Sharing His Story

Feb. 9, 2009

Where have we heard this story before?

A young man gets cut by his high school coach because he is deemed not good enough and then comes back to not only become one of the top prep players in the state but eventually goes on the post hall of fame credentials in the professional ranks.

No, this isn’t another believe it or not reflection on Michael Jordan. His story would develop a few years later in Wilmington, N.C.

Although he had never played organized football in his life, Andre Tippett was encouraged by some of his friends to try out for the junior varsity football team when he entered his freshman year at Barringer High School in Newark, N.J.

“I was probably around 6-foot-2 and between 170-180 pounds at the time, I was always big for my age,’’ says Tippett, who just last summer was enshrined in the National Football League Hall of Fame following a brilliant 11-year career with the New England Patriots.

“I was very athletic but knew little about the game because I hadn’t played in any Pop Warner leagues. My buddies all made the team. I guess there just weren’t enough uniforms, so that guy became known as the coach who cut Andre Tippett.’’

That would be the last time Tippett would face rejection at Barringer, where he came back to become not only a standout on the football field but in wrestling and track as well.

“I was devastated, but I promised myself that would never happen again,’’ he says.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Tippett had moved to Newark at the age of 7. His mother, Frances Tippett, had moved to Newark a couple of years earlier, leaving Andre and his sister Yvette with their grandmother until she found a job and got settled in their new home. Two years later, although he did not witness anything firsthand, he still recalls the aftereffects of the racial riots in 1968.

“We had been visiting family in Detroit and managed to leave there before anything happened,’’ he says “but we arrived home right at the tail end of the riots in Newark. I still remember getting off that Greyhound bus and having to lug suitcases bigger than I was 10 blocks home because there was no public transportation due to the riots.

“As a young black man, this was an eye-opening experience. I couldn’t figure out then and still can’t figure it out to this day why people would want to destroy the community they live in. The cost of rebuilding Newark after those riots was so great that it took years to recover.

“There were still certain places you shouldn’t go or certain people you shouldn’t hang with. You always had to be responsible for your actions. It was very common to be stopped and searched.’’

To this day, even though he would eventually become a fifth degree black belt in the art of karate, Tippett still credits his mother as his guiding light. And he passes along some of those same words of advice to his own four children.

“My mother was a disciplinarian, she had to be both the mother and father to my sister and I,’’ he says. “She taught me to act the right way. She taught me to be accommodating and disciplined in everything I did.’’

As he continued to improve at Barringer, Tippett’s play drew notice from recruiters from Rutgers, Northeastern and Georgia Tech, but Bernie Wyatt, a recruiter for former University of Iowa coach Bob Cummings was in early and had made a big impression.

“A former teammate of mine at Barringer, Cedric Shaw, had gone to Iowa, and George Pearson and I felt a real connection with Bernie, so we both made our decisions early,’’ Tippett says. “Cedric was a couple of years older and he had been like a god. Not only was he a great football player, but he was very smart as well, so George and I figured if Iowa was good enough for Cedric, it was good enough for us.

“My friends and I really loved to watch Big Ten football. We would get together every Thanksgiving weekend to watch the Ohio State-Michigan game.’’
The only trouble was low grades meant Tippett would have to sit out his first season. He had two choices; sit out the season at Iowa or report to Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls to play his first year. Tippett chose the latter.

“Things started out kind of rough for me at Ellsworth,’’ Tippett recalls of his adjustment to the Midwest. “I had built this shell around myself and was afraid to trust anyone, no matter how nice they seemed to be. I was coming from an urban environment, where I refused to believe what people were telling me. It took me that full year to finally let my guard down and realize that these were great people.’’

While Tippett was at Ellsworth, Cummings was under fire at Iowa. By the end of the 1978 season, Cummings was gone and Hayden Fry was in Iowa City.

“I wasn’t sure what my future held for me,’’ Tippett says. “Fortunately, Bernie Wyatt became part of Hayden’s staff and he told him about this recruit they had down at Ellsworth. The next thing I knew I was part of Hayden Fry’s first recruiting class.’’

Fry came to Iowa promising a lot of changes. Tippett soon found out his new coach was a man of his word.

“Hayden was a very convincing person,’’ he says. “Everything he told us turned out to be the truth. He told us he had the remedy to fix all the problems at Iowa. He would fix the facilities, change the uniforms, change the entire landscape and we would be competitive again. He said we were going to take on Oklahoma, Nebraska and UCLA and be competitive with them.

“Those first couple of years going up against Nebraska, it was really tough holding off those guys. But in my senior year, we beat Nebraska (10-7), beat UCLA (20-7), got a share of the Big Ten championship (the Hawkeyes’ first in 19 years) and went to the Rose Bowl. I thought the world of Hayden Fry, it was a fun time to be at Iowa.’’

And Tippett wasted little time making a huge impression in the Big Ten. The standup defensive end/outside linebacker was a first team All-Big Ten selection in both 1980 and ’81, when he was also a consensus All-American. As a junior, his 20 tackles for a loss was tops in the Big Ten. He would later be inducted into the Varsity Club Hall of Fame and was named one of the defensive ends on Iowa’s all-time team. The highlight for Tippett was playing in the 1982 Rose Bowl, even though the Hawkeyes bowed 28-0 to Washington.

“They had this guy Jacque Robinson who rushed for over 200 yards (actually 142 and two touchdowns),’’ Tippett says. “We hadn’t heard of him and never heard a thing from him since, but I’m still looking for him because I feel like I owe him a hit.

“But the Rose Bowl experience was amazing. Growing up, all you see is UCLA, USC, Michigan and Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and here we were in front of 109,000 people. There must have been something like 30,000 or 40,000 people from Iowa in for the game. I still remember reading a line in the paper the next day saying, ‘Will the last person from Iowa to leave the state please turn out the lights?’

“Iowa was just a great situation for me at that time in my life. Hayden put it all together in three years and I was part of that legacy. I made a lot of friends who I remain in contact with today.’’

The New England Patriots would call Tippett’s name in the second round of the 1982 NFL draft. Little did he know then that would be the start of what has now become a 27-year relationship.

“I lot of people were telling me I would be going in the first round and I got my hopes up,’’ he says. “Although it was the second round, I didn’t stop realizing my dream. I was getting an opportunity to play in the NFL and that was all I asked.
“I was joining a team that had been going through a lot of ups and downs, but in 1985 we put it all together and beat the (Miami) Dolphins in the AFC Championship. Then we ran into Chicago in the Super Bowl. That was one of the greatest teams I had ever seen. If we had put an all-star team on the field at that time, I don’t think we could have beat those guys.’’

That would be Tippett’s lone Super Bowl in his career, but he wound up being named to five straight Pro Bowls during his 11-year tenure with the Patriots. He wound up playing in 151 games, making 139 starts, and still holds the franchise record with 100 career sacks. During the 1984-85 seasons, he posted 35 sacks, which still stands tops as a two-year total in NFL history.

Injuries started taking their toll in 1986, when a knee injury forced him out of five games. He missed another four games in 1988 but was still named to the Pro Bowl for the fifth straight year. Then he missed the entire 1989 season after suffering a shoulder injury in the final exhibition game, when most teams usually rest their starters.

“We were trying to turn things around again and get back to greatness, so I think that’s why a lot of the veterans were playing,’’ says Tippett, who wound up playing four more years before retiring at the end of the 1993 season.
Tippett was named to the NFL’s 1980s All-Decade Team and selected as the NFL’s linebacker of the year for three straight seasons, 1985-87. He was inducted in the Patriots’ Hall of Fame in 1999 before getting the call to Canton, Ohio last summer.

“You never say you expect to be part of that group,’’ Tippett says of his NFL induction. “All you can do is play hard and let your record speak for itself. I was just happy to be considered to be part of that group.

“It was an overwhelming experience for me and my family to be in Canton. There must have been 300-400 people who made the trip for me. I had teammates from high school, college and pros plus so many friends all in attendance. I think it was a really special for my mother because she knew all her girlfriends would see her on TV.’’

At the age of 49, Tippett continues his close association with the Patriots, serving as the club’s executive director of community affairs. He directs the team’s outreach program and foundation by involving the players and organization in youth fitness groups and even non-sports related activities throughout the New England area.

“Anything we can do to change people’s lives,’’ he says. “I’ll be here as long as (team owner) Robert Kraft wants me. He signs the paychecks and owns the keys to the building.’’