Footballer-turned-entrepreneur Dean Howell talks about veganism in sport, his businesses, and how he won’t let anything bring him down.
The loss of his grandmother took Dean Howell on a path of nutrition, lifestyle and environmental stresses. And that path led him to go plant-based.
When he first cut out dairy, Howell felt a dramatic change. He then decided to go further and cut out meat and then fish. And now, he hasn’t looked back. Going plant-based resonated with him “spiritually, physically, mentally”, he tells me.
A former athlete, Howell noticed his football started to improve as he got older. He was able to recover quicker, and his stamina was incredible, something that typically declines with age. “I ended up having my best years in football once I went plant-based,” he says.
Howell ended up playing the FA Cup fifth round, but he credits his lifestyle decisions as much as his diet change for his success. He says he became more conscious about everything. “I stopped drinking alcohol. My lifestyle changed, so that collectively would have made a bigger impact. I consume food for fuel, I’ve lost that emotional thing to it [meat]. I don’t need to think or smell a burger and stuff like that to make me want to eat it. I just don’t eat it, period.”
Howell was a midfielder and defender. After a successful season playing for Crawley Town, he decided to set up a business.
When he began incorporating superfoods and medicinal herbs into his diet, Howell says he felt “really good” from doing so. And it was because of these benefits, that in 2011, he decided to set up Revolution Foods, a place to find everyday vegan nutrition.
And with that in mind, Howell called the first two people he could think of: his best friends, Gareth Langford and Ryan Brown. They set up shop in Langford’s garage with a stock of a few herbs. “The business has been growing, I’ve got a great team around me,” he says. “Without my team, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I do.”
At the same time, Raw Sport, a sister company to Revolution Foods with a focus on sports and performance, was also launched.
While his company was set in stone, Howell began reflecting on his career. The founder was part of back-to-back promotions in the English football divisions, and he also played at Old Trafford. It was because of this that Howell felt assured that he can permanently leave his gear behind and walk away from football. And at the age of 33, he retired.
“I was just like: ‘If I stay in football another year or another two years, I’m just staying in it purely for the wage,’” he says. Howell had suffered a double hernia when he was younger, and when he was able to achieve his goals in spite of his injury, he felt fulfilled. ”I just felt that sense of accomplishment that I could just walk away at 33. Like literally, just walked away from it.”
The ex-athlete was also offered another deal, but was not afraid to turn it down because of that sense of accomplishment. And although many thought Howell was “crazy” for making such a drastic choice, Howell knew then and knows now that “it was 100% the right decision”.
“There’s not one day that I’ve woke up and thought: ‘I wish I had stayed in football,’” he says. “I think I put a lot of pressure on myself to accomplish what I did in the end, and it was just nice to kick back and just soak it all in.”
Today, Revolution Foods has expanded its range to products from protein powders to capsules, selling in up to sixty countries and has seen a massive increase during the current pandemic.
“Not only do we do sports and nutrition recovery proteins, but we also do a lot of immune-boosting products as well,” says Howell. “So, with this virus and people wanting to take more care of the immune system, we’ve had a massive uptake in that as well.”
Revolution Foods has also received attention from the likes of Sky Sports and caught the eye of many sports figures like Anthony Joshua, Manchester City players and Great Britain athletes. And although the brand did not have the finances for marketing, Howell was able to use what was, at the time, a fairly new platform, Twitter, to promote his brand, which gave the ex-athlete a large following.
During his time on the field, Howell says he had received racial abuse from bystanders in the stalls, and there were “two or three incidents” like that. But he refuses to fall victim to that.
“Life is all about perspective. You can think and feel what you do, [but] everyone’s got different journeys,” he says. “It’s all about staying in control of everything, good or bad. It ain’t going to make or break us.”
He also had this mentality when he first turned vegan as a young footballer. Being in a stereotypically masculine environment, there were times when he felt secluded and isolated. “It was pretty lonely on the coach,” he recalls. “I used to have to make my own food and take it on the coach. All the lads were having Domino’s pizzas, and I’d have my quinoa and rice.”
Howell also reveals he was laughed upon by his fellow teammates, but adds that it was just friendly banter and they had always respected him regardless. “It’s funny because the lads that mocked me are the same lads that are buying the products, and now a lot of them have actually turned plant-based,” says Howell. “I mean, I did have one coach say to me: ‘Dean just get a steak and a beer in you.’”
But he describes it as “old-school mentality”, and if you are doing something that strays away from the norm, it is frowned upon. “It took for veganism to go mainstream for people to adopt it,” he says.
Howell has been fortunate not to have received any anti-vegan comments online before or after devoting his time to Revolution Foods and Raw Sport. And Howell might have a reason as to why that is: “I think because of how I look, and because of my athletic ability, I think it’s hard for people to judge me in the negative,” he says.
The former-pro athlete believes that, because he stays in shape and has maintained his physique and health overall, it is harder for trolls or individuals to say anything negative. “I think I’m a good ambassador in the sense of the way how I live and if anything, a lot of people don’t believe that I am vegan or have been vegan for so long because of how I look.”
It was difficult even for his ex-teammates to “really” poke fun at him as he was proving through his performance and recovery that veganism was benefiting him.
And it is through these benefits that Howell has high hopes for his brand. He reveals how he envisions Revolution Foods and Raw Sport will look in the future: “My mission is: I would love to create like the Nike or Adidas of plant-based sport and nutrition, where it is the go-to.”
The businessman refuses to compromise on his ethics and “sell out” by using the wrong ingredients just to generate bigger profits. “Can I make it, smash it and crush it by doing it 100% genuine and authentic? Can it be done? Who knows? We’ll see.”