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?
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.
"Obviously, he was pretty big for me as a young quarterback," Flacco said. "To have a guy like that, who's able to get open on a regular basis the way he was able to get open and kind of help me out, that helped this whole team out."
Even though Mason finished as the Ravens all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, numbers aren't what his ex-teammates say they remember. Several players brought up a game in 2008 that the Ravens played against the Cowboys. Baltimore was battling for a playoff spot, and Mason — who had re-aggravated a separated shoulder in the first quarter — was in immense pain, writhing on the turf every time he was tackled. He couldn't even lift his left arm. He still snagged a key touchdown to help the Ravens sneak out of Dallas with a 33-24 win.
"I mean, that Dallas game sums him up perfectly," said Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson. "If he is able to move, he's going to be on that field. And if he's on the field, he's going 100 mph. He was trying to fight dudes in that game with one arm. That's just the kind of player he is, and you can't replace that. He was especially hard to lose because he was our vocal, emotional leader on offense. When things needed to be said, Derrick stood up and said them. It has been different with him not around."
The typically loquacious Mason isn't saying much this week. He's been bombarded with requests, according to the New York Jets media relations department, and has chosen to grant only a handful of interviews. But every time he has been asked to describe what this week will feel like, one word continues to come up: bittersweet.
"It's going to be bittersweet because when I came [to Baltimore], that city embraced me," Mason said in a radio interview with 105.7 The Fan. "I'm not even talking about the organization, I'm talking about the city. They fell in love with me and I fell in love with them. Coming from a rival team, that was kind of hard. All that I did on the field, I'm pretty sure I could say the fans could say I gave everything I had. Did I make every play? No, but I made 99 percent of them. I'm going to enjoy my time [in Baltimore], but it will be bittersweet."