Former Bucs center putting NFL in past by hitting road for epic 48-state journey

TAMPA, Fla. -- Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers center Joe Hawley, who recently decided to call it a career after eight seasons in the NFL, is about to embark on a very unusual journey. Starting this week, he'll travel to 48 states over a period of six months, all while living out of a van and adopting a minimalist lifestyle. He wants to free himself from the excess, to live in the moment and to figure out who he is away from football, which is all he has known for most of his life.

He sold his Mercedes-Benz C300 coupe and has given away most of his possessions to charity. His furniture -- including a $4,000 suede sectional couch and a $10,000 stained hardwood dining room table -- has gone to a Tampa-based charity called Metropolitan Ministries, with approximately 80 percent of its residents experiencing domestic violence and trying to get back on their feet. He gave away 70 percent of his closet to the Salvation Army. He has gone from eight pairs of jeans to two and from 50 shirts to 10.

"If it doesn't fit in my van, I'm giving it away," said Hawley, 29, who spent three seasons with the Bucs and five with the Atlanta Falcons. "I thought about putting it in storage when I'm on the road, but I kind of want to start over when I'm done with the trip and have a fresh start, so I decided to give it all away. ... I don't need a lot of things to be happy.

"I thought that it'd be awesome to give it all away to people who really need it. Like what's the money to me? I [could] get stressed out trying to sell everything and make pennies on the dollar on everything, but I decided I was just gonna give it away."

He was inspired by a Netflix movie called "Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things." It's a far cry from what he saw in the NFL, where players often drove multiple cars and wore $500,000 Rolex watches.

"It's just about living with less material possessions," Hawley said. "I've always admired that, and I've always wanted to experience what it's like to not have a lot of stuff and kind of experience the moment, live in the moment, live in the world and not worrying about trying to accumulate more. The more stuff you have, the more s--- you've gotta worry about.

"Every time I've gotten rid of stuff over the last few weeks, I've literally felt a weight lifted off of my shoulders. It's kind of unraveling these chains that you have that lock you down in this place. I kind of want to feel that freedom of not having anything holding me back."

He also wants the freedom of not having a regimented routine. He wants the peace of waking up to birds chirping instead of an alarm clock. He wants to skateboard down to the beach and cook hamburgers on the grill, to sit in a local coffee shop talking to perfect strangers. He wants to hike and ride a bike through rugged terrain and fall asleep under a blanket of stars.

More than anything, he just wants to feel alive.

Now is the time

Hawley felt the end coming this past season. He went from a full-time starter in 2015 and 2016 to being active for just four games in 2017. He spent most of last season helping Ali Marpet make a transition from guard to center. When Marpet went to injured reserve, Hawley started the final two games of the season and felt the physical toll. He rolled his knee up twice and it still grinds and pops. When the Bucs declined his $2.5 million option in February, it helped make the decision easier.

"Most football players don't get a chance to leave on their own terms," Hawley said. "I'm so grateful for the ability to walk away when I want to. With a lot of people, they get cut or they don't make a team at the end of training camp or they don't get drafted or they're in high school and they don't make [it] to college. So most people always have that thought in the back of their head of, ‘What if I could have played or what if this didn't happen to me?' I got to end my career and gave it everything I had, and I have nothing left to give to the game of football. I'm very grateful for that because there's no regrets."

Trimming the excess has been about so much more than just getting rid of stuff for Hawley. It's about his health too. He has lost almost 50 pounds thanks to a ketogenic diet. It's helping his body recover from inflammation and stomach issues, including ulcers, from trying to maintain a playing weight of 300 pounds.

The majority of his calories now come from meat and fats found in whole eggs and avocados, instead of junk food and carbohydrates.

"I feel clearer. My appetite is gone. I have a lot more energy. There's not a lot of up-and-down swings. Like after you eat, you don't crash," said Hawley, who was listed at 6-foot-3 and 302 pounds last season. "One of my life goals is to try and have a six-pack, and I've never in my life had it. I've never been able to have one, so I'm kind of excited to try and do that."

Like so many NFL players retiring in their late 20s and early 30s, Hawley immediately began to worry about what was next. He had spent his whole life working toward accomplishing a lifelong dream of playing in the NFL, but in doing so, he neglected other passions he had growing up, such as art. He always wanted to try photography too.

He wondered whether he should start a business or travel. He also had just gotten out of a long-term relationship. And he doesn't have children or permanent roots.

"I started getting really stressed out about all these ideas I've had on what it is that I want to do, and my mind was racing," Hawley said. "I took a step back and was like, ‘Wait, hold on. I'm never gonna have this opportunity where I have this much time, free time to go do what I want and travel.' So I was like, ‘You know what? How about not stressing about what's next and taking a step back and go do what I've always wanted to do.'"

He purchased a 10-year-old Ford E-350 Cargo Van for $55,000. He spent an additional $20,000 converting it into a camper, which includes the ability to raise the ceiling and accommodate his height. There's a mini-kitchen inside with a small sink. An external shower connects to a 16-gallon freshwater tank, and it has a generator.

He'll take the portable grill that quarterback Jameis Winston gave him for Christmas and the YETI cooler Ryan Fitzpatrick gifted him with Fitzpatrick's face on it. He'll wash his clothes at laundromats or at friends' houses that he stops at along the way.

He still bears the scars of a life spent in the trenches, so the bed will take the most getting used to. He hasn't slept in it yet, but he is hoping that a foam mattress cover will help.

"I got an ACL, MCL reconstruction in my right knee," Hawley said. "I dislocated my kneecap twice -- that was when I got rolled up two years ago. I played through that, but it's still bothering me. It still grinds. I basically have no cartilage left in both my knees. I have bone spurs in both my ankles. I've torn labrums in both my shoulders -- never had them fixed. The right one's been torn for four years.

"I've got bulging discs in my neck -- that one almost ended my career a couple years ago. It was really scary. I had a stiff neck for like three weeks. I couldn't move and it wasn't getting better. I was like, ‘Oh crap, this is serious.' But those are the major ones. Obviously a lot of fingers, hands, wrists, elbows. The head is a whole different thing -- that's really scary to think about."

He had one diagnosed concussion when playing at UNLV. He has taken hits to the head that have caused headaches, but no blackouts.

"That's another reason I've changed my diet and my lifestyle and why I meditate," said Hawley, who also gets chiropractic adjustments and massages once a week. "I want to try and grow my brain and protect it in any way I can, because I know that's a serious issue that I'm going to have to deal with later on in life."

He doesn't plan to watch any football on his trip. He won't even have a television. He'll keep up with his fantasy baseball team on his iPad, and he plans to check out some major league ballparks, but that's about it. It's not that he doesn't like football. It just became very monotonous for him.

"I'm done with that fight," Hawley said." I'm ready for the next dream."

Adding a co-pilot

Hawley didn't know where exactly he'd be going, but he knew he didn't want to make the journey alone. He also wanted some companionship during this uncertain time in his life.

He took three trips to the Pet Resource Center in Tampa, but puppies came and went quickly. He had meetings with a few dogs but didn't feel a connection.

Then he saw a brown boxer mix, about a year old, with white markings on her face and paws. It was around noon and Hawley had learned that she had been returned to the shelter around 10 a.m., after less than 24 hours with her adopted family. They said she had too much energy.

"She was like shaking in her cage," Hawley said. "She was so scared and nervous. So I knew she'd be grateful. ... I knew, 'This is the one.'"

He called his sister, Ashleigh Stone, on the way home to tell her the good news. The two are very close.

"I started singing George Michael's 'Freedom,'" Hawley said. "And she was like, 'That's what you should name her.'"

It stuck.

She also urged him to document his experiences on the road in a blog and on social media. She thought it might be able to help others.

"I want to share it, and hopefully I inspire people to realize that it's not all about [material possessions]," Hawley said. "Experiences are just as important."

He wants to help people who are at turning points in their lives or trying something new for the first time, even former players. A person's identity is often tied to a job like professional football and suddenly it's over -- and it can happen very unexpectedly.

"Transitions can be scary for a lot of people -- big transitions in life -- and that's what I'm going through,” Hawley said. “What I've found is that every time I've had a big transition in my life and going with the unknown is when I've felt most alive. I'm really excited about this opportunity I'm going to take to dive into the unknown.

“I have no idea what the road is going to have for me out there and what I'm going to learn, but I know it's going to change my life for the better. I know it's going to be a great experience for me, a learning experience. Hopefully I can share it and motivate people to not be scared of the unknown.”

He's bringing along a drone and a GoPro camera, and he has taught himself how to edit video. He had a logo designed and purchased a domain name for his website -- ManVanDogBlog.com. It's a few weeks away from going live, but he already has started posting videos on his Instagram account, on Facebook and on his YouTube channel.

"I don't know if I could do this without her," Hawley said of his new pup, who follows him around everywhere. "There would be a lot of lonely nights out there on the road without her."

A good start to the rest of his life

He'll start by driving along Florida's Gulf Coast, from Tampa to Pensacola, and then west to Texas. Then he wants to venture through the Midwest and make his way north.

"I don't want to plan too far ahead," Hawley said. "I'm trying to just wing it."

The Grand Canyon is on the list and so is Niagara Falls. The Bucs played in Phoenix the past two years and this past season in Buffalo, but there was no real time for sightseeing on those trips. He wants to check out Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, Glacier National Park in Montana and Zion Canyon in Utah. He wants to venture down California's Pacific Coast Highway, including a visit to Redwood National Park.

"One of my goals is to do a multinight hike, like a 200-mile hike and camp and hike and camp," said Hawley, who purchased a tent and a fishing pole. "If I find somewhere beautiful, I may just go take off.

"I might drive up to Alaska, because you can drive there. It's like over 1,000 miles through Canada to get there. I might as well. I've got nowhere else to be. [And] I love sunsets. Actually, one of the things I'm going to try to do is take a picture of every sunset that I see on the trip and make a collage at the end or a book of sunsets. Maybe like "Joe's Guide to the Perfect Sunset" or places around the country where the best sunsets are?"

"I've prepared for this. I've set aside a lot of money in the bank. I've worked so hard for this, so I feel like I deserve at least a year off to kind of go find myself out in the world, ya know?" Joe Hawley

He'll be doing more than just taking in beautiful scenery and sharing it with the world or showing people how he maintains his new fitness regimen on the road with TRX bands, power blocks and yoga mats.

"When I'm on the trip, I want to give back," Hawley said. "I want to visit children's hospitals and do some charity work, as well, in different cities as I'm going."

With estimated career earnings of around $12 million, he's in a good place financially to be able to give back, and he won't have to rely on a steady stream of income.

"I made good money the last couple years, and if you live below your means, which I always have, you can make that stretch out," said Hawley, who believes that the offseasons, when he wasn't receiving weekly game checks, helped prepare him for retirement. He also earns money renting out his home in Atlanta.

"I've prepared for this. I've set aside a lot of money in the bank," Hawley said. "I've worked so hard for this, so I feel like I deserve at least a year off to kind of go find myself out in the world, ya know?"

He is leaning toward starting a business geared to health and fitness when he returns.

"I just want to help people live a healthier lifestyle, and I think this is a good start to that, where I can share how I've kind of changed my life into how I want it to be and hopefully inspire people to work hard for what they want."

“You only live one life. It's too short to be doing something you're unhappy with,” Hawley said. “If you're thinking about taking a jump into the unknown, go ahead and do it, because that's where freedom lies."