SHARON — Andre Tippett is a towering man with a gentle voice. When he starts to speak about the meaning of Hanukkah, his voice grows even softer.
“Hanukkah means dedication and is about miracles,” said Tippett, sounding more like a rabbi than a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Throughout his life, though, he has acknowledged the miracles that led him from the tough streets of Newark to Foxborough, where he became a five-time all-pro linebacker for the New England Patriots. Tippet recorded 100 career sacks while earning a name as one of the game’s most feared pass rushers.
On Tuesday evening, he will gather with his wife Rhonda and their son Coby (daughter Madison will be away at college) and sing Hebrew prayers as they light the first candle on their menorah to mark the beginning of Hanukkah.
“I’m probably more excited than most of the family because I look forward to any type of celebration when it comes to holidays,” said Tippett, who will turn 55 later this month.
Tippett was raised in a Baptist family, and said he has always believed in a higher being. After he joined the Patriots, he started to date Rhonda Kenney, who grew up in a close-knit Jewish family in Framingham. He soon realized just how much Judaism meant to her.
“What was important to her was that we raise our kids in the Jewish faith and have a Jewish home,” said Tippett, who still works for the Patriots, serving as the executive director of community affairs.
The couple were married by a rabbi in 1993, and in 1996 Tippett began to take classes that led to his conversion a year later.
“I knew that it was important that I engulf myself in learning,” said Tippett, who calls himself a proud Jew. “I did this for my family. It was probably one of the easiest things I had to do in my life. It was fun. It was an opportunity to learn about a new culture and history, and to study.”
For Tippet, much of Judaism is about family and dedication. He attends synagogue in Sharon, observes the other Jewish holidays, and enjoys fasting on Yom Kippur.
“It’s good for the body,” he said.
Also since converting, he has spoken at numerous Jewish events, traveled to Israel with his family and watched Madison recite her bat mitzvah prayers in Jerusalem, and was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Tippett does not ignore the Christmas season. After Thanksgiving, he loads up his iPod with favorite Christmas songs, performed by Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and the Temptations. On Christmas, he calls and texts his mother and other relatives in New Jersey.
Like a lot of others, he has taken on the unofficial Jewish-American tradition on Christmas day: “We go out for Chinese food and then to a movie,” he said.
Meanwhile, Tippet’s family is gearing up for its annual Hanukkah party. Like many Jews, he gravitates toward latkes, the potato pancakes that are fried to commemorate the menorah’s oil lasting eight days during the Maccabean revolt in the second century BC, which the holiday remembers.
Tippett is partial to his father-in-law’s latkes.
“I love them,” he said. “I put some applesauce on them and I can probably eat a plate by myself.”