INDIANAPOLIS — Hayden Hurst tried hypnosis. He met with sports psychologists and therapists. He tried to clear his mind on empty fields and with fans in the stands. Nothing worked.
In 2012, the Pirates drafted the 6-4 right-hander in the 17th round. In his second season with their rookie-league team, he developed a mental block that still baffles him.
He had the yips.
“Couldn’t even play catch on the foul line, like kids do,” he said. “I don’t know what it was.”
He made one pitching appearance, walking five, throwing two wild pitches and recording only one out. He researched similar cases in baseball history — Chuck Knoblauch, Steve Blass, Mackey Sasser — and settled on a player with whom he felt most familiar: Rick Ankiel, the Cardinals’ left-hander whose backstop-peppering wildness prompted a position change to the outfield.
Hurst changed sports altogether, encouraged by coach Scott Elarton, a former big-league pitcher, who listened to him talk about his love for football during workouts. In May 2015, after the Pirates moved him to first base, he walked on at South Carolina despite having played one year of high school football.
Less than three years later, he’s the top tight-end prospect in the draft class — though he’ll be 25 by the time the season starts. He had a formal interview with the Bears on the first night of the NFL Scouting Combine. Each team that talks to him, he said, asks about his baseball experience. Hurst tells them the same story, as though he’s mastered a script.
“To this day,” he said, “I haven’t really figured out what happened.”
One wonders if teams are afraid he’ll develop a mental block in his new sport. The 250-pounder is quick to say he dropped one pass in three years with the Gamecocks. He was the first South Carolina player to be named captain as a sophomore, and last year he was named first-team all-SEC after catching 44 passes for 559 yards.
“The biggest thing that I take from my experiences from baseball, as hard as it was, what I went through in those three seasons, it’s made me a pretty resilient person,” he said. “I was pretty much at the bottom of the sports world.”
The Bears could be intrigued to see what he could do at the top of it. If Hurst slides into the second round, he’d be a candidate to fill out a position group that needs help. Zach Miller doesn’t figure to play football again. Dion Sims could be cut before $4 million of his $6 million salary in 2018 kicks in March 16.
New coach Matt Nagy’s offense demands a dynamic tight end. When Nagy was with the Chiefs, -Travis Kelce led the position in receiving yards in 2016 and trailed only Rob Gronkowski last year. On a team that desperately needs playmakers, only Adam Shaheen is a lock to be part of the Bears’ long-term plans at tight end.
“I don’t like to use the word ‘potential,’ but [Shaheen] has talent,” Nagy said. “So for us, it’s going to be really neat to try to fit him into our scheme and see where he fits.”
After spending their second-round pick on Shaheen last year, would the Bears be willing to make another tight-end investment on the draft’s second day?
Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews and South Carolina’s Dallas Goedert are among those who won’t last until Day 3.
Hurst doesn’t know when he’ll get picked. He has heard everywhere from the first to fourth rounds. His age might work against him.
Still, he hopes to never look back. He doesn’t know if the yips are still there. He hasn’t even thrown a baseball since he left the Pirates’ system.
“Haven’t tried, to be honest,” he said. “Haven’t even gone near a baseball field.”
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