WE WERE 24 HOURS INTO OUR FOUR-DAY RIVERING TRIP PUSHING THOUSANDS OF COLORADO’S CHAINS. Our wild-eyed leader Joe Hawley, best known for his impressively-bearded past center of the Atlanta Falcons & Tampa Bay Buccaneers, told us to park our boats, make camp and get ready to head into Colorado’s mountains.
Hawley, 33 years old, wore a jade pendant necklace to complement his turquoise camping gear. He shared vague spiritual maxims throughout the day like “What I have found is that everything comes back to being present.” He said, “The key is to be present with all that comes up.”
Five strangers, all ex-NFL linemen, and I were climbing rocky terrain two hours later. We reached a ledge 500 feet above the river. Below, it glowed like tempered glass. Although we were tired and sweaty, Hawley, 60 pounds lighter than he was in his playing days, seemed more energetic. He removed his boots and stood barefoot in order to introduce Ben Harris (a podcaster and fear alchemist) who was blond and deeply tanned and had come along to facilitate this workshop.
Harris provided a prompt for us to write: If fear did not exist, what would we do?
Hawley appeared to already be living his answer. He’d previously told us that he had the insight to create a community for ex-athletes. “I have always been a little guy as a leader. I was afraid of being noticed and having the spotlight on me.
At the age of 29, Hawley left the NFL after he had earned $13 million in eight long seasons. It cost him nothing other than his body (a reconstructed leg, torn shoulder cartilage, and bone spurs) and any identity outside of the game. He set out to discover himself and traveled across the country with his dog in a van. He describes this two-year journey as his “healing pathway” and he founded the Hart Collective in 2020. It is an exclusive men’s group that helps former professional athletes to become more emotionally intelligent [and] self-aware through heart-centered work.
As an Olympic fencer, my story was very similar to his. After I won a silver medal in Beijing in 2008, my anxiety levels were at an all-time high. I had been hiding my problems and hoping to make up for them by succeeding. Even after intensive therapy, I still struggle with anxiety. My perfectionist tendencies often lead to emotional withdrawal. When I learned about the Collective’s focus on rehabilitation of hypermasculine, win at all costs mentality, I wanted to join one.
A total of ten members, all ex-NFLers plus one ex-NHL player, pay $99 per month for weekly check-in calls with Hawley, as well as exclusive dispatches and messages from a rotating group of spirituality influencers and ex-athletes. Access to discounted retreats such as this one is also available. It was described as an off-grid self-help gauntlet and cost $2,200. It would take you through northwest Colorado and Utah along the Green River. This 44-mile stretch of water has about half a dozen class III and IV rapids.
Hawley explained to me that if you say vulnerability, walls will automatically rise. “The Trojan-horse idea was to create retreats around experiences such as whitewater rafting,” Hawley explained. We would then participate in workshops that focused on four emotions of the male psyche: brotherhood fear, anger, and shame.