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Heart of a Beginner

Heart of a Beginner

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Published by Tom Matlack
Andre Tippet, NFL Hall of Famer, writes about growing up in Newark and the role martial arts played in saving his life and making him a football player. This essay is part of THE GOOD MEN PROJECT.
Andre Tippet, NFL Hall of Famer, writes about growing up in Newark and the role martial arts played in saving his life and making him a football player. This essay is part of THE GOOD MEN PROJECT.

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Published by: Tom Matlack on Feb 18, 2010
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01/15/2012

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Heart of a Beginner
By Andre TippettA 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 hesteps on your feet. Karate allows you to find out about yourself. Just when you think youcan’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 karatefor over thirty years now, but I’m still a beginner. You should never think your ranking isso high that there’s nothing more for you to learn. If you do get to that point, you shouldleave. You should stop training. You should find something else to do with your life. Nomatter 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 howgood you are, no matter how strong and fast you get, no matter how good people tell youthat you are, you have to want to continue to train and to get better. You have to have theeagerness—and you can’t let preconceptions come into your thought process. Those arethe keys to being an athlete and a martial artist.In the NFL, I assumed every year that every linebacker the Patriots drafted couldtake my job. So I adopted the white-belt mentality— 
 shoshin
 —heart of a beginner. Ateach training camp, I went at is as hard as I could. Once the season began, I went hard ingames, 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.****1
 
Right after I was born, in Alabama, my mom left and went north to establish herself andget a job. During that time—the ’50s and ’60s—families were leaving the South andgoing to Chicago, Detroit, New Jersey, New York, California. My clan—my mom’sfriends 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 grewup with my grandmother in Alabama until I was seven and my sister was six. That’swhen 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. Shetaught me right from wrong, taught me life skills, how to cook, wash, and to beresponsible, 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 ahindrance to me. I knew that we lacked certain things that other people did have, but wegot by. There was a lot of love in the house, and there was always something to eat. Wedidn’t have fabulous meals, but we seldom went without one.Being the oldest of my brothers and sisters, I was forced to become mature andresponsible at an early age. I was a loner, inquisitive, but also the boy who had to be aman. Even at seven years old, I’d do the laundry at the Laundromat down the block. Iwould 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 Igot chased home from school. One time she met me at the top of our steps when she sawme running away from a fight. She said, “Andre, you turn around. You’re going to fightthem. You’re not going to keep getting chased home.” I dove off the top of the steps ontothose 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 wouldnever give me the money. I didn’t realize she couldn’t afford the twenty-five dollars amonth it cost for lessons, not if she wanted to feed us and put clothes on our backs.2
 
Finally, when I was eleven, I learned that the Boys & Girls Club was holding karateclasses. That’s where it all started for me. I learned a lot about self-defense, and Icompeted 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 gaveme 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 familywho did karate.I didn’t start playing football until high school. I actually got cut my freshmanyear, 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 mylife. I went from an individual sport to a team sport where you can’t get it done withoutthe other ten guys.After high school, I got a football scholarship to the University of Iowa. The firstthing I did when I got there was to figure out where I was going to practice martial arts. Ithought 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 touchme, you can forget it: I have you, and I will do what I have to do to protect myself. Therewas 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 coulddemonstrate probably twenty self-defense techniques: standing toe-to-toe, up against awall, my back to you, disarming someone who had a knife, a gun. But these guys weredoing 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 mentaland the spiritual sides of karate. We would talk about mind, body, and spirit, how youcan’t have one without the others. Through those four years in Iowa, training with theseguys, 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 animportant shift in my personality. In Newark, I had to protect myself at all times just tosurvive, so I developed a mean streak that I never turned off. In Iowa, I realized that I3

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Helen Winslow Black added this note|
This is one of the last essays in this book, which I just finished this morning, and one of my favorites. Read it, and all the others that come before it. When you do, you'll be wishing, as I am, for a second volume.
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