Heart of a Beginner
By Andre Tippett
A lot of people used to think I was a black belt just because I was a professional athlete, that somebody gave me the black belt as some kind of honor. I’m no goddamn honorary black belt. I’m a bona fide black belt who did it on the floor. I got into the NFL Hall of Fame because of karate, not the other way around.
Karate is more than just punching and kicking and knocking somebody out if he steps on your feet. Karate allows you to find out about yourself. Just when you think you can’t go anymore, you discover something deep inside that will push you further.
A core idea of martial arts is something called “beginner’s mind.” I’ve been doing karate for over thirty years now, but I’m still a beginner. You should never think your ranking is so high that there’s nothing more for you to learn. If you do get to that point, you should leave. You should stop training. You should find something else to do with your life. No matter how high your ranking, you always want to keep a beginner’s mind. If you do that, there’s nothing that you can’t achieve in martial arts and through your training.
Having a beginner’s mind means that you’re open to new ideas. No matter how good you are, no matter how strong and fast you get, no matter how good people tell you that you are, you have to want to continue to train and to get better. You have to have the eagerness—and you can’t let preconceptions come into your thought process. Those are the keys to being an athlete and a martial artist.
In the NFL, I assumed every year that every linebacker the Patriots drafted could take my job. So I adopted the white-belt mentality—shoshin—heart of a beginner. At each training camp, I went at is 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.
Right after I was born, in Alabama, my mom left and went north to establish herself and get a job. During that time—the ’50s and ’60s—families were leaving the South and going to Chicago, Detroit, New Jersey, New York, California. My clan—my mom’s friends and girlfriends who graduated from high school and then decided to get out of Birmingham so they could provide better lives for their kids—chose New Jersey. I grew up with my grandmother in Alabama until I was seven and my sister was six. That’s when Mom sent for my sister and me. By that time she had four younger children, too.
My dad was never part of my life. My mom showed me how to be a man. She taught me right from wrong, taught me life skills, how to cook, wash, and to be responsible, be accountable. She was very serious about it, and it has paid off for me. Growing up in Newark was tough; we went without a lot, but I never let that be a hindrance to me. I knew that we lacked certain things that other people did have, but we got by. There was a lot of love in the house, and there was always something to eat. We didn’t have fabulous meals, but we seldom went without one.
Being the oldest of my brothers and sisters, I was forced to become mature and responsible at an early age. I was a loner, inquisitive, but also the boy who had to be a man. Even at seven years old, I’d do the laundry at the Laundromat down the block. I would count out the money, put the whites in one pillowcase, colors in another pillowcase, and bring them back clean and folded.
I was always big for my age, so guys were trying me all the time—warranted, unwarranted, just all the time. Mom got after me to stop running in the house every time I got chased home from school. One time she met me at the top of our steps when she saw me running away from a fight. She said, “Andre, you turn around. You’re going to fight them. You’re not going to keep getting chased home.” I dove off the top of the steps onto those guys. That was the end of me getting chased home.
There was a karate school in my neighborhood. I always wanted to go in, but Mom would never give me the money. I didn’t realize she couldn’t afford the twenty-five dollars a month it cost for lessons, not if she wanted to feed us and put clothes on our backs. Finally, when I was eleven, I learned that the Boys & Girls Club was holding karate classes. That’s where it all started for me. I learned a lot about self-defense, and I competed in a lot of tournaments—in New York and New Jersey—from about ’73 until ’78. Even though I started just to protect myself, I learned to love martial arts. Mom gave me the discipline, but karate gave me more structure. It gave me something to look forward to. It was something that I could call my own—I was the only one in my family who did karate.
I didn’t start playing football until high school. I actually got cut my freshman year, so technically I didn’t start until my sophomore year. I found a new love, on top of karate, to give me a little bit more structure, more discipline, and more meaning in my life. I went from an individual sport to a team sport where you can’t get it done without the other ten guys.
After high school, I got a football scholarship to the University of Iowa. The first thing I did when I got there was to figure out where I was going to practice martial arts. I thought I knew a lot about karate, but really I knew nothing. Iowa was my coming-out party. In Newark, the karate was focused on self-defense. If you attack me, if you touch me, you can forget it: I have you, and I will do what I have to do to protect myself. There was no philosophy behind it, no foundation to what I was doing.
But in Iowa I met this group of martial artists who had roots in Okinawa, Japan. They asked me about my training, and all I knew was my instructor’s name. I could demonstrate probably twenty self-defense techniques: standing toe-to-toe, up against a wall, my back to you, disarming someone who had a knife, a gun. But these guys were doing kata—predetermined movements, sort of like what a gymnast does in a floor routine. I’d never seen it before, and I thought, man, why am I missing out?
The training went deeper than just punching and kicking. We got into the mental and the spiritual sides of karate. We would talk about mind, body, and spirit, how you can’t have one without the others. Through those four years in Iowa, training with these guys, I realized that there was so much more for me to learn. I had earned a black belt, but I wanted to know what else was out there. It got me hungry. It also caused an important shift in my personality. In Newark, I had to protect myself at all times just to survive, so I developed a mean streak that I never turned off. In Iowa, I realized that I didn’t have to be that way all the time, only when it’s necessary. I saw how these guys I trained with carried themselves, and it showed me that I didn’t always have to be on edge—like I was ready to explode anytime somebody said the wrong thing to me—because I wasn’t in Newark anymore, and I didn’t plan on being in Newark the rest of my life. I’m living in the suburbs now, and I can’t go to the grocery store looking like I might hurt you if you grab that loaf of bread before I get it.
When the New England Patriots drafted me, in 1982, I immediately started looking around for a dojo, a karate studio, where I could train, just as I did when I got to Iowa. I found the Okinawan Karate Club right near the stadium. I’ve been a member there for twenty-seven years now. When I was playing, I would do kata on Friday nights to mentally prepare for a game. In our karate system, we have nine katas, from a white-belt kata all the way up to the highest, black-belt kata. When you do kata, you should be visualizing that you’re in a fight. I would visualize certain movements, certain attacks and counters. It would get me geared up for a game, prepare me for battle.
In karate, all your answers are on the floor. You can’t get them by reading a book or watching a video; they’re on the floor. You step on the floor, and you work it out, and you’ll find the answers. We want to solve our problems through intellect or by pointing a finger at someone else, but none of that works.
To become a good karate student, to make your technique better, you have to train harder, punch harder, do kicks harder, work on making your hands faster, and develop timing and balance. You can do that only by sweating on the floor and pushing yourself and motivating yourself to go harder. You can’t just go through the motions. You can’t pace yourself. You have to go all out when you’re on the floor, and the more you do it, the better you’re going to become.
The answers are on the football field, too. You have to practice the way you plan on playing. You can’t take plays off. You can’t wish yourself good. You have to do the off-season running, lifting, taking care of your body, and then you have to maintain that during the season. You work hard during the week. You prepare. You push your teammates. You push yourself. Come game time on Sunday, it should be easy for you. There are not going to be any surprises.
I didn’t really take advantage of the connection between martial arts and football until I got into the NFL. Unlike high school and college, where just being an athlete and being quick was enough, in the NFL there was an Andre Tippett on every team—a guy who was my physical equal. So I had to have something that would set me apart and allow me to beat these guys. During the 1983 season—my second in the league and first as a permanent starter—I made it clear that I was different from all the other linebackers in the NFL. And it was because I began to understand how much my karate training could help me in football.
To get to the quarterback, to put pressure on him or get him on the ground, I had to come up with a lot of different ways to pass rush. I was able to manipulate linemen, to defend myself and knock their hands off me, in ways I had been practicing almost my whole life. I had hand speed. I knew about leverage. I knew when to release a running back who was trying to block me and when to hand punch him. These were all just natural reactions to defend myself. Karate is a combat sport, and so is football. It’s either me beating you or you beating me, and I’m not going to let you beat me. I’ve got to figure out how to get the advantage in every situation.
My mental approach to football also came directly from my karate teachers. They taught me to refuse to quit. If you knocked me down seven times, I would get up seven times. I would just wear you out. I would keep going. I wouldn’t stop. I did it in workouts. I did it in testing situations. You really do surprise yourself. You knock out ten punches, ten blocks. You can’t go anymore. Sensei is yelling, “One more time!” Boom, boom, and you just keep doing it. And over a period of time, years and years of doing that, it becomes habit. You don’t let anybody see your fear; you don’t let them see you sweat it out. All they see is an indomitable spirit. You put that on somebody, and it works, in karate and on the football field.