Lions’ Golden Tate, IndyCar champ reconnect through pingpong

DETROIT — They embraced early Wednesday evening like they hadn’t seen each other in a long time, which, in fact, they hadn’t. More than a decade had passed since Golden Tate and Josef Newgarden were both students at Pope John Paul II High School in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and up until six months ago the two hadn’t spoken since their days in the halls together.

They now are professional athletes at the highest level — Tate a wide receiver for the Detroit Lions and Newgarden the reigning IndyCar champion. Back then, they barely knew each other — an association only through Tate’s younger brother, Wesley, and a few challenges at the donated pingpong tables set up at Pope John Paul II during lunch breaks.

“This is weird and such a strange deal, but it’s like nothing has changed,” Newgarden said. “He doesn’t seem any different, which is great. Humble guy, super nice, down to earth and just seems like the same old player. Star player, ready to get after it, and very competitive.”

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It was pingpong that brought them together Wednesday — months after a Twitter challenge was issued for the two to play when Newgarden came to Detroit for a pair of IndyCar races this weekend.

Tate and Newgarden are a combined rarity — an NFL player and IndyCar champion who went to the same high school at the same time.

“It’s awesome to be around such amazing athletes and people who are elite at what they do,” Tate said. “You could always learn something. I wish I could sit down with him a little bit more and just talk to him and see what makes him so good at what he does because I don’t know much about racing at all.

“It was fun, man. He made a bold move at a very young age and it worked out, and he’s considered one of the best at what he does. To leave high school and move to Europe and know this is my calling in life, that’s pretty special. It kind of shows you that fire he has deep, deep down that you can’t necessarily see out here.”

That didn’t show much in high school, either. While Tate was the flamboyant star of the football team who once signed autographs at an opposing school after a game, Newgarden was reserved. Overly polite.

Wesley Tate said not many people understood what Newgarden did back then — or how good he could end up being. Golden Tate, meanwhile, had stardom attached to him from the start.

“We’d talk about motorcars, talk about different things. What you did see was a transformation when he talked about race cars, racing, that kind of thing,” said Mike McLaren, the dean of students at Pope John Paul II. “You saw a personality come out. It was deep down, kind of hidden. There was an excitement in things that you didn’t see him talking about in other subjects.

“Golden was living the success with the football team, with the basketball, everything on campus. Golden is a very kind … he’s actually very humble underneath, but he’s a character. He’s gregarious, outgoing. He’s dynamic.”

They both showed that Wednesday, spending about 10 minutes catching up on their lives before warming up for their pingpong exhibition. Tate asked about Newgarden’s career. Newgarden inquired about Tate’s brother and his new family.

And if there’s proof they haven’t spoken in so long, they exchanged phone numbers for the first time as professional athletes after the match — hoping pingpong can be the impetus for a newfound friendship. Tate talked about visiting Newgarden in Charlotte, North Carolina, to learn about racing. Newgarden said he would love to stop by Tate’s charity events in Nashville.

Neither one could remember who was better during the few matches they played at lunchtime during their final year at the school. Tate conceded Newgarden — who beat him in back-to-back games and won $2,500 for the SeriousFun Children’s Network after an impromptu bet — likely was the better table tennis player then as well.

Table tennis was a thing at the school. Challenge matches happened at lunch. So, too, would a pingpong version of the basketball game Knockout. Newgarden and Tate interacted the most there — even if both don’t remember much about it.

“Those were always fun times,” former Pope John Paul II football coach Jeff Brothers said. “And when [students] would play head-to-head matches, small crowds would gather, that type of thing. It was, that was everything. It was the thing to do, hang out and play pingpong.

“When anybody would have challenge matches, and I specifically remember Golden, he’s competitive in everything that he does, so I remember those times. Pingpong was a big deal, for sure.”

Tate is considered the best pingpong player in the Lions’ locker room, although Wednesday he said he hadn’t played in months. Newgarden brought his own paddle, hosted a pingpong challenge in Indianapolis in May and comes from a table tennis lineage. His grandfather, Joe Newgarden, is in the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame and founded Newgy Robo-Pong, a table tennis equipment company — a company Wesley Tate said Newgarden would talk about in high school around the table.

After they finished playing, Tate and Newgarden had a future idea: make this a yearly game. Maybe even expand on it.

“You know what I think, I think more sports should jump in on this,” Newgarden said. “There should be annual pingpong competitions inter-sport, see who is the best. I don’t know how good LeBron [James] is, but if he’s good, he should play. People should play. It’s a good idea, right?”

To which Tate responded: “Let’s set it up.”

It already reconnected two athletes whose paths crossed years ago, so who knows how big it could get?