By: Rebecca Saltman Issue: Sports Section: Collaborator Profile
A Truly Collaborative Patriot
It may be sacrilegious growing up in Boston, being raised as a Patriots fan, then trying to be a sports “agnostic” here in Colorado - home to Bronco Nation. There is something wrong here. I walk a fine line every September, ensuring that at social gatherings I don’t step on any toes. Of course, in the realm of sports rivalries I have it fairly easy in this regard (we’re all in the AFC, can’t we just get along?!), and can point to any number of local college competitions that spark greater rancor. But surely being Andre Tippett’s cousin doesn’t win me any favors in polite pre- or post-season Broncos conversation!
Leaders who succeed in a team sport are not necessarily those who have the greatest resources at their disposal. Instead, they must have the clearest vision of who they are, what they stand for, where they are going, and how they are going to get there.
Professional athletes in a leadership role must have the well-honed ability to capitalize on their personal strengths. They also must have the ability to bring the finest talents of their team to focus on the greatest opportunities presented to them, often moment-to-moment. They are able to think strategy, plan strategy, and live strategy in every area of their game. Tippet’s recent induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008 serves to highlight this point.
When I was asked to profile professional athletes who demonstrate this strategic teamwork, living their mission while catalyzing collaboration within their communities through sport, I didn’t have to look beyond my outstanding cousin, Hall of Fame linebacker, Andre Tippett.
He represents the iconic stature one achieves when learning and living the balance between personal goals and collaborative work. Tippett’s early dedication to the mental and physical challenges of karate laid the groundwork for his extraordinary team-building skills. His adoption of the solitary mental gymnastics entailed in martial arts actually prepared him for success in a group setting. He learned the concept of “shoshin”, referring to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject.
“In the NFL, I assumed every year that every linebacker the Patriots drafted could take my job,” he freely admits. “So I adopted the white-belt mentality—shoshin—heart of a beginner. At each training camp, I went at it as hard as I could. Once the season began, I went hard in games, and I went hard in practice. There were times in practices when guys would look at me as if to say, why are you going so hard? Well, I was practicing the way I planned to play on Sunday. That concept—beginner's mind—followed me through my twelve-year career.”
On the other side of that coin, collaboration is a process where leaders use “strategy” to achieve systemic outcomes. It is clear that Tippett has been so successful on the field, in karate, in business, in community and with family because he embodies both the skills of a career football player and the strategic acumen of a veteran collaborator. “I have a 13-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son who are still in the house,” he explains. “I am constantly reminding myself that I ask those guys to ‘do the right thing’ with their friends… I have to remember…although I’m retired, I’m still involved heavily in the organization, involved in outreach – if I’m talking the talk but not walking the walk, my story doesn’t really mean anything.”
JUST THE STATS
Tippett was drafted by the New England Patriots in the second round of the 1982 NFL Draft. He is a member of the NFL’s 1980s all-decade team and was selected to five Pro Bowls from 1984–88. From 1984–85, Tippett recorded the highest two-season sack total by a linebacker in NFL history, totaling 35 sacks during the two seasons. His 18.5 sacks in 1984 are the third most by any linebacker in a single season, while his 16.5 sacks in 1985 are tied for the sixth most by any linebacker in NFL history.
Tippett holds the Patriots’ franchise record with 100 career sacks. He also owns the top three single-season sack performances in Patriots history. He ranked seventh on the all-time sacks list, and third among all linebackers at the time of his retirement following the 1993 season. Over the course of his career, he forced 17 fumbles, recovered 18 opponents’ fumbles, recorded 30 multiple-sack games, and sacked a total of 41 different quarterbacks over the course of his career.
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 AP’s All-NFL First-team on two occasions (1985 and 1987) and Second-team on two other occasions (1986 and 1988). He was also named to the NFL Films All-Pro team in 1984. He was voted the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) co-Defensive Player of the Year, along with the Oakland Raider’s Howie Long, in 1985. Additionally, he was voted the 1985 UPI AFL-AFC Defensive Player of the Year.
WHAT MAKES TIPPETT TICK?
There is a drive in every professional athlete that often defies common explanation. In the case of Andre Tippett, it would seem “focus” is the well-spring of his career - and the source of his focus has always been karate.
There was a karate school in my neighborhood and I always wanted to go in but mom would never give me the money,” he said. “I didn’t realize she couldn’t afford the $25 a month it cost for lessons – not if she wanted to feed us or put clothes on our backs. Finally when I was eleven, I learned that the Boys & Girls Club were holding karate classes, and that’s where it all started for me. I’ve learned a lot about self-defense. Mom gave me discipline, but karate gave me structure… it gave me something I could look forward to, something I could call my own.”
Tippett has been studying martial arts for 35 years and holds a fifth-degree black belt in Uechi-ryu, having earned the title of Shihan (Master Instructor). His chosen discipline is a line of karate called Shohei-ryu - a system evolved from the more familiar Uechi-ryu system, brought to Okinawa, Japan from China by Kanbun Uechi at the turn of the last century. Tippett is certified through the Okinawa Karate-Do Association in Okinawa, Japan. He’s also earned black belt rank in two other disciplines, and holds a certified referee “A” rating in the Amateur Athletic Union.
IN THE COMMUNITY
In his work as the New England Patriots Football Development and Promotions Director, Tippett coordinates initiatives for the team to engage in community affairs projects, business development initiatives, player development, and alumni programs. He is an advisor and spokesperson for youth football programs, working with past and present players in the community. Tippett plays a significant role during rookie orientation, helping first year players make the off-field transition from college to professional football. He also works with veterans who seek assistance for their post-football careers.
Over the years, Tippett has participated on the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation, Friends Way, a non-profit organization that provides free grief support to children, teens and adults coping with the death of a loved one; the Diabetes Foundation of Rhode Island; and has served as the spokesperson for The Price Center. Outside of his community service, Tippett has been recognized with numerous community service and fitness awards.
During his Hall of Fame speech, Tippett credited his success to, “all the people growing up in Iowa and in New England. Without you, I never would have been able to accomplish anything.” He went on, “I made my name, and who I am, as a ballplayer. Out here, when I talk, I talk from experience. You look back on leadership, work ethic, perseverance, accountability, all of these things we learned as players on the football field," and in my opinion, he truly touches the individual and the collaborator within us all.
Rebecca Saltman is a social entrepreneur and the President and Founder of an independent collaboration building firm designed to bridge business, government, nonprofits and academia.