ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Jim Caldwell likes to spin this one yarn whenever he talks about his receiver, Golden Tate. This particular tale happened before Caldwell was a head coach in Indianapolis and then Detroit.
Caldwell’s old boss, Bill Polian, would come back from his two-plus hour drive south from South Bend, Indiana to Indianapolis and tell Caldwell about this player his son, Brian, continually raved about.
“Every week he’d come in with a new story about something that Golden did,” Caldwell said. “And obviously, Bill being one of the great evaluators of all time, had nothing but great things to say about him, even though I didn’t have a chance to watch him play much in college.”
Caldwell didn’t, but part of the reason Polian had so many stories about Tate was because his ascent was that rapid in college, and it helps explain what the Detroit Lions are seeing now. Golden Tate is naturally gifted as an athlete -- good enough to be drafted in baseball as well as football -- but what he’s been doing as a wide receiver is all him.
When Tate began his career at Notre Dame in 2007, he was recruited as an athlete, not a pure receiver. He hadn’t played the position much, if at all, in high school. As a true freshman during a disastrous 3-9 season, the Irish eventually had to put him in games at receiver due to injuries.
Against Purdue, in his first real work at receiver, Tate had the first of many moments that led to his current role with the Detroit Lions, where he has already set career-highs for receptions (80) and yards (1,136) with four games to go.
Back then, though, Tate didn’t know how to run routes well.
“It got to the point where we were yelling to Golden from the sideline what the route was and so we yelled at Golden, ‘Run a go,’ “ Brian Polian, now the head coach at Nevada, said recently. “And he ran a go and Jimmy [Clausen] threw the ball up and the sucker just jumped up in the air between two DBs and caught it.
“Later on in the game, we did the same thing. The Purdue DB looked over at Charlie [Weis] or Ron Powlus and kind of gave him this look. Someone said, ‘Hey man, it doesn’t matter, he’s going to catch it anyway.’ Sure enough, he ran a go, the DB knew the route, and we just threw the ball up in the air, and he just went up and grabbed it. That’s who Golden is to me. That’s one of my all-time favorite memories of coaching.” Tate finished with three catches for 104 yards in that game.
It was a spark in an otherwise dismal season, but to understand the level Tate reached now, that moment -- and that season -- is critical. Tate learned how to become a receiver in 2007, and that has led to everything since. The Biletnikoff Award honoring the top receiver in college in 2009. A Super Bowl championship last season with Seattle. His status as one of the NFL's emerging receivers with Detroit.
As Tate makes his way through, around and opposing defenders (he has 583 yards after the catch this year), understand it wasn’t always this way. The athleticism was there, but everything else took time to develop. Tate said he actually practices his evasive maneuvers by treating every practice he’s in like the game he’ll play Sunday.
His competitiveness -- Tate abhors losing at anything, ever -- helps explain how he reached this point.
“When you think of this day and age of eighth-grade kids getting sent off to wide receiver camp and this guy showed up at a highly-regarded FBS program and had no clue how to play receiver, and now he’s turned into a really good pro, that’s because the guy worked at it,” Polian said. “He took coaching at every level, in college and obviously in the National Football League, and he turned himself into a heck of a player.”
In Seattle, he started to evolve as a NFL receiver. In Detroit, he’s become the most consistent part of an offense finding itself in the midst of a playoff race. And Tate, who learned to play his position in college, might be the best free agent signing by any team last offseason.
“Very, very happy that neither party has any regrets,” Tate said. “I hope I exceed expectations of this city and this organization, and I know that I’m doing the things that I envisioned myself to do and like I keep saying, most important, we’re winning ball games. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters. I was OK with catching, having 30 yards a game last year because we were winning.
“ ... But the fact that I get to ball out and also win games, it doesn’t get better.”
Even if Tate’s personal history suggests there’s a chance he might actually improve as a receiver.