keel as possible. You know, I don’t try to listen to negative stuff, even though there’s a lot of it out there. Because I have faith in who I am as a man, who I am as a football player, so I just focus on the positives.”

Hayden and his mother are starting a foundation to help destigmatize mental illness, especially in adolescents, who often suffer in silence.

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