I don’t want to be here.
That was the main thought racing through my mind as I sat in the plain room in Jacksonville, Florida waiting for my session to begin. I’d spoken to multiple therapists. They all had their own different methods. But at this point I was getting desperate. I needed to fix what was going on with me if I was going to save my career.
As I tried to get comfortable, the woman with a soothing voice sitting across from me instructed me to close my eyes, and then began counting down very slowly.
How did this happen? How did I get here?
I was one of the top pro pitching prospects in the country coming out of high school.
3… keep listening to the sound of my voice Hayden
Now, I couldn’t even hit a catcher’s mitt from 10 feet away.
I’d tried just about everything to get my mind right and nothing worked.
So why not try hypnotism?
Of course that didn’t work either.
Nothing against the practice itself, but the thing about hypnosis is that you have to want to be hypnotized in order for it to be effective. I think the idea is that once you tap into your subconscious, you can find the root of your anxieties, which hopefully results in some clarity when it comes to fixing whatever problem you have.
I was only 19 years old and living on my own for the first time in Bradenton, Florida after being drafted in the seventeenth round by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Up until that point, there hadn’t been a ton of uncertainty in my life. For as long as I could remember, I’d been pretty positive about what the future held for me: I was going to be a Major League pitcher.
Like a lot of kids who grew up dreaming of becoming of professional athlete, pretty much my whole identity growing up was tied to sports. If I wasn’t playing baseball, you’d find me tossing a football around with friends. It was always one or the other. From a young age sports was how I related to my family, how I met my friends and what I liked most about myself. I was the kid who was always picked first on the playground. For one reason or another, sports just made sense to me. When it became clear that I had the potential to be drafted by a Major League team as a high schooler, I decided to quit football and turn my focus to baseball. That was my ticket.
So the idea that I could all at once just forget how to throw a ball was something that was almost impossible for me to understand. This was the thing I was the best at, that people knew me for. How could something that once came so naturally suddenly feel so foreign? How could I fix a problem that I couldn’t begin to understand?
And most of all, if I didn’t have baseball, who was I?
Courtesy Hurst Family
You might have heard the common term for what was going on with me. People call it the yips. When you say it out loud, it sounds almost silly. Like a hiccup disorder or something. But it’s real and it absolutely turned my life upside down.
I can actually trace it all back to one specific moment. I was playing catch with a teammate during my first instructional league, which is setup to give players some extra reps after the minor league season ends. Up to that point, I’d pitched pretty well. People seemed excited to have me there. When a guy with my size and who was my age is able to hit the upper-90s with precision, there’s a certain buzz that builds up. I was almost ready to head back home and enjoy my first off-season as a professional. All I needed to do was just get through these last few games.
Then something weird happened. For no reason in particular, I overthrew my teammate. I overthrew him badly. He went and retrieved the ball, threw it back and then I overthrew him again. At that point he kind of looked at me and said, “What the hell?”
And that was all it took. Somehow that one exchange planted a seed in my mind that affected my ability to throw a baseball.
When I came back for the following spring training, I ended up injuring my biceps and had to sit out for a week. After that everything kind of spiraled. Now I wasn’t just missing throws during warmups — I couldn’t find the strike zone during games. And every time I missed, there was this voice in my head that got louder and louder.
Before I even threw a ball, my mind would be consumed with all of the possible negative outcomes that could occur.
If I hit the backstop, I’m going to look like an ass.
If I throw it short, I’ll look weak.
Who’s watching me pitch right now?
Come on man, what the hell is wrong with you just throw a strike. This shit’s easy.
Pitching by nature is a very isolating experience. You’re out there on a mound by yourself trying to do something that requires a bunch of different skills. The thing is, for most of my life that wasn’t really much of a challenge. Pitching was something I was able to do without much thought or even effort. From the first time my dad first taught me the basics as a kid, it was something that just made sense to me.
When I started struggle, I tried really hard to keep the problem to myself. I didn’t want my friends or family to worry about me. But around the clubhouse I definitely noticed as people’s perception of me shifted. A lot of my teammates became more distant. In all likelihood they just couldn’t relate to my situation. They just saw a young hotshot who couldn’t come close to hitting a catcher’s glove. And it was when I started losing the respect of my teammates that I learned just how isolating being a pitcher can be.
I had one coach who had more of a militaristic approach and he definitely made things worse. He changed up all of my mechanics and when I still failed he just yelled at me. He vocalized all of things I feared people thought about me. He’d yell about how pathetic my arm looked and how bad I looked throwing. He questioned my toughness and desire to succeed. And at that time I was basically still a kid, and I looked up to him as a coach, so I internalized everything he said because the coach must be right.
Of course, he wasn’t right.
And neither were the other coaches.
Or the therapists.
Or the hypnotist.
Or the guy who had me tap on different spots of my head in order to unlock my mind (like I said I tried just about everything).
By the time I began my third spring training, the organization had me practicing hitting and playing first base. I wasn’t what would be considered a young prospect anymore — now I was a project. When I struggled with the transition to a new position, the organization decided to try to move me back to pitching as kind of a last resort. By that point, baseball wasn’t something I loved anymore. Now the act of going to the ballpark filled me with a sense of anxiety and dread. That was a lot to come to terms with.
I kept trying to push through but whenever I got on a mound, it was back to where I started. Finally, there was one bullpen session with Scott Elarton — a coach of mine who had pitched professionally and was really supportive — when I threw yet another pitch that went sailing on me and my spirit just broke. I dropped my glove on the dirt and walked to the clubhouse and started crying. All along this was the moment I’d actually been fearing — the time when I’d hit the realization that I couldn’t fix this. I was lucky to have Scott there to comfort me, but that was the first time I said out loud that I was done.
At that point, I had a lot of stuff to figure out.
If baseball was out of the picture, the only thing I had left was some college eligibility. Even if I wasn’t able to throw a ball accurately anymore, I was still a pretty decent athlete. My desire to compete was still there, I just needed a new way to direct it.
I talked it over with my dad and we decided that maybe it was time to try something a little different.
Maybe it was time to see if I could still play football.
Courtesy Hurst Family
So I guess the obvious question is “Why football?”
Honestly, yes, it was a pretty ambitious pivot. And a lot of people thought I was crazy. I mean, even my mom thought I was crazy. And maybe I was. But still, I knew that I wasn’t ready to stop dreaming. As long as there was the smallest chance that I could keep playing sports, that was enough.
Even when I decided to quit playing football in high school so that I could put all of my focus into baseball, my attachment to the game never quite faded. It was always sitting there in the back of my mind, almost as a ‘what if,’ if that makes sense. I knew that it was a sport where your success relied on your effort and will. When you boiled everything down, it was a game about being better than the person lined up across from you. It was about imposing your will. I loved that.
No, I couldn’t throw a strike anymore. I didn’t have what it took to become a professional pitcher. But I did still have my work ethic and drive. I still had the ability to compete and be great. And I had a dream of becoming a professional athlete that I wasn’t going to let die without a fight.
So that’s why football — even if, yeah, it was kind of crazy.
I knew if I was serious about becoming a great player, the SEC would probably be the right place to start.
My first choice was to attend University of Florida. Being from Florida and having family who followed the program for decades, it just seemed like the sensible fit. But when I reached out to the coaches and tried to secure a walk-on spot on the team, they didn’t seem as into the idea as I was. I didn’t really let that discourage me, actually in retrospect I’m kind of thankful for the motivation they gave me. I figured if Florida didn’t want me, I’d do everything I could to make them regret that decision.
I had a connection to South Carolina’s program through Perry Orth, a friend of mine who played on the team. After speaking with a couple of the coaches, they decided to give me a shot. That was all I asked for. I knew that if I had the opportunity, the rest would fall on me.
I’ll admit being a 21 year old freshman was, well, different. Most people go off to college to discover themselves, but I felt like I’d already lived an entirely different life by the time I stepped on campus. I came into the experience with probably a different kind of focus than I would have if I was 18.
But the thing is, once I got on the field, I really did feel like a kid again. I was just happy. And yeah, it was a lot of work. I had a ton to learn. But I found out really quickly that playing football gave me this sense of joy that I had lost near the end of my baseball career. And if nothing else, that made it feel like I was doing something right.
So that first year, I tried to learn as much as I could about the game. I spent a lot of times with coaches trying to soak up as much information as I could. I also more or less lived in the weight room so I could bulk up. Those SEC defenses hit hard. I ended up playing in every game my freshman year. I even got my first career start against Florida. I won’t lie, that felt pretty good.
I feel like I definitely hit my groove in my second year. I earned a scholarship, which was cool. I also became the first sophomore in South Carolina history to be voted a team captain. I guess there are a ton of different ways for a person to track progress, but personally I knew I was on the right track when I began to gain the respect of my teammates. I think that gesture really made me feel like I’d done the right thing. Like even though letting go of baseball had been so difficult, it was ultimately the right decision. The fear and anxiety I’d at one point associated with pitching had been replaced by a sense of joy and freedom I experienced on the football field. I felt in my element again.
My junior year was when things really came together. I was named team captain again, first-team All SEC and we even beat Florida, which I’ll admit felt pretty damn good for plenty of reasons. And suddenly, the idea of playing in the NFL wasn’t a distant dream anymore. Now the discussion centered more on when I’d get drafted, not if. All this was happening only three years after I was crying in that dugout after coming to terms with the fact that my baseball career was over.
How crazy is that?
Ben Liebenberg via AP
When I looked down at my phone on draft day and saw a 443 number, I picked up immediately.
“Hello, is this Hayden?” Ozzie Newsome, the GM of the Baltimore Ravens, asked.
“Uh, yeah,” I said, barely able to contain my excitement.
Then he asked, “So, what are you doing?”
“I’m sitting with my family, watching the draft.”
He responded, “Oh, good… have you eaten today?”
I was like, “Uh, yeah?”
Then he asked, “Oh did you eat a sandwich?”
And at that point, I was like, “Wait, what’s going on right now?”
As it would turn out, Ozzie was trying to buy time with small talk as the Ravens officially submitted the card saying they were going to draft me. No, it wasn’t the most conventional way to get selected, but given my path to that moment, that seemed fitting.
I know that despite everything I’ve been through, the greatest challenges I’m going to face are still ahead of me. I still have a lot of room for growth and potential to fulfill. But throughout this entire process, even at my lowest moments, I always tried to remind myself that everything happens for a reason. I failed at baseball for a reason. I rediscovered football for a reason. I was drafted by Baltimore for a reason.
I want to share my story not to serve as some example of how you can achieve your wildest dreams with hardwork and determination. Honestly, if that was the case, maybe I’d be pitching in the Majors right now. I think the main thing I want taken away from my story is the importance of the things you can control. I wouldn’t be in the NFL today if I hadn’t made a choice that seemed kind of crazy to a lot of people. But the only way to find what you are meant for is to never stop searching for it. Because once you do find it, I promise, the entire journey up to that point will make a lot more sense.
And then, the only question will be: Where do I dream from here?