Andre Tippett's Hall of Fame journey wound through Iowa

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Andre Tippett remembers the forlorn drive from the Des Moines airport to his new life at Ellsworth Community College.

The New Jersey native was picked up by the school’s defensive coordinator and taken on some back roads. The Ford Bronco’s headlights illuminated hundreds of moths flitting in and out of view. And nothing else.

“I just sat staring at the grill,” Tippett recalled. “I knew I was going to get homesick. It was a different community, a different society, nothing that I was prepared for.”

Iowa's Andre Tippett is pleased with the turnout at a pep rally at Citrus College for the 1982 Rose Bowl game.

Tippett has never made it back to Iowa Falls — “I wouldn’t even know how to get there,” he joked — but that year was transformative. He learned how to apply himself academically, started smoothing out what he called the “aggressiveness” in his personality, and carried those lessons with him to stardom at the University of Iowa and in the NFL.

Tippett’s on-field excellence earned him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And today it earns him a place in the Des Moines Sunday Register's Iowa Sports Hall of Fame as the 227th member.

Tippett, 57, was a three-sport standout — football, track and wrestling — at Barringer High School in Newark, New Jersey. He was so dominant as a standup defensive end in the school’s 4-4 scheme that the big schools came calling. But his poor grades sent most of them scampering away.

Except Iowa.

Then-Hawkeye assistant coach Bernie Wyatt, a New York native, knew the area well and was acquainted with Barringer coach Frank Verducci. Verducci raved about Tippett. Wyatt took a look. He sold Tippett on spending a year at remote Ellsworth and promised him a chance to play for the Hawkeyes if he got his schoolwork in order.

Wyatt told the Ellsworth coaches: “I’ll send you a heck of a player but I want you to get him out in a year.”

Tippett almost didn’t last a month.

Struggling to adjust to life in Iowa Falls, he called Verducci, hoping to land at a school closer to home.

“It’s not going to work,” Tippett told his former coach. “Can’t you get me to Rutgers?”

Verducci replied: “I’ve got friends in the sanitation department. I can get you a job.”

Tippett recognized he was down to one option.

“Tell Mrs. V that I said 'hello' and I’ll talk to you later,” he said, concluding the conversation and his thoughts of leaving Iowa.

Tippett came to appreciate Iowa Falls. He had some fellow football players to help him hit the books. He started venturing out of his shell.

“To have discipline, to have respect, to persevere. I learned all of that,” Tippett said. “You’ve got to believe everyone’s not out to hurt you. It isn’t the mean streets of New Jersey. You’re in the God-fearing Midwest and there’s nothing there but good folks, farmers, hard-working people. I really truly nailed it there.”

Tippett made it to Iowa City the following year, 1979, Hayden Fry’s first as Hawkeye coach. Wyatt was still on the staff to lend Tippett a reassuring smile every once in a while.

But Fry nearly made a huge mistake.

“My first year of training camp I had to report with the freshmen,” Tippett said. “I’m lapping these guys in warmups around the field. Fry said, ‘There goes my fullback right there.’”

Fry gave Tippett an offensive playbook. He made him sit in on a couple of meetings with the running back group. This was not well-received.

“Steam was coming out of my head,” Tippett said. “I tried to do everything I could to sabotage that idea. After they saw me pouting, they kicked me back on the defensive side.”

Tippett started for three years at defensive end. He was all-Big Ten Conference in two of them. In 1980, Tippett, at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, recorded 20 tackles for loss, a Hawkeye record. He captained a 1981 defense that yielded only 129 points en route to Fry’s first winning season and Iowa’s first Rose Bowl berth in 23 years. Tippett was named an all-American. Iowa football was back in the spotlight.

”You never want to boast,” Tippett said. “But that’s the one thing that I love talking about. I was part of building that program. I was in the middle of it and I had some great teammates, leaving everything we could possibly leave on that field to make that a better place.”

One teammate was Michael Hooks, who arrived a year after Tippett and played the same position.

Hooks was intimidated at first by Tippett, who sported a full beard in an era when that was not the norm for college athletes. It made him look older, tougher.

Compounding that, Tippett never smiled. Hooks had trouble understanding him when he spoke.

“When I first met him, he didn’t talk very clear at all,” Hooks said.

Hooks roomed with Tippett on road games for two years. Tippett would insist on keeping their hotel room completely dark, the heat turned all the way up. Hooks didn’t dare complain.

Instead, he gradually broke through Tippett’s brusque exterior. Hooks discovered that Tippett didn’t smile because he was self-conscious about a missing tooth. And he was much more verbose than he let on.

“He kind of came out of his shyness,” Hooks said. “He knew he was going to be in the spotlight no matter what. So he took speech classes. He was articulate. He just didn’t have a large vocabulary.”

Tippett was taken in the second round of the 1982 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots, who made him a linebacker and watched him rewrite all of their records. The team wasn’t always good, but Tippett made it to five consecutive Pro Bowls, piling up 100 sacks before retiring in 1993.

He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008. Several former Hawkeyes — Wyatt and Hooks among them — traveled to Canton, Ohio, to hear Tippets mention them by name in his speech, public oratory having become a natural act for Tippett after the time he spent practicing in Iowa City.

One secret to his football success, Tippett said, was forged years ago when he started taking karate lessons.

The oldest of six children, Tippett was primarily interested in self-defense when he began as a teenager. He used to get chased home from school by bullies who wanted to test themselves against the large kid. He got tired of changing the routes he would walk.

Karate continues to be his passion. Tippett has even traveled to Okinawa, Japan, to train with the masters. He plans to go back this spring to try for his seventh-degree black belt.

On the football field, karate gave Tippett the advantage over almost every would-be blocker. His hand-eye coordination was superb. Woe to the tight ends who thought they could hook Tippett on a running play to the sideline. They quickly discovered what leverage means.

“It is hand-to-hand combat,” Tippett said of karate, and football. “It is a fight that’s going on. And whoever’s the most aggressive, whoever has the quickest hands, will gain the advantage.”

Tippett has never left New England. He serves as the Patriots executive director of community affairs after spending years judging college talent in the scouting department. His new job is less stressful, Tippett said. He enjoys getting out and meeting fans. He has time to coach Pop Warner football.

Tippett and wife Rhonda have three daughters and a son.

Raised a Baptist, he converted to Judaism, his wife’s faith. Hooks was impressed with his friend’s dedication to learning about the religion.

Tippett was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2009. Hooks provided a letter of recommendation.

“Andre had reservations,” Hooks wrote. “However, after intense studying and learning all that he could, Andre was 100 percent committed to converting. … When Andre commits to something, he gives it his all.”

That’s been the pattern of Tippett’s life — from those first karate lessons, to working through his lonesomeness at Ellsworth, to helping propel Iowa to a surprise Rose Bowl berth. To the pinnacle of his sport.

“I love the Iowa program. I love the history behind the University of Iowa,” Tippett said. “I’m forever grateful for my time there.”