Protect the Family Name: How One Coach Shaped Andre Tippett’s Career and Life
We’ve all heard stories of football players who are presented challenges and overcame them to find success in the NFL. Sometimes, the story is how a player’s talent and skill are too remarkable to go unnoticed. Other times, it is how a player’s determination and drive are too relentless for him to miss his shot. And for some, like former Patriot linebacker and Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett, it’s a combination of talent, skill, determination and drive, coupled with chance and an extraordinary man who made it his mission to change lives.
The “chance” is how Andre ended up at Barringer High School, a school with an atmosphere of tradition and winning, instead of the school down the block where he lived with his single mother and five siblings in Newark, N.J. That culture of winning drew Andre in, and ultimately, he used a friend’s address to qualify him for enrollment at Barringer.
And the remarkable man? That was football coach Frank Verducci, who gave Andre the opportunity to play the game he would one day dominate at a professional level and became one of the most important men in Andre’s life.
Andre had never played a down of when his friends grabbed him in the hallway after school his freshman year at Barringer and dragged him to tryouts. He went and practiced in his school clothes. After two weeks of learning the game, he realized he liked football and set his sights on making the junior varsity team.
When the final rosters were posted by the junior varsity coach, Andre’s name wasn’t on the list.
“That’s the first time I really got slapped in the face with a rejection and was told I wasn’t good enough,” Andre said. “It hurt.”
The next season, fueled by his rejection, Andre fought for what he wanted — a running theme throughout his storied career — and made the team. Eventually, Andre was pulled up to varsity by Coach Verducci.
Frank, Andre said, “built leaders” within the school. His football players walked around Barringer leading by example, sitting in the front of the classroom and treating others with respect. He ingrained in their minds that education, respect and humility were as important to football as the plays drawn up on the chalkboard.
To this day, whenever the Hall of Famer calls up his former high school coach, he always has a pen and notepad handy, ready to receive any advice his former coach is willing to offer. These nuggets of guidance and knowledge defined Frank’s 40-year coaching career and his relationship with Andre, which went well beyond football from the very start.
Coaching in Newark, Frank said many of his players, like Andre, needed guidance. Football was a vehicle to teach lessons both on and off the field. When he met Andre, he was a “troubled youngster,” Frank said. And while Andre’s mother, who raised six children on her own, told him that her son was going to be a lawyer and not play football, Frank knew otherwise.
“I said to her, ‘A lot of lawyers played football. She said, ‘What are you going to do for him?’ And I said that I would make him my son. I’ll take care of him.”
And through high school, a year at junior college, three seasons at the University of Iowa, an 11-year career with the Patriots and a community-focused retirement, that’s exactly what Frank has done.
“Coach Verducci was my Vince Lombardi. You hated him but you loved him,” Andre said. “When you got in trouble, you went and sought out his advice. Coach was the man that for me personally was a father figure. He personally gave me the direction on top of the discipline that my mother gave me. He was somebody that I looked up and listened to.”
Through football, Frank taught Andre about having a winning attitude, seizing every opportunity and, above all, respecting your community. He could see Andre’s drive from a young age, his talent on the field and an undeniable will to excel in football. Frank helped him to apply this to his game and more importantly, his life.
“I saw the love he had for his mother, and I saw that you could hurt him easily. He was a good kid, and you could see it in the person Tipp is. He was never evil, always honest. He wasn’t always the best, believe me, but he strived to be the best,” Frank said. “You’re never a loser when you lose. You’re only a loser if you quit. If you quit something, then you’re a loser, but if you lost something there’s always the next out, next year, next game. You always can come back and do better. People say that’s a locker room speech, but no, that’s life.”
In fact, this pushed Andre to work even harder. Throughout high school, Frank told Andre and his teammates to hit the books, but as Andre moved towards graduation and college, he realized he would need to go to junior college to get his grades up before heading off to the University of Iowa.
“I ended up going to Ellsworth Community College [in Iowa Falls, Iowa] for a year, and it was eye opening,” Andre said. “They were trying to keep me there for two years. Coach kept saying if you hit the books you can get out of there in a year.”
Ignoring the pressure from the community college staff to stay for two years, Andre studied hard and was on to the University of Iowa the next fall.
This discipline drove Frank’s football teams to success, but it also saw Frank’s players excel even after high school. When Andre and some of his teammates moved on to play at the next level, if they were presented with two roads, two choices, they would ask themselves: What would V think?
“Even as college students we were all concerned about not letting him down … We’re still concerned about what Frank Verducci thinks about us and our decisions and it was important because that guided a lot of us because we didn’t want to embarrass him,” Andre said. “He always talked about how you don’t embarrass the family name. Don’t embarrass your school that you come from. Don’t embarrass your community, and those were the things that pushed us to greatness.”
Andre said Frank’s influence in Newark was crucial, that many of the kids in his community came from single parent homes, money was tight and falling in with a bad crowd was too easy. So when Andre was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008, it was an even sweeter “rags to riches story, not monetarily” Frank said.
Frank watched Andre not only play in the NFL — enough to make any coach proud — he also watched him thrive. He was a second-round draft pick, a five-time Pro Bowler, recorded 100 career sacks, played in a Super Bowl and was the NFL Player Association’s “Linebacker of the Year” for three consecutive seasons.
So when Andre’s phone started ringing, buzzing with congratulations, Frank was one of the first people on the line.
“The invitations went out, and he couldn’t get there fast enough,” Andre said. “He was front and center … He was proud, probably more proud because I always mentioned where it all began. Had I not gone to Barringer High School and maybe gone to another program where the coach may not be into mentoring the players and making them do the right thing, maybe I’m in a different direction. I personally know that had it not been for my high school coach showing the love, being a mentor to all of us, telling us what we needed to hear all the time, be it good or bad, point us in the right direction, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”
For Frank, this mentorship came naturally. He guided students through plays, in their classes and when they faced adversity with lessons he learned from his own upbringing, like protecting the family name.
“I always quoted a saying that my mother taught us. ‘Rob me of my money, you rob me of nothing. Rob me of my name, you rob me of my most precious jewel,” Frank said. In 2008, Andre quoted this at his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement.
Now, Andre uses his career as a platform to continue passing down the lessons that Frank taught him. As the executive director of community affairs for the New England Patriots and a father, he finds himself talking with his son and Patriots players as his coach once guided him.
Whoever he is talking to and regardless of the setting, he stresses the valuable lessons of the game which build leaders on the field and character off the field.
“I’m still conscious of the humility, discipline, character values — all those things that helped me play this great game and made me the person and player that I became. It’s still those things that I try to live by as much as I can. We’re not perfect but I’m always conscious of right and wrong, so when I’m in front of kids and I have the opportunity to talk the value of football, those are the things I talk about,” Andre said. “Those things are important no matter where you come from, who you are, what color you are, what nationality you are, it doesn’t matter. If you play the game we all are the same. If you live by that then you’re going to have success on the field, you’re going to have success off the field too when it’s all said and done.”
Like a son trying to make this father proud, Andre said he has tried to honor Frank with his actions and integrity. According to Frank, he has more than succeeded.
“He’s my son. I’m so proud of him, you know. I’m happy that he’s a pillar of the community,” Frank said. “He has done everything that you could ask of a human being. He’s loyal. He’s a good friend to his community and he’s a good father. He’s like me. I’m like him.”
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