The last man standing from the wide receiver class of 1997 is still stalking defensive backs after all these years. At 35, Derrick Mason has the same burning passion he brought into the NFL 13 years ago. He even has the same burning motivation.
"I still have a chip on my shoulder from getting drafted in the fourth round," the Ravens' playmaking wide-out said this week. "It's always going to be on my shoulder, regardless of what my situation is. I've always had a chip on my shoulder because 29 teams thought I was not good enough to be on their team and one decided I was. That's what always motivates me to continue to play."
That chip should be a boulder. Mason wasn't even the first receiver drafted that year by the Tennessee Oilers, fresh off their relocation from Houston. The first was Joey Kent, a local hero from the University of Tennessee, who was taken in the second round and had 13 catches in a faltering four-year career.
Mason had been a good college receiver at Michigan State, but he was better at returning kicks and punts. When he left, he was the Big Ten's record holder for career kickoff return yards. He was not big (a smidge under 5 feet 11), and he was not particularly fast (he ran a 4.51 in the combine 40-yard dash that he trimmed to 4.43 at his pro day). But he was determined to prove the personnel experts wrong.
Eight wide receivers, including Kent, went before Mason at the 98th pick. Thirteen were chosen after him. None is still playing in the NFL, and only Ike Hilliard (seventh pick overall) and Marcus Robinson (108th) had long-term careers.
Like it or not, Mason had to work his way up. A kick-return specialist his first three years at Tennessee, he became a Pro Bowl wide receiver and went to a Super Bowl (1999 season) with quarterback Steve McNair. When the Titans imploded from salary cap gaffes earlier this decade, he signed with the Ravens and enjoyed a second coming.
Now in the twilight, Mason quietly contemplates the end of his career. It nearly happened last summer. He had offseason shoulder surgery and abruptly announced his retirement July 13 on a Web site.
"I wasn't having fun," he said. "It became work for me. The workout became work to me. Really, during the whole last half of last year, it became work because I was dealing with an injury that each day, I had to force myself physically to go. Even though I had fun and I enjoyed playing, it became more of a job."
It turned out that his passion and drive had not run dry. Twenty days later, he reported to training camp. His return was seamless, though certainly not joyless. Teammates welcomed him with open arms.
"He really rubbed off on me when he came out of his brief retirement," Ravens receiver Kelley Washington said. "A lot of guys at his age, at this point in their career, with all he's accomplished in this league, would've taken the whole training camp off and [reported] for the first game. But he didn't want that, he didn't want people saying that's what he would do. He came to work every single day in training camp and never missed a practice."
Still, the end, for Mason, is probably not far away. When the Ravens meet the Chicago Bears on Sunday, it might be Mason's last game at M&T Bank Stadium (yes, there's still a very slight chance the Ravens could win the AFC North and get a home game in the postseason). He is noncommittal about his football future.
"I try not to think about it," Mason said. "I just enjoy every opportunity I have on the field and try not to think about next year. Next year will worry about itself. ... I haven't made any decisions."
How good a player has Mason been through 13 seasons? Good enough to go to the Pro Bowl twice as a Titan. Good enough to catch 849 passes, accumulate 10,902 receiving yards, score 58 receiving touchdowns.
The next game will be the 200th of his career. He needs four more catches to reach 400 in his Ravens career and is just 22 behind all-time leader Todd Heap (418). He already has eclipsed Heap in receiving yards (4,788).
Historically, he ranks 16th among the NFL's career reception leaders and has the third-most catches (802) among active players since 2000. He is the only player in NFL history with at least 5,000 return yards and 10,000 receiving yards.
When Jim Hostler, the Ravens' receivers coach, looks at the quilt of Mason's diversified career, he understands why personnel men missed on Mason in 1997.
"The funny thing about Derrick is that all his great qualities, you can't measure," Hostler said. "His competitiveness, his mental and physical toughness, those are things you can't measure."
Gil Brandt, former personnel czar with the Dallas Cowboys who now evaluates talent for NFL.com, pulled out his 1997 report on Mason and came to a quick conclusion: Mason played better than his size and speed, and outlasted the rest of the class because of his toughness and work ethic. Brandt compared Mason to former Cowboys great Drew Pearson, a player of similar description and stature.