The Friday Interview: From Canton to Jerusalem with the converted linebacker

Hall of Famer and former Patriot Andre Tippett talks pigskin with 'Post.'

tippett 66 (photo credit: )
tippett 66
(photo credit: )
Andre Tippett knows he hasn't exactly had what one would call a 'typical' life. "As if," laughs one of the few Jewish members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, "there is such a thing." A former outside linebacker for the New England Patriots of the NFL, Tippett was one of the premier pass-rushing linebackers in league history before hanging up his cleats in 1993. After leading the University of Iowa to an NCAA National Championship with a Rose Bowl victory in 1981, he was drafted by the Patriots before the 1983 season. He went on to make his football mark in New England, earning trips to the Pro Bowl in five consecutive seasons from 1984-88 and being named as a member of the NFL's 1980s all-decade team. In 1984-85, he recorded the highest two-season sack total by a linebacker in league history, totaling 35.0 sacks over the two-year period. With a career total of 100, Tippett still holds the Patriots' franchise record in sacks, ranking seventh on the all-time list. Tippett was named the AFC's Linebacker of the Year by the NFL Players Association for three straight seasons from 1985-87. He was voted to the Associated Press All-NFL First-team on two occasions (1985 and 1987) and Second-team on two other occasions (1986 and 1988). The mild-mannered linebacker (an oxymoron of sorts), who doesn't seek personal glory or attention, was inducted into the New England Patriots Hall of Fame in 1999 and the University of Iowa Hall of Fame in 2007. As an ultimate tribute to his unbelievable football career, Tippett was selected by to the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the class of 2008. Suffice it to say that Andre Tippett has accomplished quite a bit as a football player. The one honor, however, that he considers the most surprising, in the grand scheme of things is his anticipated induction into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in April. You see, having been born into a Baptist family and being raised within a strict religious framework, Andre Tippett converted to Judaism in 1997 at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, Massachusetts, under the auspices of Rabbi Rafi Sonsino. To this day, Tippett lives what he calls a "flourishing and fulfilling, moderately-observant Jewish lifestyle." Tippett was in Israel this past week to celebrate the bat mitzvah of his daughter, Madison, and found time to sit down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss Judaism, football and many things in between. "Being in Israel for my first time has been everything I could have dreamed of," he gushed. "After studying Judaism and raising a Jewish family, to be in Jerusalem - at the center of it all - is a very special, uplifting feeling. "We've given our kids the opportunity to have a good life, almost too good, and it's hard to balance that out with trying to teach them that not everyone has it so easy and that you need to have meaning and discipline to build success in life. "The dedication to something that is so truthful is very powerful, and that is the main aspect of the Jewish religion that attracted me to it and keeps me motivated to grow as a Jew constantly." Asked about how the concepts of devotion and commitment are similar in both religious practice and the sport of football, Tippett reflects, "football takes a different attitude, and mentality. I was lucky enough, with the help of God, to avoid injury and have a prolonged career. "The words that come to mind are worth ethic, perseverance and dedication. You have to challenge yourself every day, be it a practice, watching film, or anything you do in your personal life. Everything that I have achieved in life is the result of challenging myself, of daring to be good." Beyond a tremendous inner-strength and sense of purpose which is evident to anyone who meets him, Tippett credits his attention to detail in practice and in film study for his sustained success on the football field. "Film has really changed the game. I used to study other player who were great, and try to emulate what they did well and incorporate it into my game. LT [Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants], Rick Jackson, Chip Banks, Mike Merriweather, are a few that come to mind. I looked at them closing in on the quarterback and then was able to say 'oh, now I see what I got to do.' "I was lucky to have a chance to do what I was good at, playing outside linebacker and rushing the quarterback," Tippett tells the Post, "but it takes hours of honing the skill through tape and going the extra mile in practice and spending the 15 minutes with the linemen units and then chugging back up to my own unit to practice, it was hard work but it paid off. "I used to visualize my technique after watching film and knew how to get off the ball quicker to get to the QB that extra second earlier. I used to study the offensive tackle, how he got off the ball. Was he an athlete? Did he have good footwork? Good hand work? How would I fake him under and get physical with him... "Film and practice were the biggest difference on how much wiser you entered into a game with. You'd be surprised how much you can see when you watch a player over and over again and how they react on given plays or sets." Unfortunately no conversation with a professional athlete these days can escape some mention of the steroid problem that has surfaced in the past decade or so in most of the major sports in North America and globally. Football and baseball, as well as track and field and cycling, have been the hot-button sports that have garnered the most attention. Tippett did not shy away from the topic. "Mostly with offensive and defensive linemen, there were whispers. Every four five years there was a surge of getting bigger and there was a lot of pressure. I remember when tight ends were 225-20 and offensive tackles were 6"3 and 280 pounds. Now, tight ends are 270 and lineman are almost 400. "When I played, it was against the culture. Some players we would know, but it wasn't ever in the locker room back then. It was always more of thinking out loud and wondering, but not much real knowledge or really exposure to it. "There was always pressure to bulk up," Tippett unabashedly states. "Everyone is looking for an edge or an advantage and everyone wants to play pro sports and is willing to do whatever it takes to get them there. "One thing you figure out in life is that when it comes to money, people are willing to sell their souls." Discussing his favorite players to play against takes Tippett on a joyful ride down memory lane. "I loved playing against Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Eric Dickerson, all great, fierce competitors. "The thing about someone like Marino was that we defenders tried to convince ourselves that we were putting fear into him, really he was putting the fear into us with his ability to bomb the ball down the field 80 yards on any given play. "On the field, we hated each other, but when I see any of them today, we give each other a huge hug. As modern-day gladiators, we all share a common bond, realizing what we gave of ourselves to play football at the highest level. "Every single day, my knees still hurt and I get neck pains in rainy weather, but asked to do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing." Tippett is still heavily involved in the sport he loves, functioning as the Assistant Director of Professional Personnel for the Patriots. He loves working with youth football programs and set aside time in his first trip to Israel to take in games of the local football leagues in Jerusalem, sponsored by Patriots' owner Robert Kraft. He was quite impressed with what he observed. "They had the passion, competitiveness, the things I know all about. I saw real football players here. Quarterbacks and receiver making plays, defenders breaking on the ball, chest bumping and smack-talk. "Israelis really understand American football and look forward to the opportunity to do anything I can to help the sport grow here." At the end of a half-hour discussion, Tippett looks out the window and wistfully remarks. "From a poor kid growing up in Birmingham, Alabama to Newark, New Jersey, these eyes have certainly seen and experienced a lot. "Never in a million years did I dream of being in Jerusalem celebrating my daughter's bat mitzvah. It is really humbling seeing the different directions that life can take you in." Coming from Pro Football Hall of Famer and converted Jew Andre Tippet, the point most definitely rings true.