Military News

How 2022 Salute to Service nominee Hayden Hurst supports military mental health

salute to service
U.S. Air Force photo by Matthew Clouse.

Cincinnati Bengals’ tight end Hayden Hurst is not your average NFL player. He was drafted by Major League Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates before ever walking onto a college football field. After three seasons with the South Carolina Gamecocks, he entered the NFL Draft. He caught Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback and future unanimous MVP Lamar Jackson’s first-ever touchdown pass, and now he catches touchdowns for future Hall of Famer Joe Burrow in Cincinnati. 

Hurst’s unconventional career in football is a gift. It’s not just a gift for Bengals fans, it’s a boon for his fellow NFL players and a force multiplier for military members and their families. It’s his support for those serving in the military that led him to become the Bengals’ nominee and one of three finalists for the 2022 Salute to Service Award presented by USAA. 

The Salute to Service Award is part of the NFL’s efforts to recognize and honor the military-veteran community all year long. The league and its 32 teams rally around efforts to honor, empower, and connect with service members, veterans and their families by supporting partner organizations, offering grants, donations, and real help for those in need. The NFL also seeks to bring military members and families closer through a shared love of football, improving social connections and strengthening communities. 

While the NFL and USAA’s Salute to Service effort becomes more apparent in November, with the launch of special Salute to Service gear for each team, NFL players, coaches and staffers are always working for the military. Every November, the 32 teams nominate someone in their organization for the Salute to Service Award. Three finalists are chosen in January, and the winner is selected by a panel of NFL alumni, veterans and past winners. The award itself is presented by USAA before the Super Bowl. 

Hayden Hurst has a long history of support for the military community, which began in 2020 amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when many people were experiencing depression and anxiety, Hurst used his platform to talk about his own mental health issues. He became a voice of advocacy and support in seeking treatment and raising awareness about mental health. 

Hurst would go on to produce a video with a message to United States Marines during Suicide Awareness Month. In preparing to make the video, he learned a lot about the emotional, behavioral and psychological issues faced by service members and veterans. Through the Hayden Hurst Family Foundation, he started a partnership with the Top Dogg K9 Foundation to help train service dogs for disabled veterans who suffered from the same mental health challenges.

Hayden Hurst’s advocacy for the military extends to anywhere Hurst has a connection. In Cincinnati, the Hayden Hurst Family Foundation partnered with the Cincinnati-based Armed Forces Tickets Association to get Bengals’ tickets to military members and their families. With Acadia Healthcare, he hosts military-appreciation events in the greater Cincinnati area. 

Hurst looked to his alma mater, the University of South Carolina’s behavioral health science department, to start new projects that are focused on military engagement. He also launched a golf tournament in 2022 that went toward funding the Youth Crisis Center in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. 

This center is focused on helping children with depression and anxiety. During the tournament, he flew in four military members who were undergoing mental health treatment at Acadia Healthcare to honor their service and sacrifice, and remind them that civilians understood they faced challenges and the NFL community was there to support them. Hurst’s country-wide effort to support military mental health made him the standout choice for the Bengals’ 2022 Salute to Service Award nominee.