Mason makes long walk back Recovery: St. Mary's A.J. Mason suffered a spinal injury three years ago playing football and feared he might not walk again. Instead, after two operations, he's back and playing better than ever -- on the basketball court.

December 21, 1997|By Pat O'Malley | Pat O'Malley,SUN STAFF

Albert Mason told his son to "start praying and talk to the Lord the way you talk to me," as his son waited to be placed in an ambulance.

That was three years ago when St. Mary's A. J. Mason thought his athletic career was over, but more importantly, feared he would never walk again.

Mason suffered a severe spinal injury while blocking on a kickoff return in the Saints' second game of the season.

He cracked the third, fourth and fifth vertebrae in his spine and would twice require surgery to fuse them back together with pieces of his hip bones.

"The doctors told me it would be a high risk to play football or any other contact sport, but basketball and baseball would be possibilities," said A.J. Mason. "It hurt knowing I would never play football again, but I was more concerned about walking."

It was a long road, but fully recovered, Mason was back on the basketball court last year and averaged about three points a game as a spot player. Now the 6-foot senior guard is averaging 12.0 points an outing and loving life.

"A.J. has really bounced back and is off to a tremendous start this season," said Saints basketball coach Roger Reed. "He's a kid who has really worked through it."

Reed was at the game the day of the accident and was stunned like many others when a helicopter was summoned.

"It looked like a normal play. I saw A.J. leave the field, but before I knew it, a helicopter was landing," said Reed. "Paralysis had set in and it was pretty scary."

Mason met his opponent at full speed and delivered a stand-still block, never leaving his feet. He walked off the field, but he knew something wasn't right.

"I told Coach [Brad] Best that I had tingling in my arms and he called the trainer," Mason said. "The trainer told me to lay down and a few moments later the helicopter came, but there happened to be an ambulance nearby.

"I was taken by ambulance to North Arundel and all I remember is laying on a stiff board. My dad was praying."

Albert Mason is a drug and narcotics counselor at Second Genesis in Annapolis and got to the game right after the accident occurred.

"It was the biggest trauma of my life," said Albert Mason. "I was by his side in the hospital praying for 10 days. I agreed to the dTC surgery because I knew in my heart he would walk."

The 14-hour surgery fusing his third and fourth vertebrae at Shock Trauma in Baltimore didn't solve the problem completely. Mason was given a neck brace, underwent walking therapy and neck exercises at home and was back in school by October.

"At first I could stand up for short periods before getting dizzy," said Mason. "But then I gradually got the strength back."

Albert Mason picked up school work for his son, who is a 3.60 grade-point student who hopes to attend college and major in communications.

He's been accepted at Michigan State, but is considering the University of Massachusetts and Syracuse.

In December, Mason went in to have his neck brace taken off, but X-rays revealed that he was not totally healed. The third and fourth vertebrae had been fused, but the fifth had moved, necessitating another surgery.

Once again, Mason was fitted with a halo-vest and wore the cumbersome brace until March.

Receiving encouragement from his family, friends, his church (First Christian Community, Annapolis) and St. Mary's coaches and teachers made the ordeal a little easier.

By springtime, Mason was playing the outfield for the Saints baseball team, but he wasn't allowed to play summer basketball.

The fall of his junior year was tough. Mason had played football for about 10 years in the Davidsonville and Annapolis All Stars youth programs and one year of JV at St. Mary's.

"The guys let me sit on the sidelines and the first couple games I wished I was out there," said A.J. "It was tough, but I started looking forward to basketball. I realize how lucky I was."

Mason blocked out worrying about being re-injured and made Reed's basketball team.

"It was great to have A.J. back with us," said Reed. "And it's amazing how well he has played the start of this season."

Mason had personal highs of 16 points twice this season against No. 10 Spalding and Severna Park. He's playing at the top of his game as a senior.

"It's an honor and a joy to see him now," said his dad. "He's a wonderful child, has manners, doesn't give into peer pressure. There's no reason not to trust him."

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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