Many National Football League stars burst into the scene and blossom right away. They force us to take notice quickly and to acknowledge their greatness as we appreciate their obvious talent and skill.
But there are also some who take a while to grow into their best selves. Such men are no less worthy of adulation than those who are early bloomers.
Derrick Mason fell into the latter category. His pro career started quietly, but after a few years he became one of the league’s most solid wide receivers.
Once he got there, he lasted longer than many do in the brutal world of the NFL.
Early Life in the Motor City
Derrick James Mason was born on January 17, 1974 in Detroit, Mich. He was the middle child of seven kids, and he had four brothers and two sisters.
When Mason was little, his father left the family. Mason’s mother, Glennie, got remarried to an Army man named Albert Winn. For many kids, such a change could present problems, but luckily, Mason had a solid foundation growing up.
Detroit can be a rough place to spend one’s childhood, with its rough winters, propensity to get hit hard by economic recessions and high rate of violent crime.
But Mason seems to have fond memories of his early years, and he appreciates the sacrifices his parents made for him and his siblings.
“He made sure we did what we were supposed to do,” Mason said of his stepfather. “He taught us how to be a man, and we couldn’t get away with anything with him. My mom had to juggle the kids and working. She did whatever she had to in order to support us. I appreciate now what they went through then. Now it all makes sense.”
From an early age, football was a common bond between Mason and his older brothers, and it seemed to shape him into the man he would become.
“My oldest brother, Willie, would make me and Jackie (the brother only two years above him) play football against each other,” said Mason. “We would play one-on-one football across the street from the house, and he was always bigger than me, and I couldn’t stop until they said, ‘Game’s over.’ I guess it helped me build up my mental toughness.
At Mumford High School in Detroit, Mason played both football and basketball. He didn’t seem sure if football was his best sport, but he remembers his coach telling him at one point, “Basketball is not your sport. Football is your sport.”
Once he got focused on football, he realized he had potential. He would set school records with 70 catches and 1,243 receiving yards, and as a senior, he copped 1st-team All-Public School League, All-State and Blue Chip list honors from Detroit News.
He was also picked to play in the Michigan High School All-Star game that year.
It all raised Mason’s national profile among recruiters, and he ultimately decided to stay close to home and play for Michigan State University in nearby East Lansing.
A Star Spartan
According to Mason, Michigan State Spartans head coach George Perles promised him that he would be made a starter right away. As it turned out, that didn’t exactly happen.
In fact, as a freshman, Mason was used as a kick returner, and he wouldn’t record a single receiving yard. Playing special teams, he had just seven kick returns in nine games for 138 yards.
But he started to come along as a sophomore. Although he remained the team’s main kick returner, he was now also lining up at times on offense as a wide receiver, catching 14 passes for 262 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
As a kick returner, he was already distinguished, running back 36 kickoffs in 1994 for 966 yards, leading the Big Ten in both categories.
In his junior year, Mason would start to shine as a wideout as well. Prior to the season, Michigan State hired a new head coach named Nick Saban, and the legendary coach would improve the Spartans’ prospects, as well as feature Mason more on offense.
He would register 53 receptions while ranking in the top six in the Big Ten in receiving yards during each of the next two seasons and remaining one of the better kick returners in the conference.
Michigan State would post a winning record in 1995 for the first time since 1990, and it would play in a bowl game in Mason’s junior and senior seasons.
In his final season at East Lansing, he showed scouts that he had pro potential by putting up five 100-yard games, taking advantage of his speed and ability to elude defenders.
Landing in Tennessee
Although he was a strong and versatile college player, Mason wasn’t taken in the 1997 NFL Draft until the fourth round, when the Tennessee Oilers used the 98th pick on him.
The Oilers had just moved from Houston, as owner Bud Adams was eyeing a new stadium that would be funded by the public. His efforts failed, and he packed his team up and headed to Memphis for the 1997 season, perhaps looking for a clean slate.
The Oilers possessed a young stud running back named Eddie George, but little else in the way of support. Yet if Mason thought he would help revitalize the dormant franchise, he would be mistaken.
His first three seasons in the NFL would play out much like his first two seasons at Michigan State. Mason would start just two games during that entire span, and he would be used chiefly as a kick and punt returner.
On special teams, he started to show his value right away, recording 551 kick return yards as a rookie. That number would dip in 1998, before growing to 805 in the ’99 campaign.
His production as a wideout was scant, as he had just 608 receiving yards and three touchdowns in his first three years.
Head coach Jeff Fisher wasn’t inclined to increase Mason’s workload during that time. Tight end Frank Wycheck was the team’s top target in the air, and for the ’98 season they added former Pro Bowl receiver Yancey Thigpen.
Of course, George was the team’s main weapon on offense and one of the best running backs in the league.
By 1999, the team had made itself into a winner. It was renamed the Titans and had permanently relocated to Nashville, and right away it won the hearts of the city’s residents.
The Titans won 13 games that year and unexpectedly reached the Super Bowl, thanks in part to the “Music City Miracle” play against the Buffalo Bills in the wild card round.
Although Mason was hardly getting any snaps on offense, he was still a key member of special teams, contributing 94 yards on kick returns against Buffalo, and 174 yards and a touchdown on four returns in the AFC Championship Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
— No Context Tennessee Titans (@NoContextTitans) December 12, 2021
In Super Bowl XXXIV, Tennessee would face the Greatest Show on Turf, otherwise known as the St. Louis Rams. The Rams were packed to the brim with talent, with stars such as league MVP and quarterback Kurt Warner, dual-threat running back Marshall Faulk and Pro Bowl wideout Isaac Bruce.
The Titans fell behind early but fought back to make it a tight affair late. Mason helped their cause with 122 yards on five kickoff returns, but they fell just short, 23-16, as receiver Kevin Dyson came up just shy of the end zone on the final play of the game.
In 2000, with Dyson appearing in just two games that season, Mason was finally called upon to produce offensively, and he answered the call big time.
Starting in 10 contests, he would post 895 receiving yards and five touchdowns. In Week 5 against the Super Bowl-bound New York Giants, he had probably his best game to date with 103 receiving yards and a touchdown in a 28-14 win.
But he was still the team’s main kick and punt returner, running back 51 punts for 662 yards that season, leading the league in both categories, while posting 42 kick returns for 1,132 yards.
By doing double duty, Mason would set an NFL record in 2000 with 2,690 all-purpose yards. His mark would stand for over a decade until it was broken by Darren Sproles.
For his efforts, the Detroit native earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl, and he was also voted onto the All-Pro first-Team.
Again, the Titans won 13 games, but their postseason run would be short-lived, as they lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round. The Ravens, who possessed one of the league’s best defenses in recent memory, went on to win the Super Bowl.
Although Tennessee had a disappointing season in 2001, winning just seven games and missing the playoffs, Mason upped his production again.
He hauled in 73 passes for 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns, while also adding 128 punt return yards and 748 kick return yards, giving him over 2,000 all-purpose yards in a single season again.
In one game, he had a 101-yard kickoff return, which was the longest in the NFL all season.
He capped things off with a monster 186 yards and two touchdowns against the Cincinnati Bengals in the final week of the campaign.
The Titans got their mojo back in 2002, finishing 11-5 and finishing first in their division. Although Mason still, on occasion, was used as a punt returner, by now he was primarily a wideout.
He again went north of 1,000 receiving yards and scored five touchdowns, as Tennessee made it to the AFC Championship before falling to the Oakland Raiders.
Mason rose to new heights in 2003 with eight touchdowns and a career-high 1,303 receiving yards. It got him his second Pro Bowl nod while helping the Titans win 12 games.
Mason’s production as the team’s top offensive option helped quarterback Steve McNair have a career season and win the league MVP award.
The next year, however, the Titans would plunge into the NFL basement. The loss of George to the Dallas Cowboys, as well as McNair appearing in just eight games led to the franchise’s worst season in a decade.
Mason, however, kept up his production with 1,168 yards and seven touchdowns in the air, while his 96 catches were second in the league.
Flying to Baltimore
Mason was a free agent in the 2005 offseason, and with the Titans being over the salary cap, he opted to sign with the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens had won Super Bowl XXXV, but they had been a mediocre team since. Although their defense was still strong, their offense lacked punch.
Mason would instantly jump-start Baltimore’s attack and give its fans hope. He led the team in receiving yards, yet again going over 1,000 yards, and scored three touchdowns.
On Christmas Day 15 years ago, Derrick Mason went 9 for 103 and a touchdown to knock the Vikings out of the playoffs pic.twitter.com/fczoYxzmvK
— The Exit 52 Podcast (@Exit52Podcast) December 25, 2020
Baltimore won only six games that year and missed the playoffs, but in 2006 they became a legitimate threat in the AFC.
McNair reunited with Mason, becoming the team’s new QB, and it won 13 games, good enough for first place in the AFC North.
In the season finale against the Buffalo Bills, a reception by Mason put McNair over the 30,000 career passing yards mark.
Unfortunately, Baltimore did next to nothing in the playoffs, losing in the divisional round to Peyton Manning and the eventual world champion Indianapolis Colts.
Mason was now firmly in his early 30s. It’s axiomatic that an NFL player’s production starts to dip sharply after his 30th birthday.
But he was the exception to that rule, as he amassed 1,087 yards and five touchdowns in the 2007 season while becoming the first player in Ravens history to catch more than 100 passes in a single season.
After only managing five wins in ’07, the Ravens were back in the playoffs the following season. One of their biggest weaknesses had been the QB position, and management looked to address it by drafting Joe Flacco, who would develop into a solid signal-caller.
Mason again had over 1,000 yards in 2008, but it was a difficult year for him. He dislocated his shoulder in Week 10 against the Houston Texans, and it would bother him the rest of the season.
He re-aggravated it later in the campaign against the Dallas Cowboys, but he continued to play, even though he admitted after the game that he had trouble with mobility.
Derrick Mason wanted to help his team win football games, even if it meant playing after his shoulder had been dislocated
He was as tough as they come on the fieldpic.twitter.com/JBwEJ5FN6J
— Kevin Oestreicher (@koestreicher34) June 10, 2021
“Some of the guys have been battling through stuff the whole year,” observed quarterback Joe Flacco after the Cowboys game. “Look at Derrick Mason. He’s been battling the whole year, since the Houston game. But he comes out here and you don’t even know it. He comes out here and he plays his ass off. And that’s what we did to win.”
Mason still managed to play all 16 regular season games, starting each one.
Thanks to an improved offense, Baltimore won 11 games and looked to the postseason with optimism.
Although he wasn’t 100 percent, Mason delivered in the playoffs, posting more than 70 yards in the Ravens’ wild card round win over the Miami Dolphins and their divisional round victory against the Tennessee Titans.
But a tough Pittsburgh Steelers defense held him to just 41 yards in the AFC Championship Game, and the Ravens fell 23-14.
Despite reaching his mid-30s, Mason continued to be reliable for the Ravens, as he had yet another 1,000-yard campaign in 2009.
By 2010, Baltimore’s offense became more diverse. Running back Ray Rice was a decent threat in the air, while wideout Anquan Boldin, acquired from the Arizona Cardinals, gave the team an additional option.
Mason’s numbers dipped that year, but he still had 802 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 61 receptions to help the Ravens to a 12-4 record.
Although he didn’t really have a reputation as a malcontent, Mason was the type of player who wouldn’t hesitate to voice his opinion to his teammates or coaches. In Week 11 against the Carolina Panthers, he felt that Flacco was late in passing him the ball on one play, and it led to an argument between the two on the sidelines.
Earlier in the same game, Mason also went at offensive coordinator Cam Cameron because he felt that team wasn’t playing at a quick enough tempo.
In the divisional round of the playoffs against the Steelers, Baltimore led 21-7 at halftime and seemed to be on its way to an easy win. But a flurry of turnovers and dropped passes resulted in a 31-24 loss.
Mason recorded just one reception and 11 yards in the postseason, all of which came in the wild card round against the Kansas City Chiefs, making it seem like, at age 36, his mileage was finally catching up to him.
After playoffs concluded, the NFL experienced a lockout, and once it was lifted, the Ravens released Mason in order to gain some salary cap relief.
Over the Hill
In the summer of 2011, Mason signed with the New York Jets. Under head coach Rex Ryan, the Jets were coming off back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances, and they were hoping Mason would get them over the hump.
Ryan was one of the NFL’s most brash personalities, and even before his team acquired Mason, he made a big claim about the Jets’ chances in the upcoming season.
“I believe this is the year we’re going to win the Super Bowl,” Ryan said. “The fact is, I thought we’d win it the first two years. I guarantee we’ll win it this year.”
Instead of Mason being the missing piece to a ticker-tape parade down the streets of Manhattan, it was painfully clear that he was as good as done as a viable wideout.
After winning its first two games, New York lost its next three, and tensions were running high in the Tri-State Area. Some of the bad vibes seemed to be emanating from Mason, who was reportedly unhappy with Brian Schottenheimer, the team’s offensive coordinator.
The receiver made sure to downplay any hard feelings on his part.
“I never complained to Rex Ryan or Mike Tannenbaum, and I hope that one day it come out who actually did it, but I doubt it,” Mason said in a report published by Scout.com. “I never went to Rex or Mike to complain about Brian’s play-calling.”
Some in the organization felt Mason was a toxic influence, and he was promptly traded to the Houston Texans.
He suited up in seven games for Houston, but he only managed 55 yards on six receptions.
The following offseason, after signing a one-day contract with the Ravens, Mason decided to call it quits. He signed with Baltimore so that he could retire as a Raven, which was seen as a classy move by the team’s fan base.
“The decision wasn’t hard to retire, and the decision where to retire was just as easy,” Mason said. “Because like I said, my heart was here, it never left. My body left but my heart stayed right in these rooms.”
Post-Career Life and Legacy
Early in his NFL career, Mason got married to his love, Marci, and they had two children, daughter Bailee My-Lin and son Derrick James II.
The Masons founded “The Derrick Mason Foundation,” which is aimed at helping at-risk families in the Nashville and Baltimore areas that have children who are facing major obstacles so that they can go after their dreams in life.
In 2008, the foundation donated $25,000 to Rebuilding Together Baltimore, which fixes and enhances the houses of low-income homeowners, with a special focus on those who are elderly, disabled and raising children.
After being together for 16 years, Derrick and Marci Mason got divorced, but the two remain friendly.
Aside from his role as a father and family man, Mason had remained close to the game. Shortly after his retirement from the NFL, he was hired by Ensworth High School in Nashville, Tenn. to be their wide receivers coach.
Ever since he hung up his cleats, a big aspiration of his has been to go into broadcasting. He was hired to be a host on 102.5 The Game, a Nashville sports-oriented radio station, where he teamed up with one of his former teammates on the Titans, Brad Hopkins.
Mason has also done some radio work in Baltimore and appeared on the NFL Network.
In addition, he made an investment in Swiftwick, a company that makes high-quality compression performance socks, back in 2008.
These days, although he may still be trying to find a new passion in life, Mason lives with the gratitude and contentment that comes with his accomplishments on the gridiron.
In an era that was defined by wideouts like Terrell Owens and Randy Moss, he hasn’t received as much recognition as some of his more prominent colleagues.
But with over 12,000 receiving yards, 17,000 all-purpose yards, 900 receptions and 60 touchdowns, Mason made a very strong career for himself.
As the owner of numerous Ravens records, he was quite possibly the best receiver in their history.
However, there is a “what-if” that Mason has wondered about. In 2005, when he was a free agent, he met with the two-time defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
— NBC Sports Boston's Patriots Coverage (@NBCSPatriots) August 15, 2019
“I came for a visit, sat down and talked with Bill (Belichick, the Patriots’ head coach),” Mason told NBC Sports Boston’s Tom E. Curran. “I talked with the receivers coach at the time, talked with the GM. I think it was (Scott Pioli). Believe me: I loved my time in Baltimore. That’s like my second home. But I think back to, what if I had made that decision to go to New England and play with arguably the greatest quarterback to play the game?”
Still, Mason cherished his tenure with the Ravens, and the feeling was mutual.
Leave it up to Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome to sum up what Mason meant to him and the entire organization.
“Over the 16 years, 17 years that we’ve been here, we’ve signed a lot of free agents, a lot of them,” Newsome said upon Mason’s retirement. “But I don’t know if there is any one player over the span of their career that did more for this organization than Derrick Mason did.”