Gamecock All-SEC TE Hayden Hurst Went From Throwing Balls to Catching Them
By Joey Johnston
He's one of the nation's best tight ends, a coveted package of size, speed and determination that long ago landed on the radar of NFL scouts.
University of South Carolina junior Hayden Hurst, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound product of Jacksonville Bolles High School, will be a player to watch on Jan. 1 when the Gamecocks (8-4) face the Michigan Wolverines (8-4) in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.
It's hard to believe that Hurst was a minor-league baseball pitcher just three seasons ago.
"I don't know that I've heard of such a thing,'' Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp said. "He changed his path pretty drastically. But this is a guy who is programmed for success.''
Hurst was taken by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 17th round of the 2012 amateur draft, but it was a continual struggle to find control. He considered a return to football. When the Pirates talked about moving Hurst to first base, that was his signal to change sports.
After joining the Gamecocks and spending one season at wide receiver during Coach Steve Spurrier's final year, he found a home at tight end.
He caught 48 passes for 616 yards and one touchdown in his initial season.
This season, he had 41 receptions for 518 yards and two touchdowns, while being named a semifinalist for the Mackey Award, which goes to the nation's top tight end.
What a turnaround.
What's more, Hurst became the first sophomore in South Carolina football history to be named a permanent team captain last season.
"It's just an honor,'' Hurst said. "I'm not a rah-rah guy. I just try to lead by example. It was extremely humbling.''
And speaking of being humbled
Hurst had to adjust his one-time dream of playing major-league baseball.
"Playing in the minor leagues is definitely interesting,'' Hurst said. "It's not what everyone assumes it is. More than anything, it humbled me.
"I didn't have the same success that I've had here (with South Carolina football). I know what the bottom is like. As tough as it was, it was probably the best thing that has ever happened in my life.''
After giving up baseball, Hurst reached out to his friend, Gamecocks quarterback Perry Orth, who passed along his football interest.
When Hurst arrived at South Carolina in 2015, he was a 21-year-old walk-on freshman.
But somehow, he fit right in.
"I always liked three-sports guys, but they have become almost unheard of these days,'' said South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner, the school's former baseball coach. "Hayden is one of those guys who would be successful at anything he tried. Maybe baseball didn't fit perfectly in the end, but he has been great for us in football.
"He's the prototypical tight end. You've got to know him to really appreciate him, though, because he's more than your average football player. He's a leader who always says the right thing. He's the most unselfish guy I've ever been around. It's just great to have him with us.''
Muschamp couldn't agree more.
"I think Hayden's biggest attribute is his competitive edge,'' Muschamp said. "Sometimes in life when you don't have success at something, it drives you a little harder for the success in a different situation.
"This guy's competitive edge is through the roof. The way he carries himself, with the talent he has in football, the sky's the limit for him. He's definitely on the right path.''
With a small detour, Hurst's athletic career is headed in the right direction.