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Saturday, Nov 17, 2018
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Bucs’ Joe Hawley eager to hit the road with a pooch named Freedom

TAMPA — In football, a center must be comfortable operating in close quarters, and to that extent, Joe Hawley's life hasn't changed at all.

Everything else is radically new and different.

After eight years in the NFL — the last three with the Bucs — the 29-year-old with the thick, brown beard retired this spring, and he's already dropped 50 pounds from his playing weight of 295.

He emptied the Hyde Park home he was renting, donating most of his belongings, and bought a customized van he plans to live out of as he drives all over the country.

And a month ago, perhaps most fittingly, he adopted a rescue dog from a kill shelter, a boxer mix named Freedom.

Put it all together and you have the Man Van Dog Blog, the write-each-page-as-you-go new chapter in his life as he puts the NFL in his rearview mirror.

"It was always an idea I had. I never really ran with it," Hawley said Wednesday, just hours before hitting the road. "When I decided I was done playing, I started getting stressed out about what I wanted to do. I took a step back: 'Dude, you've got money. You're single. You're 29. You don't have a job. Take advantage of the opportunity.' "

• • •

When Bucs coach Dirk Koetter needed a center in his first year in Tampa in 2015, he turned to Hawley, who had played for him in Atlanta with the Falcons. Hawley, coming off knee surgery, came in and started 29 games in the next two seasons.

He made $3 million in a backup role in 2017, and could have continued making good money as a reserve player. Long before the Bucs opted not to exercise his option for 2018 in February, he had decided he had played his last game, content with a career that includes 54 starts and more than $13 million in earnings.

"This year, man, my knees were killing me," said Hawley, who was inactive most of the season but started the Bucs' final two games. "I think I knew when I was sitting on the sidelines, and I didn't have that urge or fire to be out there. I was like 'Okay, it's time,' and it hurt to wake up every morning."

Hawley said he has no cartilage in his knees ("they grind and pop") but losing 50 pounds has already helped tremendously. He is on a ketogenic diet — low-carb, low-protein, high-fat — that he swears by.

Joe Hawley (68) is seen during training camp at One Buccaneer Place. (Times file)

"I haven't started buying new clothes yet because I don't know how much weight I'm going to lose," Hawley said.

His best friends in the locker room knew it was his last year, but he didn't tell the team, guarding against a last-minute change of mind that never came. When general manager Jason Licht and Koetter called to tell him his option wasn't being exercised, he thanked them but said he had already made his decision.

"Like 95 percent of football players, their career ends before they want it to," he said. "For me, I'm so grateful and blessed I was able to exhaust all the football I had. I'm very satisfied with my career. I gave it my all. I don't have any regrets. It was my time. It's pretty cool I'm able to move on from football without the 'what if.' "

Hawley said the physical demands of the sport were what he felt most, but he also was more aware of the mental stress that came with the job, pushing himself to the point of ulcers late in the season.

"Just the stress — I was waking up every day, unhappy, unsatisfied," he said. "The fun thing about football is playing the game, and I was doing all the hard work without that. … (The ulcers) were another turning point: I can't put my body through this. You have to enjoy your life, too. I don't want to be in a wheelchair."

• • •

Hawley's new home is a 2007 Ford E-350 diesel cargo van with a sports mobile conversion, painted in matte green and tricked out to near A-Team levels of rugged gadgetry. He spent $55,000 to get it, customized with a fold-out bed, solar cells on top, a freshwater tank, a mini-fridge and a roof that extends upward to allow him to stand up (at 6-foot-3) inside.

There's storage on top for clothing, and he'll have a trailer soon, but for now, everything — from golf clubs to skateboards to weights to the grill that quarterback Jameis Winston got each of his offensive linemen for Christmas — is all strapped to the back.

He has no specific itinerary — he'd like to drive through all 48 contiguous states, and has a few destinations in mind, like Niagara Falls, Mount Rushmore and Montana's Glacier National Park. A Cubs fan who grew up in California rooting for the Angels and now wears a Rays cap, he'll squeeze in some ballparks.

In eight years in the NFL, he has been all over the country without actually visiting much — players rarely see more than their hotel and the opposing stadium before they're back on a plane home. Now he can go at his own speed, stop where he wants, enjoying the open road with Freedom riding shotgun.

Bucs tight end Alan Cross, his teammate and friend, sat on Hawley's front porch Wednesday as he packed up the last of his belongings into the van, sad because Hawley was leaving but excited to see him follow through on a post-football dream.

"He's talked about it since midway through the season, so it's not a surprise," Cross said. "But I was watching him, thinking 'He's really going to do it. My buddy's gone.' It's what he wants to do … He was one guy who was going to finish every play, give it his all. He's put his body through hell and back like we all have, and kudos to him for being smart with his money and saving it."

Hawley is quickly getting the hang of the blog posts, from shooting to editing — he narrates an eclectic mix of cooking, workouts and plenty of cute dog footage.

In time, he'll add the bearded Man Van Dog Blog logo to the van's grill and on the sides, helping promote a new brand. That's also a change for him — offensive linemen aren't usually self-promoters, but quiet in the background. Now he has his own YouTube channel, and hopes his football fans can follow him on his journey, not knowing exactly where he's headed just yet.

"I've talked to a bunch of guys I've played with who have retired, and every single one says there comes a point where you have this real, emotional moment: I'm never going to play football again," he said. "I'm sure that moment's going to come. I'm going to miss it. But I'm trying to re-establish my identity as Joe Hawley, not a football player and I'm having a lot more fun with it, just being myself."

Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.

Follow Hawley's travels on Twitter and Instagram  and YouTube.

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