I Am Who I’m Meant to Be

SHAWN HUBBARD

My parents drove five hours to see me.

And they had five minutes to talk to me.

That’s all the time the doctor would allow while I was under supervision.

Five minutes.

How do you explain to your parents in just five minutes that you tried to kill yourself?

You can’t. That’s the answer. You just can’t.

I was so … ashamed.

I looked my mom in the eye, felt the handcuffs that locked me to my hospital bed tighten around my wrists, and I just had no words. Nothing. I went through all these different sentences in my head, trying to get them to make sense so I could spit out something. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Blank. I just wanted to sink into my bed and disappear beneath my gown.

But the handcuffs wouldn’t let me do anything.

So there I was, 22 years old. Twelve hours removed from cutting my own wrists. Five feet from my parents. Five minutes to spend with them.

And a lifetime to try to come to terms with what had happened.

Putting your thoughts — your darkest, most brutal ones — into words is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

There I was, 22 years old. Twelve hours removed from cutting my own wrists. Five feet from my parents. Five minutes to spend with them.

Everyone asks, Why did you do this?

And I knew the answer. Maybe I couldn’t say it … but I knew it. Making it clear to someone else, though, is another thing altogether. They nod their heads, they say they understand but, of course, they don’t.

How could they? In five minutes?

I mean, it had taken me a long time to understand why I felt that there was no option other than to do what I did that night in 2016 in Columbia, South Carolina.

Not long ago my life looked like it was on track. I was going where I was supposed to go, doing what I was supposed to do. I had been a star athlete my whole life. I was the starting tight end for a big-time college football team. Everything seemed fine. Better than fine, actually. Everything seemed great.

Four years earlier, in 2012, I had been picked by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 17th round of the MLB draft. My whole life was about sports. I grew up in Jacksonville during Tim Tebow mania. Our family house was on a cul-de-sac, and I’d spend hours on hours playing whatever I could in the street with my dad or my friends.

In eighth grade, I threw 91 mph. I was growing so fast — a foot in a year — that I had to have Tommy John surgery when I was 14. Not because I’d thrown out my arm, but because my ligaments couldn’t keep up with the rate at which I was growing and putting on muscle. I recovered from the surgery just fine, and by my senior year I started to get attention from MLB scouts. My parents and I were prepared for a future that involved pro baseball.

When the Pirates offered me nearly half a million dollars to sign with them to play minor league ball, I was ready. And my family and I made sure we thought everything through. I remember talking to my dad about the deal.

He said, “Hey, worst case scenario, it doesn’t work out. You just come back and play football in college, right?”

Right. But in my mind, I just wanted to play baseball. I was 18. Drafted by the Pirates. I was on my way to the Show.

There was no other pitcher who was going to outwork me. I knew that. There was no hitter who was going to be more prepared than me. I knew that. But what I didn’t know was that the biggest obstacle — the one that would punch me in the face, over and over again — was … me.

It was my body that failed, my mind.

And I remember the moment it happened.

I was doing a bullpen session down in Bradenton, and I threw a pitch wide. And then threw another one wide. And then another. And another. All of a sudden things started moving quickly. I could feel the tips of my fingers going numb. The ball was drenched in sweat the second it touched my hand. My wrist was shaking. I was embarrassed, shocked, confused. I went back to my apartment and tried to just forget about it.

Mike Janes/Four Seam Images via AP Image

But the next day, same thing.

Every pitch — every time the catcher had to move from his squat to go get the ball — this imaginary fist would squeeze my chest. I was being crushed. My heart rate would skyrocket, my mind would race. The pitcher in the pen beside me walked off his mound.

“Get this kid away from me.”

“That s*** is contagious.”

Contagious?

What the f***?

What is this?

What is with me?

The next three years were hell.

As a man of God, I don’t use that word lightly.

Hell.

Every pitch — every time the catcher had to move from his squat to go get the ball — this imaginary fist would squeeze my chest.

Every day was a battle with my mind. Because even though I could work on my body — begging it to come back to me, to work how it used to — the fight was actually in my mind. My family is a tight-knit group. We’re always looking out for one another, making sure nobody ever feels alone. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell my parents the truth. Every year I’d tell them that the next season would be the one in which I’d make it out of rookie ball.

I was alone.

The days were filled with shame, embarrassment. So were the nights. But I had an out at night. I could drink. So I did. And I would drink as much as I could until I couldn’t feel the shame — until I couldn’t feel the fist gripping my chest. I drank with the sole purpose of blacking out. That’s the truth.

I’d wake up a few hours later, and get ready for my 6 a.m. workouts with Scott Elarton. He was a pitching coach for the Pirates. And, along with my parents and my incredible sister, Kylie, Scott is a huge part of why I’m here today, alive, writing this.

I owe Scott so much.

He used to work with me away from everyone else so I wouldn’t have to feel the shame, see the glares. We did everything he could think of to try to fix my problem. Weighted balls. Huge targets. A new motion.

But the yips … they exist in your mind. Not in your shoulder.

I think, after a while, we both knew that.

Sometimes we’d get close. I’d look like I was getting it back.

And then I’d get into a game, and, man … I’ll never forget the sound when I hit a kid in the head with a pitch. Knocked him out. I stood there, 60 feet, six inches away, watching him lying there, still as a rock. The sound of the ball smacking against his helmet echoed in my head, while I screamed into my mind.

You f***ing monster. Look what you did. What’s wrong with you?

The end came in 2015. Spring training. I was working with Scott and it just wasn’t happening. Nearly three years of trying to beat this … this … whatever it was. And no progress. I threw another one high and wide, walked off the mound and just started crying. Scott came over. We cried together.

It was over.

We’d lost.

He asked me what else I was passionate about. And for so long the answer would be nothing. But that passion had died somewhere along the way in Bradenton. So I thought of football. I thought of watching Gator games as a kid, I thought of playing in high school and how much I’d loved it.

I told Scott it was time we got my dad down there to talk about what was going on, and what I needed to do. My dad had coached football when I was younger, he knew I could make the switch. I had the size, the strength.

Through the years I had given my parents glimpses into my struggles, but had never quite been able to tell them the whole truth. To open up to my dad, when I had finally decided it was over, felt like a release in a way.

He told me, “This thing … these yips, they won’t follow you.”

They didn’t follow me. But everything else did.

Your mind, well … it comes with you wherever you go.

Shawn Hubbard

I was lucky enough to know a QB at South Carolina named Perry Orth. He helped to get Steve Spurrier, the Gamecocks’ coach, to come down to Jacksoville to watch one of my workouts. He offered me a preferred walk-on spot for the 2015 season. I felt like I was turning a new page. I believe in second chances, and I also believed in myself. My freshman year was solid. I got in a few games, started impressing some coaches and making a name for myself.

But, man, there is just something about the nighttime.

No matter how good my day had been, or how well I had played … when the sun set, I just felt like the same old Hayden. I kept drinking like I had in Florida.

In my darkest moments, I would remember something that had happened long ago. When I was 10, my uncle committed suicide. He’d struggled with alcoholism. Two years after he died, his son committed suicide, too. I remember seeing the paramedics loading his body bag into an ambulance. None of it made sense. But by the time I started drinking in Columbia, my cousin’s decision to commit suicide was beginning to become almost understandable.

One drink, and I’d feel the weight of failure.

Two drinks, and I’d think about all the lies I’d told myself.

Three drinks, and I’d feel the fist on my chest again.

And eventually I’d fade into the night.

Incoherent, afraid, angry, sad, confused, depressed, anxious.

One night in January 2016, I don’t know exactly what happened, but I mixed alcohol with pills and … I really don’t know.

When I woke up the next morning, my wrists were all bandaged up and handcuffed to the hospital bed. I still had my shirt on. It was covered in my blood. Someone came and told me what I had done. I didn’t know how to react. I had a thought.

If I’d had a gun, I would have died last night.

My parents came to see me a few hours later. That day is a blur — those few weeks are, really. But what I remember was the feeling of never ever wanting to be that broken again — maybe it was because the whole experience had scared me straight. I knew that whatever I did next in my life, I was never going to go back to this point.

In that hospital bed I barely felt human. But also I had never felt more alive.

There’s a lot to absorb in the wake of a moment like that. I knew one thing for sure, though: I had to give myself over to my family and my support group. I had to open up and be real for once. No more secrets, no more isolated emotions. Waking up in those handcuffs — that was my real second chance. That was my real opportunity to rid myself of the demons that had found their way into my mind in Florida.

So I did whatever was asked of me. I started meeting with a therapist on campus. Dr. Malone and I would talk through everything. It was just … I can’t explain really how helpful it was just to be able to talk to someone and not feel any fear of repercussions from what I might say. I leaned on our new coach, Will Muschamp. Our strength coach, Jeff Dillman, would open up the weight room to me at all hours so I could get in there and release some energy. So many people on campus knew little bits about what I was going through, and they were all so helpful.

I thank God for those people, and for the University of South Carolina.

Of all the things Dr. Malone helped me with, the most crucial was the way he made me feel comfortable enough to be more open with my family. Like I said, we are tight-knit, but there are some things that are just hard to tell your parents. Dr. Malone made that easier. And now I’m closer with my family than ever before.

Looking back on that day in the hospital, the night before, the yips in Florida — all of it … sometimes I have to pinch myself to realize that I’m here, that I’m alive and that I’m all right.

I haven’t had any alcohol since that night. I haven’t touched any substances. My mind is clearer than it’s ever been. There are good days and bad days — and it’s important to acknowledge and accept them. I know that now.

I’m heading into my third year in the NFL. After three seasons at South Carolina, the Ravens drafted me in the first round in 2018. Now I’m an Atlanta Falcon. I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of this organization, but I will also be forever grateful to Baltimore. The Ravens took a chance on me, and I hope I helped build something that will last a long, long time in that city.

When I started to tell people what I had been through, I got hundreds of responses from people in Baltimore. They told me that they had been through similar things, or that they had a family member who was going through similar things. All the Ravens fans in my Twitter DMs who were sending me love and saying how proud they were of me — that’s real love.

Thank you, Baltimore. Bless y’all.

While I was a Raven, I started the Hayden Hurst Family Foundation to raise awareness of mental health issues in adolescents and teens, and to fund mental health services. As much as I love football — and boy, do I love football — I hope that the legacy of this foundation is just as big as the one I leave on the field.

Shawn Hubbard

When I tell my story now, I try to use detail because, I think, if someone had told me that they had struggled like I did — I never would have believed them. But to find the light, you have to know how dark it can really get. So I hope that, if there’s someone out there who can relate to this story at all, they get this message:

There is so much strength in your weakness.

Understand that.

There is help for you, like there was help for me. I didn’t want to find it at first and it nearly cost me my life. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about that. But I did find help. And it changed my life. I’m thankful for everyone who had a hand in my recovery, especially my family. Mom, Dad and Sis — I love you guys so much. Thank you.

If they weren’t the people they are, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

And I know, without a doubt, I am exactly who I’m meant to be.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7 support for people in distress.

If you or anyone you know is ever in need, their number is 1-800-273-8255.

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