OWINGS MILLS - Derrick Mason made an unceremonious exit from the Baltimore Ravens' roster last July with his release triggering strong feelings of hurt, anger and defiance from the veteran wide receiver.
Mason returned to the organization Monday with an entirely different sentiment, one of reconciliation and mutual respect as he officially retired from the NFL as a member of the Ravens.
For Mason, it was a day to remember his six productive years in Baltimore where the two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver established himself as the Ravens' all-time leading receiver.
"I will forever be indebted to this city," said Mason, who wore the same suit to his retirement press conference that he donned when he joined the team after spending the first eight years of his career with the Tennessee Titans. "The decision wasn't hard to retire, and the decision where to retire was just as easy. My heart was here. It never left. My body left, but my heart stayed right in this room."
Mason, 38, built a reputation for toughness, sure hands and a feisty nature on the football field, never missing a game after joining the Ravens seven years ago.
He's the Ravens' all-time record holder with 471 receptions and 5,777 yards, ranking second in franchise history with 29 touchdown catches.
After years of failed attempts to upgrade the receiving corps with an aborted trade for Terrell Owens and settling for journeymen Kevin Johnson, Frank Sanders and Marcus Robinson, the Ravens landed Mason on March 7, 2005 by signing him to a five-year, $20 million contract.
The investment paid off handsomely, and general manager Ozzie Newsome remains satisfied as he recalled the memory of returning from the NFL scouting combine and being informed that the Mason deal was finished. Mason chose the Ravens over a competing offer from the New England Patriots.
"Over the 16, 17 years that we've been here, we've signed a lot of free agents," Newsome said. "I don't know if there is one player over the span of their career that did more for this organization than Derrick Mason did. It could be argued that when you list them all, what Derrick did in the years that he was here, he'd be at the top or near the top."
Cut by Baltimore last July for salary-cap reasons and to make room for younger receivers like Torrey Smith, Mason signed with the New York Jets after talks about rejoining the Ravens fell apart.
It didn't work out with the Jets, though, as Mason was traded to the Houston Texans for a conditional seventh-round draft pick last October.
He was cut by the Texans on Dec. 12 after finishing the season with just 19 receptions for 170 yards and no touchdowns. He retired one month later.
"The year didn't go the way I wanted to, but it went the way it should have went," Mason said. "I believe God has something else for me, and I believe there was a lesson I had to learn last year. I learned it. I was able to mentally prepare myself to retire."
Mason sat between Newsome and coach John Harbaugh at the Ravens' team meeting room, and thanked everyone from Newsome, Harbaugh, his family, owner Steve Bisciotti, team president Dick Cass, middle linebacker Ray Lewis and free safety Ed Reed as well as security and cafeteria employees.
Mason also recalled the influence and faith that the late Steve McNair, his close friend, displayed in him with both the Titans and the Ravens. McNair was murdered by a girlfriend three years ago in Nashville, Tenn.
"I can't leave without thanking Steve," Mason said. "Him and I, more or less, grew up together in the game of football my first eight years and one here. Because of him, my numbers are what they are, because he looked for me, he trusted me, he counted on me. I hope I never failed him. He will always be No. 1 with me."
Mason ranks 11th in NFL history with 943 receptions and 19th in receiving yards with 12,061, tying for 42nd with 66 touchdown catches.
Mason is the lone player in NFL history to generate at least 5,000 return yards and 10,000 receiving yards.
"My run is over, it was a good one," Mason said. "I'm happy."
Although Mason wasn't nearly as big or fast as many other standout wide receivers, few were in his class for hands and reliability.
His routes were textbook.
"It means the people that were throwing to me had enough confidence that I would go and catch the ball, and the people calling the plays trusted that I would be where I need to be," Mason said. "If they don't trust you, you don't catch balls. That circle of people trusted me."
The 5-foot-10, 192-pounder was known for his courage, catching passes over the middle and getting pounded by much larger defenders.
During a 2008 win over the Dallas Cowboys, Mason displayed his grit as he refused to come out of the game despite a fractured left scapula that required surgery after the season. He finished with six receptions for 66 yards.
"Maybe I'm hardheaded," the Detroit native said when asked how he played through the pain. "That's the way I grew up. No matter what the situation was, you couldn't quit. I can remember playing in a parking lot with some grass with my brothers, and I hit my head on the concrete, had a big knot on my head.
"I'm walking home crying and my brother grabs me by the neck and says, ' You're not quitting.' I had to play, and that's where it comes from. I was born and raised that way."
Mason caught 80 passes for 1,037 yards and five touchdowns in 2008 during the rookie campaign for quarterback Joe Flacco.
Mason quickly emerged as Flacco's most popular target, easing his transition into the NFL.
"Derrick was a guy he could count on, a guy who was going to be where he was supposed to be," Harbaugh said. "I've never seen a better route-runner in football. A young quarterback could trust that he's going to be at the right depth, he's going to come out of his break quickly, he's going to be where you expect him to be, and he's going to catch the ball."
During his retirement, Mason said that he plans to spend as much time as possible with his son and daughter, Derrick and Bailee.
He's dabbling in coaching at a local high school. He's interested in pursuing a broadcasting career.
Mason said it's for others to decide if he's worthy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which is probably a long shot considering the bevy of other qualified wide receivers who aren't enshrined in Canton.
"I don't think I revitalized the wide receiver position by any means or stretch of the imagination," Mason said. "I went out and did my job. I hope the numbers speak for themselves. Was I flashy?
"No, but I was a hard worker and I went out and did what I was supposed to do. .. I just want to be remembered as a guy that went out there and did his job the way he knew how, and that was hard and fast."