Big catches, little bravado

New Raven Derrick Mason has caught more passes than Terrell Owens and Randy Moss the past two seasons. He's just soft-spoken about it.

September 05, 2005|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Before every game, Derrick Mason picks out a Bible verse and writes it on his shoes.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, Mason jotted down earlier this preseason, a reminder to never take anything for granted.

"A lot of people get caught up in me, me, me," Mason said.

In a career grounded by patience and endurance, Mason doesn't seem to fit in this generation's group of star receivers. Mild-mannered and soft-spoken, he doesn't have the stereotypical big body or the big ego.

He is the anti-Randy Moss, one who goes all-out on every play. He is the anti-Terrell Owens, one who scores touchdowns without the self-promotion.

All Mason does is catch the ball, and he does it without the flash or the notoriety.

He has averaged 86 receptions and seven touchdowns during the past four seasons and received just one invitation to the Pro Bowl. In what may come as a surprise to many, Mason's 191 catches the past two years are second only to the St. Louis Rams' Torry Holt's 211.

But it still seems everybody covets a Moss or an Owens. Even the Ravens attempted to trade for both Moss and Owens before signing Mason, a salary-cap casualty from the Tennessee Titans, on the first day of free agency this year.

"Everybody talks about the people making headlines, doing stupid [stuff]," cornerback Chris McAlister said. "[Mason] is just a quiet, hard worker. He doesn't cause any attention to himself off the field.

"[But] he's definitely among the upper echelon receivers in the league. He hasn't lasted this long and had these numbers for no reason."

Mason is the epitome of the workmanlike receiver, a hard-nosed veteran who is willing to take a hit across the middle, shake off a tackle to break off a big play or make a block to spring a long run.

It's a mind-set that comes from having to earn a starting job.

He waited until the fourth round to get drafted in 1997, watching eight other receivers go before him. He waited three years until he received his chance to start, biding his time as a kick returner while the Titans acquired veterans such as Carl Pickens and Yancey Thigpen.

"I didn't enjoy practice. I didn't enjoy playing anymore," Mason said of his time as a backup from 1997 to 1999. "You know you can play, but there's a lot of guys ahead of you and you think you'll never get your chance."

After his third season as a reserve, Mason was taken aside by teammate Chris Sanders, who told him: "If you let them dictate how you come out here on the field, you've lost already."

Injuries to Pickens and Thigpen provided the opening for Mason in 2000, the first of five consecutive seasons in which he led Tennessee in catches.

"Pretty much out of desperation, I was able to get out there," Mason said. "I could have been frustrated. But if you have that attitude, you're not going to last long."

There is an end to Mason's patience. At 31, he has yet to start in a Super Bowl.

"My main reason for coming here was to be with a young team, a team that has the potential to win the Super Bowl now. Not next year, not two years from now," he said. "If you don't come into this game with a sense of urgency to win a championship, then you'll never win one."

Home in Detroit

A trip to the Super Bowl this season would take Mason back to his hometown of Detroit, where he grew up in a middle-class family.

His father was a foreman at Chrysler, and his mother worked the assembly lines there. At home, his mother laid out the rules - either be at school or playing sports - and his father strictly enforced them.

When it came to his three older brothers, playing football was not an option.

"When I didn't want to play, they made me play because it would be odd numbers," Mason said.

Much of Mason's strength as a receiver - his sure hands and his aggressiveness - is a product of his roughhouse days with his brothers.

There was a last play of a neighborhood game when Mason ran down the sideline, jumped for the ball and missed it. One brother chased him all the way home because he didn't make the catch.

"It's just things like that have taught me when you got out on that field, you've got to have a certain intensity about you," Mason said. "If you don't, you'd better believe the defense will see it."

Improvising on field

Mason's style hasn't lost its playground roots. It's a smoothness mixed with some improvisation.

At 5 feet 10, 192 pounds, he relies more on quickness than power. Using "tricky" speed, he moves in and out of his cuts fast to get defenders off their feet.

The other part of Mason's success is his feel for the game. He can adjust a route to coverages, knowing when to sit in the zone, when to slide and when to change directions.

There was little ambiguity during his eight seasons with Titans quarterback Steve McNair. But Mason, who caught just five passes this preseason, said there is a process to get his timing down with Kyle Boller.

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