Joe Hawley wasn’t sure what the future would hold when he retired from the NFL in 2017. He just knew he wanted to travel.
So Hawley, 30, embraced a minimalist, mobile lifestyle — what many call "van life." He bought a camping van and hit the road with his rescue pup, Freedom. Less than two years later, he’s amassed a following of almost 50,000 on Instagram (@manvandogblog), where he shares his adventures and encourages people to “live with less, experience more,” a mantra he has tattooed on his arm.
Recently, Hawley's journey brought him to Austin, where's he decided to stay awhile. We met up with him at Jo’s Coffee on South Congress Avenue to talk about football, road trippin’ and what he loves about the city.
You spent eight years in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and retired in 2017. Why did you decide it was time to retire?
It was kind of a slow process. My body started getting beat up. I blew my knee out in my fifth year, and after that my body kind of started just falling apart. I decided eight years was a lot. I just kind of took a step back and realized I didn’t want to play for a paycheck anymore when I was unhappy. ... I didn’t want to be in a wheelchair when I was 40.
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What did the NFL teach you about what you wanted in life?
It was my dream. Looking back on it now, I’m very grateful for having played out my childhood dream, and I’m very proud of how far I made it. It’s so hard to get there, and once you’re there, people always want to take your job, so you’re just trying to be the best you can day to day. Now that I’m done, I can kind of take a breath and look back on it — I played eight years. It’s pretty special. I went through a lot of ups and downs in my career, but it taught me a lot about who I am.
Did you have a plan for what you wanted to do after you retired?
A lot of athletes struggle with identity when they’re done, and purpose, because to make it that far in such a competitive environment, you have to have a single-minded focus. There’s really nothing else. There’s really no plan B. It was football, and I’ll figure it out if I don’t make it. When it came to an end, I started realizing what I wanted to do. I started thinking about how I can help people and start my own business. I thought it would be really special to create something. But before I started stressing about that and getting involved in business, I thought it would be good to take a break and kind of enjoy my freedom from football. I played 16 years in a row, pretty much my entire life, so last year was my first year off. I thought, "What better way to experience that than to travel the country on a road trip and go see it for myself?"
Have you always liked to travel?
My first time leaving the country, which kind of got me on the travel itch, was in 2014. I went to Costa Rica with a couple of buddies, and we were there for 10 days. We didn’t really have much planned, just got a rental car and hit the open road and backpacked through Costa Rica. It completely changed my life.
What did you learn?
I didn’t know what to expect, and I realized that going into the unknown, that’s where I felt the most alive. We get into these routines where we kind of know what to expect day to day, and time starts flying by. When you’re in some place you don’t know, it brings you into this acute awareness of the now. I really loved it, so I started traveling a bunch. After I decided I wanted to be done with football, a friend of a friend had done van life. I saw it and I was really intrigued. I started looking at it on Instagram and social media. I was like, “That would be really cool just to experience that, get a van." I think everybody at some point in their life thinks of doing a 48-state road trip or seeing the country. I knew I had a unique opportunity, I had all this time, all this freedom, a little bit of money in the bank. I figured, what better time than now to go experience it?
How did your friends and family react when you said you were going to travel the country in van?
Mixed emotions. I think a lot of people were making sure I was OK walking away from football because, from the outside looking in, I don’t think people understand how hard it is. They just see the money and the glamour of it all, like, “Are you sure you want to walk away when you’re still in your prime?” Some of my teammates thought I was crazy living in van. The more I shared it on social media and getting in the groove of things, people started realizing what a cool thing it is to go see the country, and I started getting a lot of envy. A lot of people wished they could do it.
Now you have nearly 50,000 people following your adventures on Instagram. What’s that like?
Part of the reason I started to share it all was because I felt this responsibility to people who don’t have the opportunity — they’re working, grinding day to day. I wanted to show them kind of the beauty of the country and what’s out there. You don’t necessarily need to live in a van to go see it. You can take weekend trips. There’s a lot of cool places in this country to see. We have one of the best national park systems in the world, and it’s so diversely beautiful. I’ve traveled over 50,000 miles for a year and a half, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
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Was it difficult adjusting to living in such a small space?
In the NFL you kind of get caught up comparing yourself to other guys in the locker room, the nice cars they’re driving, the big houses they have. I got caught up in that for a little bit, and I realized it wasn’t making me happy. When you’re in the rat race, no matter how much money you’re making, unless you really look at what makes you happy, you’re never going to have enough. When I retired, I gave away all my stuff, all my furniture, 70 percent of my closet. I really wanted to see who I was without all that stuff and what really made me happy. And I’m so glad I did. It’s wild that when you declutter your space and have less stuff to worry about, it really opens up space for things that matter most and gives you more time to focus on other things, like experiences and relationships and the people you care about.
It’s hard for people to give stuff away or throw it away, because they spent their hard-earned money on it. My parents' garage is full of stuff that they never use, but even if it’s sitting in your garage, it’s taking up space in your psyche and inner world. When I started giving stuff away, it felt like a physical weight was lifted off my shoulders. Now I’m so light, I’m able to move around and do what I want. I don’t feel tied down and heavy.
You travel with your 3-year-old rescue dog, Freedom. Is she a good travel partner?
She loves it. She loves sniffing the streets. She’s seen more of the country than most humans.
You and Freedom are taking a break from the road right now to spend a few months in Austin. Why do you like it here?
The people here are amazing. The vibes are awesome. I figured I’d stay here for a few months and explore and recharge. I would love for people to shoot me food recommendations, because the food is incredible here, and I want to explore it all.
What’s been the best part of this new phase of your life?
I’ve lost 60 pounds since my playing days a year and a half ago through my diet. I’ve been doing more plant-based stuff, and I cook a lot on my Instagram. I think it’s one thing to hear about it, but when you see a transformation like I’ve gone through, people say, "Dang, he’s doing something right." Seeing people change the way they eat (because of my journey) has been inspiring.
What do you hope the future holds?
I’m working on a new business. I want to get more involved in public speaking and motivational speaking. One of my biggest fears is public speaking, but I’ve kind of got to practice what I preach, right? I tell people to conquer their fears, so I’ve got to go conquer mine. But it’s so liberating. If you conquer your fears, that’s how you find total freedom. You’re not afraid of anything. That’s what I want to be like.