The day that Derrick Mason got the call from Ozzie Newsome informing him that the Baltimore Ravens were going to release him after six seasons also happened to be the day he watched his son, Derrick II, wrap up his first day of youth football practice.
It seemed, in many respects, like one of those rare moments in life with the potential for poetic symmetry. The proud, but aging father closes the book on his own remarkable career just as his only son buckles a chin strap for the first time, and cuts sharply through the grass to chase his own football dreams. All careers end eventually, so wouldn't it have felt somewhat fitting if things ended like this? Mason ceding the stage to his own flesh and blood?
"It turned out to be a pretty good day," Mason said at the time. "Watching him backpedal put a smile on my face."
Mason, though, has always been far too competitive to care about something as abstract as poetic symmetry. Even at age 37, he loves the fight — and the weekly struggle — of life in the NFL. He was too proud to retire, or to return to the Ravens after they told him they could no longer afford to pay him what his contract said he was owed. He loves to prove people wrong, and to make the case that he's still difficult to cover. And all that is how we arrived at the surreal scene that will take place on Sunday when Mason steps onto the field at M&T Bank Stadium, a place where he fought and won so many match-ups over the years, wearing the green and white of the New York Jets.
"It's already kind of different looking at him in that uniform," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. "You recognize the way he moves around, the way he catches the ball, and how hard he plays. And to see him in a different uniform is a different thing."
Seeing an ex-Raven in Jets clothing is nothing new, of course. Ever since Rex Ryan became the Jets head coach, he has made it a habit to scoop at least one ex-Raven per year. Some, like Bart Scott and Jim Leonard, the Ravens would have liked to keep but chose to let walk for financial reasons. Others, such as Trevor Pryce and Mason, the Jets grabbed when the Ravens cut them, hopeful that they might return for less money.
But with Mason, the divorce — though mostly amicable — still feels a little raw. Say whatever you want about him, but Mason's personality was deeply woven into the fabric of the Ravens during six years he played in Baltimore. He was loud, he was opinionated, he was intense and his leadership was crucial to a team that went to the playoffs three consecutive seasons.
During his time with the Ravens, Mason delighted in talking trash to opposing head coaches, and a colorful exchange he had with Patriots coach Bill Belichick caused a minor media stir when it was featured in a documentary released by NFL films about Belichick. When Harbaugh was asked this week if he though Mason might have any special words for him on Sunday, the Ravens coach couldn't resist a big grin.
"I'm sure he'll be very nice and gracious," Harbaugh said as reporters laughed. "No, Derrick and I have a great relationship, and if there's some talk going on, that's probably just how it goes out there between the lines."
Force of personality
Outsiders occasionally labeled Mason a diva, but within the locker room, very few players had the universal respect he did. He managed to become one of the dominant personalities on the team, even though the majority of alpha males always seemed to reside on the defensive side of the ball. And that hasn't been forgotten.
"The game will fade one day, but friendships and relationships and brotherhoods will never fade," said Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. "Every Raven that has ever left here to go on to do something else, well, we understand the business. The business side is one thing, but the friendship side is another thing. Mase is one of the true warriors in this game — one of the most consistent people that you probably have ever seen play the position. But, he is on the other side now. It's like going against your brother. You know how it is. You can't let your brother win."
Mason's tenure in Baltimore didn't end perfectly. In 2010, he broke his finger early in the season. Then he got into a highly-publicized sideline squabble with Flacco where he and the quarterback had to be separated by teammates when Mason grabbed Flacco by the face mask. And in his final game in purple, against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, he was held without a catch for just the second time in his Raven career.
But that hardly made anyone forget all the things he did in black and purple. Even Flacco, who obviously didn't have an idyllic marriage with Mason near the end, credits him with helping him come of age as a player.