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Tippett put in the work for his Fame

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / August 1, 2008

The game was over.

Sure, there was still a fourth quarter to be played in Super Bowl XX in 1986, but the New England Patriots were finished. Bruised and beaten, they trailed the Chicago Bears, 44-3.

Soon enough, coach Raymond Berry was removing his defensive starters. Don Blackmon . . . Steve Nelson . . . Larry McGrew.

Andre Tippett, however, wasn't giving up his ground.

"It's probably my most vivid memory of Andre," Blackmon recalled. "They were beating the crap out of us, and Raymond was sending guys in for us. I looked back at Tip and he wouldn't come off."

Blackmon went back on the Louisiana Superdome turf, intent on bringing his close friend back to the sideline. When he arrived, what he saw was unforgettable.

Behind Tippett's facemask, the intimidating glare from those brown eyes that intensely peered in at offensive linemen had been replaced by tears, the emotion overflowing.

"Come on, it's over," Blackmon told him.

When Blackmon thinks about Tippett's career, that image of No. 56 in the red Patriots jersey is etched in his mind. He could have picked one of Tippett's 100 sacks, or the way he decisively held his ground against the run from his outside linebacker spot on the strong side, but nothing trumps that crushing day in New Orleans.

There might have been nothing else to play for, yet Tippett wanted to play anyway. He simply loved to compete and, though tears were rolling down his cheeks, he had too much pride to surrender before the clock told him it was time.

Tomorrow night, the 48-year-old Tippett will take his place among the greats in the game, officially enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, sharing the spotlight with Fred Dean, Darrell Green, Art Monk, Emmitt Thomas, and Gary Zimmerman.

More than 275 family members and friends will be on hand, coming from all parts of Tippett's life.

Frank Verducci, his coach at Barringer High in Newark, will be there. So will former Patriots teammates Blackmon, Johnny Rembert, and Ed Reynolds, among others.

Former New England assistant coach Eddie Khayat wouldn't miss it. Patriots owner Robert Kraft will be Tippett's presenter. Tippett's wife of 15 years, Rhonda, has been the chief organizer of the Tippett-based festivities, which wouldn't be the same if Tippett's four children - Janea, Asia, Madison, and Coby - weren't in attendance.

They all have stories to tell about Tippett, who entered the NFL in 1982, the same year the league introduced the sack statistic, and whose ferocious pass rush helped redefine the way his position was played.

Furious pass rusher

Cleveland Municipal Stadium was demolished in 1996, but 11 years earlier, a human wrecking ball blew up part of the facility. The Patriots had just dropped a 24-20 decision to the Browns, falling to 2-3 on the season. Mount Tippett was erupting.

"I don't know if it was his hand or his foot, but he put it right through his locker after the game," Blackmon recalled. "He was highly upset. Some people cited it as a turnaround for that season, and it very well could have been."

The Patriots went on to win their next six games, and nine of their final 11 entering the playoffs. Then came the three playoff wins, all on the road, before Super Bowl XX.

Nelson, one of the team's linebackers, was among those who believed that day in Cleveland sparked the remarkable run.

"Andre went half crazy in the locker room," he said. "We weren't playing up to our potential and that was a big thing for the team at the time. He didn't do that stuff a lot, but he seemed to have great timing of when it needed to be done."

Teammates and coaches had become more accustomed to seeing that intensity on the field, like that day in practice . . .

"We were rushing and I had mentioned to Tip that this guy wasn't blocking me, so he decided to flip sides with me to see for himself," Blackmon recalled. "Tip didn't get blocked by the guy - he had given sort of a halfhearted effort - and then it happened another time.

"So Tip stops right there on the field and just yells out, 'Why don't you all just do us a favor and quit right now?' I think that speaks volumes of what he wanted. He was a great teammate."

The fiery side of Tippett was in contrast to his demeanor off the field.

"The passion a player brings to a game is often not evident in the person they are off the field, and Andre Tippett is a classic case of that," said Berry. "On the field, that motor kicked in with him, with high RPMs."

Tippett, through his combination of diligent work, natural gifts, and intensity, made those around him better. Perhaps no one saw this more than Nelson, who at inside linebacker benefited from Tippett's ability to control blockers at the line of scrimmage.

Nelson especially remembers a 23-13 win over the New York Jets, in 1983, as a defining Tippett moment. The Jets had moved inside the 7-yard line early in the fourth quarter when Tippett almost single-handedly took over.

On first down, he pressured quarterback Richard Todd into an incompletion. Second down was an incompletion, but this time Tippett was in coverage, breaking up a pass to running back Johnny Hector in the end zone. Tippett then sacked Todd on third down. Earlier in the drive, he had stonewalled the run by swallowing fullback Dwayne Crutchfield.

To Nelson, the drive reflected how Tippett was an all-around player, a dominator in the three aspects that are most important to an outside linebacker - playing the run, the pass, and rushing the quarterback.

But it's rushing the passer, where Tippett often used hand techniques he learned in karate, that ultimately landed him in Canton.

"We went up against a lot of great passers, so being able to pressure them, hurry them, and throw them off balance was especially important for us," said Berry, whose club had at least two duels each year with the Dan Marino-led Dolphins and Jim Kelly-led Bills.

"We were fortunate to have the Andre Tippett Factor."

Seeing Tippett create pressure off the strong side reminded Berry of his playing days with the Baltimore Colts.

"I remember talking to the defensive backs in Baltimore who played behind [Hall of Famer] Gino Marchetti, and they knew they wouldn't have to cover all day because Gino was going to get to the quarterback," Berry said.

"That's Andre Tippett."

A career takes shape

"This is the greatest honor there is. There is nothing after this honor. You just die."

That was how Tippett described his emotions earlier this week. If this is indeed the end, Tippett will be sure to pay homage to the beginning of his football journey during his enshrinement speech tomorrow night.

It all began when he met Verducci in the mid-1970s.

Given Tippett's physical presence, it seems improbable that the circumstances of the meeting were such:

"He had been getting beaten up in the eighth grade and his mother wanted to separate him from the kids who were giving him a hard time," recalled Verducci, who on Andre Tippett Day at Foxboro Stadium in 1994 was described by Tippett as a father-like figure.

Newark had six high schools and Tippett was supposed to go to West Side. He went to Barringer instead.

"Here comes Tip with his mother - a beautiful lady - walking through our gym and I'll never forget it," Verducci recalled. "She didn't want him to play football; she wanted him to be a lawyer. I told her a lot of lawyers played football.

"It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship."

Tippett ended up playing football for the first time, and in a slice of irony, when Barringer played West Side, he was often terrorizing those former classmates who gave him a hard time.

"One of the guys who used to beat him up was the quarterback there," Verducci said. "His mother loved that one."

Those early days have naturally shaped the man who became one of the NFL's all-time greats.

Newark was a tough area, and Verducci remembered that Tippett's mother, in a single-parent home, was among those lining up at City Hall on Thanksgiving, hoping there would still be a turkey available.

Football, Verducci said, was Tippett's ticket to a better life. There was no Golf Channel or trips to Starbucks, two of Tippett's everyday staples, back then.

"I remember the first time I saw him, looking at his feet and saying, 'Oh, my God.' I told him that he'd grow, but that wasn't enough, that he'd have to work hard," Verducci recalled.

"His greatest asset was listening."

It's no wonder Tippett didn't want to leave the field during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XX. Score be darned, he had worked too hard, come too far, to have the biggest game of his life end in such a way.

It wasn't the result he had been hoping for, but he'll certainly take this ending.

Final stop: the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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