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Zero to Hero: The Extraordinary Life of Pro-Football’s Karate Master Andre Tippett

mentor motivation Jan 04, 2019

By Herb Borkland


Andre Tippett’s immaculate professional football career is the stuff of sports legends.

A former University of Iowa All-American and 2008 NFL Pro Football Hall-of-Famer, Tippett got drafted in 1982 and went on to play 11 sea-sons — his entire pro career — for the New England Patriots. He was paid more than $1 million a year to create havoc for quarterbacks.

The 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker appeared in five Pro Bowls (1984–88) and, from 1984–85, achieved 35 sacks, the highest two-season quarterback sack total by a linebacker in NFL history.

In 1984, he established a new team record for quarterback sacks with 18.5. In 1985, the Patriots, for the first time in the team’s history, advanced to the Super Bowl. Tippett’s outstanding defensive playing was a major contributing factor to the team’s success.

When Tippett retired after the 1993 season, his 100 career tackles, 18.5 sacks in a single season and 17 opponent’s fumble recoveries were team bests.


He is One of Us!

Despite all these accolades, what readers need to understand is that Andre Tippett, to this day, has always considered himself a martial artist first and foremost.

He first took up the martial arts in 1972, as a 12-year-old kid, long before he launched his celebrated football career. He’s owned and operated a karate school for decades, even during his football career.

And all of his black belt ranks were accomplished the “old-school” way — he genuinely earned them! No honorary ranks allowed here! In fact, over the years he’s trained in Okinawa with notable traditional karate masters.

The point is, Andre Tippett is one of us. A real-deal black belt who used his karate skills to elevate himself from zero to hero.


Hooked on Martial Arts at 12

At age 12, in his hometown of East Orange, New Jersey, Tippett first studied bando.

Today, Tippett recalls, “I was hooked [on martial arts] from the be-ginning. I’d seen Bruce Lee and [the Shaw Brothers’ 1973 classic] Five Fingers of Death. There was a karate school in the neighborhood and I always wanted to go, but mom couldn’t afford $25 a month.

“So, every month, I saved up my 50 cents for the new issue of Black Belt magazine. And starting at age 12, from 1970 to ’72, I studied bando at a local YMCA in East Orange, about 30 minutes from Newark. If the instructors hadn’t left the area, I would probably have stayed with bando.” 


Big Brother Role in A Family of Six

Tippett grew up in Jersey, where “fighting for survival” was not a turn of phrase. It was everyday life.

“We grew up poor,” Tippett states. “My mom raised six of us. I was the oldest, so I somewhat became the [family’s] protector. [My situa-tion was] no big brother to go to if a few guys jumped you. I was a big guy, too, so people tested me. You’re thrown into [fighting].”

“Many times, I had to fend off people,” Tippett says, “or take off running because I was outnumbered”

So, to start with, he didn’t train to fight but rather knew how best to train because he was already a fighter. Street attacks were simply a “real foundation for self-defense [training] and kumite,” Tippett explains. “People say, ‘If it doesn’t work in the dojo, it won’t work on the street.’ I felt the other way: If it doesn’t work on the Jersey streets, it ain’t going to work in the dojo.” 


When the Pupil is Ready, the Master Appears

After his bando instructors moved on, Tippett stayed behind. Father-less and hemmed in by violence, poverty and family responsibilities, he was too young to move forward fully as an adult. His core strength was a determination to get an education, but, even so, his sociological situation amounted to the same desperate grind which has destroyed the lives of countless young black males.

Without a father present in his life, Tippett had no supportive male role models. Once again, martial arts provided a way forward. In 1973, Tippett discovered his first important master.

Tippett recalls, “In the early sixties, a lot of eclectic stuff was going on, like the Black Panthers and Black Muslims. So, traditionally-trained martial arts people started putting together their own eclectic self-defense systems. So, from 1973 until 1978, when I graduated from high school, I trained in ‘Ninja Turtle’ karate.”

Say what?

In East Orange, New Jersey in the early 1970s, Sensei Edward W. Boze, Jr. (pronounced, “Bows”) and Sensei Fred Godfrey were actually teaching Ninja Turtle karate, a composite style using no katas. Boze had always called his own ju-jitsu-based art, “Turtle Tactics.” But then, in the late 1960s, he did a public demo with the well-respected local karate sensei, Godfrey.

“Godfrey wanted me involved with what he was doing,” Boze reflects today. “Newark children loved him and what he was doing. He never charged one penny [for lessons]. Out of respect for his Japanese karate, I changed Turtle Tactics to Ninja Turtle.”

Remembering their first meeting, Sensei Boze describes teenaged Andre as “a typical Newark young male. We tried to take individuals from off the street, to provide an alternative to the society they were part of.

“Andre was searching and wanted to learn. He often passed by the dojo, but was frightened by my teaching methods. Yet, he became a prototype. He wanted honesty, as do lots of students who didn’t have fathers. You pet animals but not people. I wanted students to handle themselves in such a way that a person would see a paradox: This man looks vulnerable, but I’m the one lying here on the ground bleeding.”

Tough, street-smart, neighborhood instructors determined to make a crucial difference in the lives of endangered young men model the “soulful” sense of community which characterized the 1960's at their very best. A strong, principled, slightly scary but deeply compassion-ate father-figure was exactly what Tippett needed at that moment in his life.

Boze was the real deal, and not by accident. Martial arts had saved his life, too. He was a childhood polio survivor who, paralyzed from the neck down, knew what it was like to sleep in an iron lung with just his head sticking out of a giant steel tank so he could breathe. But he also had a tough-minded father who had learned jiu-jitsu in the early 1900s from a laundromat owner.

“The laundromat owner taught dad, dad taught me fighting and how to center my mind. I wore Forest Gump leg braces. Starting in 1950, I trained seven years for my black belt test. The test lasted two days.”

“There is a need to get boys beyond just fighting,” Boze believes. “I wanted to extend to Andre the entire process of martial arts, which becomes spiritual. After go [5th] dan, become a master of. . .serving tea.” Sensei smiles. “In other words, intellect and spirituality are what makes you who you are, not your body.”

Of Tippett, Boze states, “I call him beni. In Hebrew, it means ‘my son.’ I am grateful to have been a vessel for him.”

These days, anyone in Andre Tippet’s company enjoys his honest warmth, intelligence and a matter-of-fact modesty, which is not always associated with pro sports heroes. But undoubtedly it began while becoming Edward Boze’s star student.

The “typical Newark young male” Boze saw walking into his 600-square-foot dojo looking for “honesty” came away, five years later, as the “prototype” of sensei’s “paradox.” Tippett now displayed a polite and soft-spoken gentleman’s seeming vulnerability. But, out on the football fields, it was always the other player lying there on the ground! 


Move To Traditional Karate

Starting as a 12-year-old in 1970, for the next eight years Andre Tippett competed in area tournaments on the New York and New Jersey open-karate circuit. Winning always mattered, but Tippett’s maturing grasp of martial arts no longer centered on simply surviving in the streets or out-pointing other black belts.

Polite questions asked by an inquisitive student about Tippett’s own style revealed to Andre his root art’s lack of the deep historical background traditional systems pride themselves on. So, the same student loaned Tippett a copy of the book, The Essence of Okinawan Karate-do by Shoshin Nagamine.

“I kept the book for a year. He pleaded for his book back.” Andre’s eyes twinkle. “I read it from cover to cover, and the information was unbelievable. Not taking anything away from my previous training, which gave me a lot, but hearing about lineage, history, kata, kumite and weapons opened my eyes to how much more there was out there.

“It was a wake-up call. There were so many other martial arts opportunities for me. Back in Jersey, you had to know how to defend yourself. I understood discipline and respect, but this was different. It’s etched in tradition, and it’s about being humble, no matter how many levels up in black belt rank you are.”

Tippett was already a physical marvel, at 5-foot-11 and over 200 pounds. One day, dressed only in his street clothes, Tippett took to the football field at Newark, New Jersey’s Barringer High School for try-outs.

“My buddies took me along for the football team try-out in my school clothes. I don’t know if I ripped my pants or messed up my shirt, but I had a lot of fun.”

Even so, at first things didn’t go well for him. He didn’t make the team that year! That’s right. The future NFL Hall of Famer flunked out at his first attempt to play foot-ball! That unexpected rejection made him more determined than ever and he did make the team the following year. 

As to the important question of the synergy between karate training and his championship football days of shatteringly quick play-action, Tippett explains, “Wrestling in high school, martial arts and football all worked together, especially for a defensive play-er like me. Football is hand-to-hand combat. They were trying to block me, so I was able to rely on [karate-inspired] hands and body moves and unexpected angles of attack.”

Tippett also points out that practicing martial arts helped his game because it taught him visualization through the practice of kata and bunkai (“applications”): “Visualizing before the game what I’d like to get done — and it works.

“That’s the difference between karate and football. Karate must show control and discipline. You can’t hurt people. Kumite is a game of fast tag. Football, on the other hand, is love of contact. That was part of my plan: to use my size and quickness getting off the line that fast. I was not there to hurt people, but the fact is football is a violent, vicious game.” 


Enter a Second Mentor

As Tippett’s appreciation for the depths and range of martial culture now became more sophisticated. It had begun with a raw enthusiasm for kumite. Now it evolved into a mature understanding of classic katas and traditional weapons as the direct expression of a style’s deepest spiritual roots. 

From 1986 until 2000, Tippett trained in Okinawa goju-ryu at world-class sensei Chuck Merriman’s Niantic, Connecticut, dojo.“

Sensei Chuck Merriman was my mentor,” Tippett says. “He opened my eyes. All I cared for was kumite, but he taught me to want to be well-rounded. He’d say, ‘Present yourself out there, but, if you want to compete, put yourself out there.’

Promotions came quickly to one of the hardest-working and most physically gifted athletes of his generation. On May 15, 1988, Andre Tippett was promoted to first-degree black belt, along with earning his shi-doin certificate (“apprentice instructor”). He achieved third-dan and jun-shihan certification of full instructor rank by 1991, and, in 2007, was fully credentialed as a 5th-dan and also received his shihan certification (“master instructor”). He continues to strive for perfection, and 2012 brought Master Tippett his 6th dan.

Simultaneously, after earning his 2nd dan in 1989, Tippett began his continuing lifelong education in kobudo, the weapon systems of “old martial way of Okinawa.” He specialized in yamanni-ryu (bo staff and secondary weapons) under Shihan Toshihiro Oshiro. In 2017 and 2018, the circle of learning completed, and Tippett earned kobudo instructor status from Shihan Kiyoshi Nishime.

“I’m not chasing rank,” Tippett explains. “I could join associations that would give me rank. But there are too many people I respect, I wouldn’t want to tarnish my reputation. I want to emulate Merriman, my Okinawan instructors, seniors in our system, the kobudo group. I want to maintain respectability, which means a lot.”

By the late 1980s, Andre was facing the fact that tournament competition may be glorious, but, at some point, you must step away. 

This coming retirement, rather than diminishing his involvement in karate, actually worked to further fulfill it.“I wanted to be a referee in the Amateur Athletic Union [AAU],” Tippett recalls, “and Chuck taught me the terminology, mannerisms, how to be a ref, judge and arbiter. He had so much experience! Be-cause of him, I became well-rounded. I was an AAU ref for ten years, because he knew how to get the best out of everyone. He was the Vince Lombardi of pro karate.”

Today, Tippett is a senior member of the dan testing board for Okikukai (Okinawa Karate-Do Kyokai) Northeast. In 1991, he tested candidates for under 3rd dan, and from 1994 until 2000, his authority rose to 4th dan. Tippett took a leave of absence from the board from 2001 to 2004 and, from 2007 until today, is present on test boards to grade all black belts under 6th dan.


A Dojo of His Own

Tippett’s last remaining hurdle before becoming a total classic martial artist was to open a school of his own. As usual, a great mentor and role model came forward to lead the way.

“My high school coach used to remind me to ‘give back when you can,’” Tippett recollects. “When I got drafted by the Pats, Steve Banchick, a friend who was a school teacher on top of being a karate instructor, invited me to come speak to his classes.”

It was almost like coming home to his own childhood.

“These were kids with discipline problems — no different from me growing up,” he admits. “If you don’t know their home life, you can’t judge them.“

Anyway, the kids got excited to see me. I found the value of making a difference in folks’ lives, and Steve was such a great teacher, I could watch and learn how to teach the right way. Awesome!

“I started as a white belt, made my way through, but, because of him, I wanted to open a school and take it to another level. We would train hard, be well-rounded — karate, kumite, kata — and senior students will go through a referee program.”

Located in Stoughton, Massachusetts, Tippett’s school was originally known as the Institute of Traditional Karate-Do, from 1990 to 2000. Then it went private and nonprofit under the name Tippett Karate and Kobudo Dojo. Today, 8th-dan Steve Banchick is its current instructor and still assists and trains at his own sensei’s dojo as well as privately at his own school.

The Tippett Dojo typically has about four assistants serving 75 students. You contact the school by email or a phone call; there is no front desk.

Tippett explains, “We keep it human contact all the time.”


The Heart of a Beginner

So, what has teaching in his own school taught him?

“A lot of kids and adults are afraid to work hard. Not crazy hard, but we have our routines. After a half-hour warm-up, every night is different from another. People come to watch class, and we’re doing the 30-minute warm-up, and they walk out in the middle. They don’t get it. Hard training is the best training.”

The obvious question: Do visitors come to watch karate or Tippett?

“’He’s teaching a class! He’s on the floor!’” Tippett replies with a grin. “It’s a selling point, but they don’t know if they can do the hard work. So, they become uninterested because karate is hard work and endless. Also, no participation trophies! There is a good reason they have first, second and third places. What good is it to look like you won when you didn’t?

“Martial arts training is humbling. We have the ability to do things differently from most people who don’t do what we do. It can be scary, because there’s a lot of responsibility [in being a martial artist]. Choose to go any way you want, but I follow other folks. The best way is to walk softly and carry a big stick and help people. And never stop trying to improve.”

What exactly are you still trying to improve?

“Everything!” Tippett laughs. “The word shoshin means ‘heart of a beginner’ or ‘a white-belt mentality.’ That’s been etched in me. I’m a 6th dan now, but I still have the heart of a beginner.

“We all train. We all are martial artists of whatever style. I think the bottom line is to continue to train hard on the floor, put in the work, and give back as much as you can for the folks who’ve given to you. 

We get caught up in putting a price to everything, but I say, at some point, give it away.”

Just like Sensei Boze did for him and all the young men from the old neighborhood!

“For me, to teach kobudo, I have to pay a yearly instructor’s fee to be part of it,” explains Tippett. “I could put that cost on the folks, say, charging $5 a class, but I’ve chosen not to. My instruction is some-thing I believe in. I teach as if the students were paying me a value, and I feel really good about it. These folks take the corrections I give them, and they value what they are learning.

In summary, Tippet exclaims “Life is good for me! I feel good about giving a piece of me away. Because, looking back, I’m just one of the humble folks who grew up in Newark, pulled ourselves up by our boot straps and did something with ourselves because of karate and sports.”

 Andre Tippett stops speaking and looks out the window, then turns back to say, with quiet finality, “Training folks never treated me like a sports celebrity. Karate means more to me than football. [The game] is a way of making a living and enjoying other things in life, but karate-do is my way of life.”

Just for a second, Andre Tippett’s genuine and soft-spoken humility almost fools you into thinking he is vulnerable! 


Herb Borkland of Front Royal, VA, is a veteran black belt who can be reached at [email protected].


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