**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Allen Sharpe**
Bus after bus, town after town, grueling day after grueling day.
That was Hayden Hurst's life just over two years ago. As a minor league baseball player, Hurst spent the majority of his time traveling and playing a game every single day. It didn't take him long to figure out that it was just not going to work.
Hurst turned down a scholarship to play baseball at Florida State when he was drafted in the 17th round of the 2012 MLB Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates, and began his professional baseball career as a pitcher. However, he was soon switched over to first base when he couldn't control his fastball. The move didn't make his life any better, and Hurst was absolutely miserable.
On May 12, 2015, Hurst officially retired from professional baseball.
By the first of June, Hurst was participating in preseason football camp at South Carolina.
Just over two years later, Hurst was one of three representatives for the Gamecocks at SEC Media Days, was voted to the preseason All-SEC second team as a tight end and had a spot on the John Mackey preseason watch list, an award given to the best tight end in collegiate football.
It's been an interesting five years, to say the least, but Hurst would not change any of it.
"Playing in the minor leagues is definitely interesting," Hurst said at SEC Media Days. "It's not what everyone assumes it is in professional baseball. But I think more than anything what that did for me is all that humbled me. I didn't have success that I've had here, so I kind of know what the bottom is like and I don't get too high on my highs or too lows on my lows. As tough as it was, it was probably the best thing that's ever happened in my life."
Right after giving up baseball, Hurst reached out to friend and Gamecock quarterback Perry Orth and asked him what college football was like. The two had grown up near each other in the Bradenton, Florida area, and Orth passed Hurst's interest along to the coaching staff.
Hurst was offered a walk-on opportunity, and he showed up for practice on June 1, 2015 in Columbia as a 21-year-old freshman. The big, athletic Hurst immediately made an impact and played both tight end and wide receiver that season, appearing in all 12 games.
Hurst continued to improve as a sophomore last year, setting South Carolina's single-season record for catches by a tight end with 48. Entering the 2017 season, the almost-24-year-old junior is one of the most dangerous receiving threats in the SEC.
But Hurst will never forget the struggles he went through to get to where he is now. Those life experiences quickly helped Hurst transform into a leader on the South Carolina football team. He was a freshman by title, but more mature than virtually everyone on the squad. Last season, Hurst became the first sophomore in school history to be named a permanent team captain.
"That's just huge for my confidence," Hurst said. "To have my teammates, my coach feel about me in that way, it's just an honor. I try to go about my work as quietly as possible. I'm not one of the rah-rah guys, I'll let the other guys do that. I just try to lead by example. To have them put faith in me and name me a permanent team captain, that's extremely humbling."
It was a risky decision to turn down college and begin a professional baseball career right out of high school, and an even riskier one to retire after less than three years. However, Hurst had a plan for his life, and he was not going to have another failure.
Hurst's mom thought, and still thinks, Hurst was crazy to give up baseball. His dad didn't say much, but fully supported his son's decision. As soon as Hurst enrolled in school, he immediately began to transform his body into that of a major college football player.
Hurst spent countless hours in the weight room and on the practice field, and it immediately paid off during Hurst's freshman year when he snagged eight passes for 106 yards in limited playing time. Hurst continued the weight room work, developing himself into one of the strongest players on the team. That strength didn't take away from his good speed for a 6-foot-5, 253-pound body, making Hurst a legitimate prospect for the 2018 NFL Draft.
"You can just look at Hayden and tell he is one of the strongest," quarterback Jake Bentley said. "He looks like Thor or something. He's always in the weight room. I think he lifts like three times a day. People see how hard he is working and they want to work just as hard as he is. It's been incredible to see how many guys come in for extra work this year, and I honestly think it stems from him, because last year he was the only one working that hard. Now it is literally the whole team in the weight room."
Hurst entrenched himself as the starter at tight end last year and started all 13 contests. He was a steady presence, recording at least five receptions in five games and 80 yards receiving in four games. His 616 receiving yards set another school record to go with his school-record 48 receptions.
Only Deebo Samuel had more receiving yards on the team.
"I think the first thing I would say is it's a delight to coach the guy," head coach Will Muschamp said of Hurst. "The guy lives in the weight room. If he's not there, he's in the film room. He's asking questions. To me, it's all about the respect you have from your peers, and he's as respected a young man as there is on our football team."
Everyone else in the SEC may be just finding out about Hurst, but his teammates saw this success coming. This season, Hurst has a chance to continue to seal his legacy with the Gamecocks. When Bentley took over as quarterback halfway through last season, Hurst and the young signal caller developed good chemistry. It culminated in the Birmingham Bowl, where Hurst caught six passes for 86 yards and his first career touchdown.
That chemistry began off the field when Hurst and Bentley quickly became friends.
"Me and Jake are good buddies," Hurst said. "We joke around and hang out all the time. Just starting the chemistry there and that trust has developed on the field as well. I just tell him any time you're in trouble, just throw it up cause I'll bail you out, I promise. I think he's seen what I'm capable of."
Depending on how this season goes, Hurst could have to make another tough decision in a few months – whether to start his second professional career. The NFL is something Hurst has thought about, but he's relying on lessons learned throughout his unique journey to keep him grounded.
Hurst is solely focused on teaming up with Bentley and the other eight returning offensive starters to create one of the best offenses in the SEC.
"Where I am in life now, I just take it day by day," Hurst said. "That stuff will happen in April. The season will take care of itself."