Helping hands

The Baltimore Sun

As a young, ambitious NFL receiver at the turn of the decade, Derrick Mason wanted it all - big catches, playoff wins, Super Bowl glory.

At age 34 - soon to be 35 - Mason has learned the price of playing through pain, the value of experience and the joy of team success.

That journey brings the Ravens' stylish wide receiver back to the place it started, Nashville, for Saturday's AFC divisional playoff game against the Tennessee Titans.

In 1997, Mason was a fourth-round pick by the Tennessee Oilers, and his biggest contributions were returning kicks and punts. Now, 790 catches and more than 10,000 receiving yards later, he ranks among the NFL's elite playmakers and is the veteran who dispenses wisdom.

"Go to him for questions if you want help, [and] he's definitely eager to help you," rookie wide-out Marcus Smith, a fourth-round pick this year, said yesterday. "He's one of the guys. He's been in the league a long time, but he still plays young, still has a young mind-set, still jokes around with us and relates pretty well."

Mason knows what it's like to be young and impatient. No matter how hard he worked early in his career, it wasn't enough.

"I'm a lot different than I was back in Tennessee," he said. When "I was young, I wanted to catch the ball all the time. I wanted the stats. I wanted to win, too, but I wanted to catch the ball and be the vocal guy so bad because I worked so hard to get to that point."


"Now it's not about that. I understand I have the ability to play the game at a high level, but I also understand that in order for us to win, other guys have to be involved. One day it might be my day, the next week it might be [Mark] Clayton's day."

After 12 seasons, Mason has probably lost a half step off his highlight-reel speed, and his ability to gain yards after the catch is his signature skill at this point.

What distinguishes him most this season, though, is the grit to play through pain. Mason dislocated his left shoulder in Week 10 at Houston but has not missed a game because of the injury, which now affects his trapezius muscle.

"He's a warrior," Smith said. "For him to practice and go back into games and continue to play with the same messed-up shoulder, it shows his character, how much of a hard worker he is and how dedicated he is to this team."

Mason's most courageous performance came two weeks ago in Dallas against the Cowboys, when he left the game three times after hits to the shoulder. He came back each time and eventually grabbed a touchdown pass one-handed.

Mason said his knowledge of Cam Cameron's offense, his offseason conditioning and his rapport with quarterback Joe Flacco have helped him remain a key contributor in the passing game despite the injury.

He is also driven by the promise of playing in another Super Bowl. He played in the January 2000 Super Bowl with the Titans, who lost to the St. Louis Rams. Mason figured he would get another shot, but eight years later, he's still looking.

In Nashville this weekend, Mason will face Pro Bowl cornerback Cortland Finnegan, with whom he had a brief altercation when the teams played Oct. 5 in Baltimore. Mason's reputation for getting on defenders' nerves will precede him.

"He's old, so ..." Finnegan said yesterday in Nashville, laughing. "He probably wouldn't like me saying that. No, no, he's crafty in what he does and what he says. He's a good receiver so he'll make catches and talk to you and a [defensive back] never likes that. Things like that get under your skin, but all in all, he's a good player."

Mason feels a sense of destiny about the Ravens, who were not expected to compete for a playoff spot in their first season under coach John Harbaugh. But they're two wins away from a trip to Tampa, Fla., and this year's Super Bowl.

"I think God appoints everything at a certain time," Mason said. "I think he appoints this team to be the way it is right now. Will we win a championship out of it? I hope we do, but if we don't, this will still have been a special season for us.

"God has truly blessed this team. We have somebody like O.J. Brigance who comes out every day to support us, motivating and inspiring us [as an amyotrophic lateral sclerosis patient]. This thing is not about a championship, even though we want it so bad. This is about a team building something special. And I think God has ordained this team to do something great."

Baltimore Sun reporter Bill Ordine contributed to this article.

80 Derrick Mason's catches this season

790 -- Catches in his 12-year career

1,037 -- Receiving yards this season

10,061 -- Receiving yards in his career

RAVENS (12-5) @TITANS (13-3)

AFC divisional round; Saturday, 4:30 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM

Line: Titans by 3

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