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Former Ram Tippeconnic stays true to his roots

November 22, 2010
By Tony Phifer

Eric Tippeconnic played linebacker for the team that changed everything at CSU, earning a bowl berth for the first time in 42 years. He's now a successful teacher who celebrates his unique heritage.

Former CSU linebacker Eric Tippeconnic helped the Rams upset unbeaten 17th-ranked Wyoming in 1990 en route to a Freedom Bowl berth. He's now a successful high school teacher in Albuquerque, N.M.

Twenty years ago, Eric Tippeconnic was a star linebacker on the Colorado State University football team that ended the school’s 42-year postseason drought by earning a Freedom Bowl berth.

Unique heritage

Today, while he still looks capable of terrorizing an opposing running back, Tippeconnic has settled into his “real” life in Albuquerque, N.M. He’s a successful high school teacher, coach, and father who has an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a deep yearning to explore his diverse roots – half Comanche, half Danish.

“Well, I’m quite sure I’m the only registered member of my tribe that has that mix,” Tippeconnic said, laughing. “I’m extremely proud of my Native American heritage, but I also love the other side of my life, the Nordic side. I’ve grown up learning to appreciate life from many viewpoints, and that has helped me grow.”

Tippeconnic (the name means “Stone House” in Comanche) had no choice but to learn how to live in both worlds. His father, Norman, worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the family often lived on reservations. Because of his light skin and red hair, Tippeconnic was not accepted by Native American kids. And when he was off the reservations, life offered different challenges.

“In the Indian world, I look like a white guy, and for kids who grow up reservations, that makes it tough,” he said. “I was in fights all the time. I had to learn to fight my way out of a corner and learn how to run fast, just to survive.

“Conversely, when I’m in the mainstream world, I don’t look Indian and I get judged differently. But it really gave me a wonderful education. I grew up with great core values, and I’ve learned to successfully navigate my way around in a diverse world.”

CSU drum group inspirational

Tippeconnic had always been proud of his unique heritage, but his spiritual awakening began when he joined a drum group called the Broken Heart Singers during his senior year at CSU. It was there that he learned to drum and sing Native American songs.

“When I was first invited to sit down with the drum, I fell in love with it – it really brought me back to my roots,” he said. “Getting involved with Native American Student Services at CSU was one of the greatest things I did in college. I loved traveling around to powwows in the region. It was a really great outlet to say, ‘It’s OK to be who you are.’ ”

Another important revelation was that several Native American students in the group were pursuing graduate degrees – something he had never considered. Twenty years later, he needs only to write his dissertation to complete his Ph.D. in history at the University of New Mexico.

Shares his love of history

All of those experiences – from playing college football, to singing and drumming, to joining other successful Native American students at CSU – have helped make him a beloved teacher at Albuquerque Academy, a private school renowned for producing numerous scholars. Andy Watson, the Head of the School, said Tippeconnic is a valued member of the history faculty.

“I would say that Eric is an ideal combination of role models for our students,” said Watson, who oversees Albuquerque Academy’s 1,000 students in grades 6 through 12. “He provides a role model as a coach (basketball and football in lower grades), and is a role model for those seeking the highest level of academic achievement. He brings his unique cultural perspective to the classroom every day and enriches the lives of our students.”

World traveler

Tippeconnic began traveling at an early age to Denmark with his mother, Kirsten, and that led to a passion for international travel. He has shared that passion with his students over the years, serving as sponsor/chaperone for numerous adventures in other countries.

He also has remained active in drumming, and last year received National Endowment for the Humanities funding to study the Pearl Harbor Memorial in a weeklong workshop. In the coming years, he hopes to begin a labor of love, becoming the first professionally trained member of his tribe to write a history of the Comanche.

Freedom Bowl reunion sparks memories

Tippeconnic returned to CSU in October for a reunion of the Freedom Bowl team, and he said it brought back a flood of memories.

“When I saw all of those guys I played with, it was like we had never left,” he said. “I remember everything about those days – the camaraderie, the friendships, the good times, the bad times. I can’t tell you how incredible it felt to beat an undefeated Wyoming team, to go to a bowl game and to beat a very good Oregon team.

“The bond created by that experience was instant and lasting. I’ll never forget it.”