This Man Quit the NFL to Live in a Van

Anna Katherine Clemmons
·14 min read
Photo credit: Illustration Eric Rosati/ Photo courtesy of Joe Hawley
Photo credit: Illustration Eric Rosati/ Photo courtesy of Joe Hawley

From Men's Health

ALL JOE HAWLEY could do was lie on his couch in pain.

It was the winter of 2018, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive lineman had just wrapped his eighth season in the NFL. That’s more than twice as long as the average lineman spends in the league, in part because it takes a heavy toll on your body. Hawley had earned an estimated $17 million over the course of his career, but his impressive field time had exacted a cost. He had sore hips, and both knees­­ ached. (One was totally reconstructed; the other had been dislocated twice.) He’d previously torn both shoulder labrums. He lived with a bulging disc in his neck and painful bone spurs in both ankles.

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Photo credit: .

Compounding his physical pain, he’d just broken up with his fiancée and was approaching a milestone birthday: age 30. As he lay there, he wondered to himself, Do I want to endure another NFL season? “The stress and anxiety of playing at that high a level was wearing on me,” Hawley says. “And I was tired of having to prove myself.”

Like many pro athletes, though, he had no idea what to do next. He’d been obsessed with football since high school. Along the way, he’d rarely stopped to think about what happens when the life you envisioned turns out a little different. Or gets old. Or just plain exhausts you. He couldn’t believe he’d become so one-dimensional.

“Part of me was really excited,” he says about the idea of doing something new. “But then I was on the couch like, Holy crap—I didn’t know I’d feel this big a void in my heart. But then I realized, Okay, I need to follow through, to experience life and this freedom I’ve been wanting.

Hawley’s solution was to chase what he calls his “slow dream” of learning more about himself and the world through a great adventure. He had always wanted to travel and loved road trips, so he hatched a simple plan. Buy a van (it turned out to be a 2007 Ford E-350 cargo van), rescue a dog (that would be his now-four-year-old boxer mix named Freedom), and explore a nomadic life free of meetings, playbooks, and rules.

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Photo credit: .

Over the years, plenty of great authors have left their lives behind to find out more about themselves on the road, from the Beat generation’s Jack Kerouac to Blue Highways author William Least Heat-Moon. That’s something many of us have probably secretly dreamed about, even if it gets a bit impractical the more you ponder. You could bail on your job and hit the open road and… then what?

Hawley wasn’t sure. He didn’t know if the trip would be linear or when the journey would feel complete. But he decided he might as well chronicle his escapades to track the lessons, too, albeit in a more modern way. Why not start a YouTube channel?

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HAWLEY DONATED everything he owned to a local Tampa ministry and left Tampa in April 2018. Initially, he’d plotted a route that would let him attend friends’ bachelor parties and weddings and make overdue family visits. ­­To document his journey, he’d considered posting a written journal but struggled with how to convey his thoughts, and the videos on his Man Van Dog Blog channel show his learning curve.

In one early dispatch entitled “Hey Y’all,” the laid-back and scruffy-bearded Hawley sits on the couch of his Tampa apartment with empty moving boxes and a folding table behind him as he tries to figure out how to hold a selfie-stick camera and greet his viewers. “What’s up, y’all,” he says, over and over, take after take, before admitting, “I don’t really know how to talk to the camera.”

Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images
Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images

Within a few months, he’d begun to figure it out. In another dispatch, titled “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service or Internet,” Hawley rides a bike in heavy rain around Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “I thought the rain would let up, but it got worse,” he says to the camera before offering takeaways like “It was fun and now I get to cook a nice-ass meal.”

Most Man Van Dog Blog videos range between five and ten minutes long. They feel unscripted, with a laid-back vibe and simply stated message about what Hawley might be enjoying in the current moment. In another, for instance, he’s excited about visiting a beach for an afternoon of reading. Behind the scenes, he says he was tuning in to other spiritually focused audiobooks and podcasts, including the Aubrey Marcus podcast, by fitness lifestyle guru Aubrey Marcus, which also focuses on how to live a more active and introspective life.

Photo credit: Tony Barber - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tony Barber - Getty Images

As he drove, Hawley pondered his own life’s direction. As a freshman at Esperanza High School in Anaheim, California, he was just five-nine and 190 pounds when he joined the football team. His older brother Jeff had played one season in high school and hated it. But Hawley enjoyed the camaraderie and having coaches as role models. “I came home after the first day and said to my family, ‘I love this,’” he says.

Halfway through his freshman season, he grabbed on to an opponent during the game, drove him 20 yards downfield, and flattened him with a strong tackle. “I remember thinking, Now, this is how you play football,” Hawley says. “And from that moment on, I was focused on being the best player I could be.” By his senior year, he’d grown to six-two and 250 pounds and was recruited to keep playing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In 2010, he was drafted in the fourth round by the Atlanta Falcons.

“He did so well, right away,” says his older sister, Ashleigh Stone. “But I think the hard part about that is, he was so good at it that the sport somewhat consumed him. His freethinking persona didn’t have space while he was playing football.”

Photo credit: Al Bello
Photo credit: Al Bello

Instead, Hawley fell into rigidity. First there was the diet. Hawley, who eventually topped six-three, spent his NFL career around 300 pounds. To maintain his weight, he’d go to Chipotle with Ashleigh and down two large burritos filled with everything and a large order of chips and guacamole. “He’d tell me that he had to eat constantly to keep his weight on or he’d get fined,” Stone says. When he visited her after he quit playing, she watched as he struggled up the stairs, his knees hurting with every step.

Then there were the workouts. Four days a week, two hours a day, Hawley hit the weight room, battling through two lower-body sessions and two upper-body sessions (and conditioning and stretching sessions on Wednesdays, too). By 2016, he’d started seeking ways outside of team workouts to ease the strain football put on his body. He tried yoga, first doing 20-minute YouTube flows and then attending regular classes at a local Tampa studio.

On the road, Hawley revamped both parts of his life. He embraced a keto diet and began practicing yoga daily, designing his own 20- to 60-minute sessions at campgrounds in the morning. He’d frequently start standing, then shift into a series of ground-based poses: cat-cow to warm up his spine, downward dog to loosen his hamstrings, and forward folds for more spine work. Then he’d work through low-lunge half-splits, chair pose, and warrior 3 (a balancing pose on one leg with arms stretched forward or back), before ending with meditation. “So I can sit in stillness without my body bugging me,” Hawley says. “And I can really sit and quiet my mind.”

As days turned into months of driving, his weight began to drop, and his residual pain drastically decreased. Before the start of the 2018 season, when the Cowboys and Vikings called to gauge his interest in an NFL return, Hawley joked that he was better suited to be a tight end or fullback. The game he’d always dreamed of playing held no appeal. He felt like the road had more to teach him.

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Photo credit: .
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PART OF HAWLEY’S journey was inspired by a 2015 Netflix documentary called Minimalism, which shared stories about people rejecting the idea that you need more things to make you happy. As he covered more miles, Hawley was inspired to create his own motto, Live With Less, Experience More. That meant going out of his way to meet new people and allowing them to shape where he was headed next.

Case in point: In August 2018, Hawley attended a good friend’s wedding in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, which was followed by a “buddymoon” wine tasting in Sonoma. From there, he decided he wanted to see a Giants game in San Francisco, so he posted on Instagram that he’d be at Oracle Park, in case anyone wanted to join him. One of his good friend’s brother’s best friends (follow that if you can) shot him a message that he’d be there. As they sat in their seats, Hawley shared that he was scheduled to be in Colorado for a friend’s bachelor party in three weeks, but he hadn’t decided where to travel in between.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Joe Hawley
Photo credit: Courtesy of Joe Hawley

“Go stay with my cousin in Nevada City,” the new guy that he barely knew suggested. So Hawley drove there and did just that while hiking and exploring. Where to next? That friend-of-a-friend’s cousin suggested that he visit the Grand Tetons. So Hawley drove north, camping for a week in one of the country’s most beautiful places.

“I remember sitting on this cliff, watching the sunset over the mountain range, thinking to myself, I would not be here, looking at this gorgeous scenery, if I didn’t answer the call and stay open to the direction the universe is guiding me,” he says.

With more mileage came more challenges. One afternoon, Hawley called Stone to report that he’d had a flat tire and he didn’t know how to change it. In remembering the call, Stone recalled how Hawley, rather than being worried, simply said to her, “This is incredible! I can’t believe I didn’t know how to change a tire!” A YouTube search later, he was back on the road.

Hawley logged more than 30,000 miles in those first eight months. In that time, he learned that his E-350 wasn’t exactly made of memory foam, so he’d sleep on the roof with a portable rollout mattress. Meanwhile, the travelogue was earning him some fans, which led to another twist of fate.

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BY THE WEEKEND before Thanksgiving in 2018, Hawley had circled back toward Tampa. But he wasn’t heading home, exactly. Instead, he ended up in St. Augustine, Florida, just a few hours away, after accepting an invite to speak at a tiny-house-dwellers conference. While there, he was walking around one of the venues and noticed a custom-built van with a higher ceiling, and room for a comfortable queen-sized bed and a two-burner stove. He approached the owner.

As he tells it, Hawley had envisioned a van just like that one two weeks prior. “I was blown away that the exact van I had visualized for myself was right there,” he says. It felt like a sign to keep traveling, so he bought it. By April 2019, almost a year to the day after he’d departed Tampa in the first van, he was back on the highway.

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“My first van experience was like a long road trip,” Hawley says. “Going out for the experience and the freedom of being done with football. The second van, I hit the road as a lifestyle change. I wanted to live in this van and explore places I hadn’t seen, and also explore where I wanted to end up in life.”

This time, he headed up the East Coast. His first stop was Washington, D.C., where he visited the national monuments and drove by the White House. Next he drove up to Staten Island to park in a friend’s driveway while making day trips into New York City. Each morning, he’d wake up in his van and walk a few feet to his friend’s house for coffee, and the two would sit and talk about their lives and how they might fit into the universe. Hearing someone else’s perspective made him feel even more complete, and he wondered whether there was a way to keep that kind of honest sharing going.

There were other stops, like a trip to counterbalance the hustle of New York with the solitude of Acadia National Park in Maine. Along the way, Hawley continued learning from other freethinkers he admired; he became a member of Aubrey Marcus’s Fit4Service Fellowship community, which holds back-to-nature retreats in inspiring places like Costa Rica and Sedona, Arizona. “[Life on the road] was the most fabulous thing to watch him do,” Stone says. “It was like he was growing up.”

In discovering who he was away from football and what motivated and inspired him, Hawley says he eventually realized that his purpose should be to help others find new ways to keep exploring their own lives. “Through my van journey, I realized there’s no ceiling,” he says. “In business and real life, the only ceiling created is the one you create with your mind and beliefs. If you continue to challenge those stories, you can impact the world.”

So in the fall of 2019, Hawley decided to park for a while. Almost three years and 60,000 miles later, he has resettled in Austin, Texas, as a changed man. He is 75 pounds lighter, happily married (he met his wife, Sarah, on a Fit4Service retreat), and seemingly content with a new calling. This fall, he debuted two podcasts—Quantum Coffee with Joe Hawley, and Life Beyond the Game—and in November he launched a membership-based peer coaching group for male former pro athletes to share their own challenges with starting over and figuring out what’s next. The peer group is called the Hart Collective, with an intentionally minimalist spelling of the word heart.

Photo credit: NurPhoto
Photo credit: NurPhoto

“I want to help guys drop into their heart space and follow their heart. What is their heart telling them?” he says. “It’s not what society tells us success looks like, or achievements or happiness, but really listening to your heart.”

His slow dream is moving faster now and becoming more complex as his following grows. Hawley has roughly 11,000 subscribers on YouTube and 42,000 followers on Instagram. His podcasts have generated several thousand downloads, and so far there are ten members in the Hart Collective, which charges $199 per month for access to weekly Hart-to-Hart drop-in calls, monthly calls with other thought leaders and industry experts, and, eventually, postpandemic experiential retreats. (The first is scheduled for September 2021 in the Colorado mountains.)

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But Hawley doesn’t seem to be measuring success by traditional metrics—at least at this point. “The real power is the community,” he says. After the Hart Collective’s first weekly call, he says four of the members texted him to say, as he summarizes, I don’t know exactly what that was, but I want more of it. Hawley went into his backyard, knelt on the grass, and cried. “It’s so beautiful,” he says about the idea of men not being afraid to open up to one another. “And I feel so connected to how far I’ve come in my own journey.”

Garrett Reynolds, a former NFL lineman who played alongside Hawley in Atlanta for two of Reynolds’s five NFL seasons before retiring in 2017, is already impressed with the collective experience. “Joe did what I wish I’d done, taking the time to yourself and figuring out what you want to do, what your next true goal is,” says Reynolds. “I want to be a part of the collective so I can be held more accountable and have that brotherhood, that community back. That fellowship is hard to find when you’re done playing sports. It’s hard to communicate about certain issues that other people haven’t lived or had issues with.”

Hawley bought a house, and he and Sarah have baby on the way. Toss in the new city and business ventures and all that might feel overwhelming. But he sounds more excited than ever. “Life is impermanent,” he says. “We all intuitively know when something is coming to an end, but what people do is they don’t answer that call.… For me, my big guidepost is ‘What is the thing that scares me?’ I’ll go conquer the fear and it’ll lead me to what I’m meant to be doing.” The journey is far from over.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Joe Hawley
Photo credit: Courtesy of Joe Hawley

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