It has been just one year since Joe Hawley retired from the NFL, and four years since he was let go from the Falcons after a new coaching staff descended upon Flowery Branch. A former fourth-round pick from UNLV, Hawley was one of Thomas Dimitroff’s few successful offensive line draft picks and was in even rarer company as a later-round selection who worked his way into the starting lineup.
Fans are nearly guaranteed to love a player that gets into fights, and Hawley’s aggressive play past the whistle earned him the nickname Joe Brawley. After multiple fights on 2014’s Hard Knocks Hawley’s propensity for brawls expanded among fans and even turned into a common joke among Falcons fans.
Hawley called it a career after a few mounting injuries and his release from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He raised some eyebrows when it was first reported he was giving away most of his possessions to live in a van. Over a year later his retirement is recorded on ManVanDogBlog, racking up a huge online following, including over 45,000 fans on Instagram and features on USAToday.
ManVanDogBlog has turned into a mix of a travel and motivation blog, starring Hawley, a converted van, and his rescue dog, Freedom.
It is a striking change from his pro football persona. How does he go from fighting undrafted rookie Jacques Smith to getting introspective, motivational, and peaceful? Luckily, Hawley was charitable enough to answer a few questions with The Falcoholic about the Falcons and his post-NFL journey.
You had an impressive career, highlighted by an epic beard and getting physical with other players, with both the Falcons the Buccaneers. The beard remains but now you travel the country in a custom van with a rescue dog. What drew you from the NFL to your post-career adventures and ManVanDogBlog?
I originally decided to walk away from the game because my body began to break down. I have multiple injuries including major knee surgery, a torn labrum in both my shoulders and a bulging disc in my neck, among others. I started to realize that my health was a priority. I was blessed with the opportunity to make some good money and I am very proud of the career I created for myself.
I began to realize that if I continued to play this sport that my quality of life would start to diminish pretty rapidly, especially in my later years. So I decided that it was time for a change, it was time for me to go experience life and find out who I was without the sport that I dedicated my entire life to, up to that point. What better way to experience this new found freedom than on an epic road trip across this amazing country.
You spent your career with Mike Smith and either Mike Mularkey or Dirk Koetter. Falcons fans still remember Smitty, and both Mike and Dirk have returned for their second stints with the Falcons. Any memories, good or bad, about any of the three coaches?
We had some good years when Smitty, Dirk and Mike were coaching for the falcons. I’m really excited for Dirk. He is one of my favorite coaches. When I was cut from the Falcons, and didn’t really have any other opportunities, he brought me into Tampa no questions asked and I ended up starting for the next 2 years. It’s hard to get a second chance in the NFL and Dirk believed in me. I know that he has a really good relationship with Matt Ryan and I guarantee that that’s a reunion Falcons fans should be excited about. I wouldn’t be surprised if Matt and that offense break some records this year with Dirk calling the plays.
What’s your favorite post-career adventure to date?
It’s hard to pick just one because every experience has been so special in its on way. What I will say is, the best part of this trip, by far, has been meeting all the cool, like-minded people all over the country. I’ve connected with so many cool people in the most random ways.
Experiencing the synchronicity of life is really something special. Also, it continues to blow my mind how incredibly beautiful and diverse our country is. We have one of the best national park systems in the world and I think people need to get out and see some of these amazing places for themselves.
Your recent posts have been more focused on the motivational and inspirational. Where do you hope the blog is heading?
Watching my community grow over the last year has been truly inspirational to me. I didn't really know what to expect when I first started sharing my journey. I was just letting people know where I was at and shared some of my thoughts. Then I started to get a lot of positive feedback from people telling me how I’ve inspired them to make some kind of change in their own life. Whether that had to do with their diet, their mindset or just overcoming a little fear that was holding them back, I started realizing that I had an opportunity to really help people just by sharing some of the things I was learning out on the road. After getting such positive feedback, I’ve become more motivated to grow my community and continue to share my journey and the things that I’ve been learning on the road. Where it’s headed exactly, Im not quite sure but thats okay, I’m just going to continue to learn and grow and hopefully continue to inspire others to do the same. What a time to be alive!!
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As many of you know, a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the #nflspeakersbureau at @uscedu school of journalism. Like most people, one of my biggest fears has always been speaking in front of people. I know its hard to believe but I have seriously come such a long way. I know that I have a great opportunity to have a positive impact on a lot of lives by sharing my story, so I am trying to conquer this fear and turn it into an asset. I learned a ton during this 3 day course and I’m excited to continue growing in this area. This is a little promotional video they made from my final speech. . . . “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” -Nelson Mandela
What’s kept you going on the nonstop trips across the continent?
There is just so much to see in this country. I’ve been traveling for over a year and still feel like I haven’t even gotten close to seeing all the amazing things this country has to offer. All the different cities, national parks, beaches, mountains, hikes, monuments, historical sites, and many others. And like I said before, meeting new people and experiencing the synchronicity of life is so special. I’m just going to continue until life points me in a different direction.
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“Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” -John Muir . . Nothing better than refreshing the soul in a beautiful place. Especially when you get to do it with your Freedom.
Do you have any top locations where you plan to head next?
I just got done in Chicago, which is an amazing city, and plan on heading out west next. I grew up on the west coast and I’m a big fan of the desert so I’m excited about exploring some more of southern Utah and the mountains of Colorado. The west coast is the best coast.
The Matt Ryan and Julio Jones connection is nearly iconic, certain to be one of the highlights of Atlanta Falcons history. You were there in the early years and saw the two develop into something special. When did you first realize the duo would be special?
Well, whenever you get one of the top receivers in the draft, it’s exciting. But when you see the way he comes in and how hard he works, you realize that this kid had the chance to be really special. Couple that with the competitiveness and work ethic of Matt and how well they worked together early on, you just knew that it was going to be a nightmare for opposing defenses. I know when I played for Tampa, the Matt-Julio connection was always something that was stressed. It has truly become one of the best duos in the entire NFL.
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What a week it was! France was an absolute blast. My buddy @gosdercherilus and I went to St Tropez for a few days and then over to Monaco for the F1 Grand Prix on Sunday. I ate way to much. Drank way to much. Stayed up way to late. And spent entirely to much money. But the food was amazing. The scenery was beautiful. And the women were absolutely stunning. I didn’t take a ton of pictures. Sometimes I like to put the phone down and just enjoy the moment. I still need some time to recover and recharge. I’m hitting one last Red Sox game tonight and then heading up to Maine for a week to get lost in the woods. I’ll keep y’all posted. And for those of you who were worried about Freedom, we had the most amazing snuggle session last night. Good to be back.
What did it feel like to finally be done with the NFL, and do you miss anything about your old career?
It was definitely a bittersweet feeling. Football is by far one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. The constant stress, physical beating and pressure to perform at the highest level took its toll over the years. That being said, I still felt this void when I was done. It was an actual physical feeling in the pit of my stomach, something I wasn’t really prepared for.
After playing football for 16 years, pretty much my entire adult life, I had to figure out who I was without it. Another reason I wanted to take this trip across the country. I’m still trying to figure it all out but aren’t we all. Life isn’t about staying the same, it’s about getting outside our comfort zones, about constantly learning and growing, and finding out what we are capable of. I promise, we are all capable of so much more than we think.
Who was your favorite Falcon to play with?
I have so much respect and love for Todd McClure. As a rookie, I came in and got the chance to learn and play behind Todd who was on his 11th year I believe. Having the ability to learn from such a true pro had a profound impact on my own career. The way he handled himself around the building, the way he prepared for games and even the little things he did on the field that weren’t coached. I learned a tremendous amount from his play on the field and the way he handled himself off of it.
He was just an overall good dude.
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“From time to time, we all must go into a landscape—be it inner or outer landscape—where there are no hiding places. Allowing the stark awe and silence to aid us in both communing and confronting the depth of ourselves. We fear emptiness because we know that within those places of nothingness we will come face-to-face with who we are and gaze into the internal mirror. But what is the alternative? Shall we go our entire life without hearing our own voice . . . without ever having met who we are when isolated from all?” -L.M. Browning, Seasons of Contemplation: A Book of Midnight Meditations
Hawley has been on an awesome journey the last year and looks unlikely to stop anytime soon. It is impressive to see a former NFL player taking fans along on their new life. It helps that Hawley’s destinations are pretty scenic.