Stakes is high: The rise to fame of Auburn's Tre Mason
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- To make sense of these next few words, they must be read to the beat of the final verse of De La Soul's anthem "Me, Myself and I." You know how the song goes. Feel free to shake your booty.
War Damn Eagle, Hallelu/Auburn will read-option you/Mason will not be denied/Simply look him in his eyes/People think they dis this offense/by stating that it will not pass/I know this so I point at Gus/and he states "fast is fast."*
(*I realize I reworked this verse in 2011. Consider this the remix.)
Auburn tailback Tre Mason has heard nearly every variation of "Me, Myself and I." It paid for the house in which he grew up. Long before thousands at Jordan-Hare Stadium cheered for the junior from Lake Worth, Fla., thousands at Madison Square Garden and venues around the world cheered Mason's father and his coworkers for helping define a genre of music that, in its infancy, struggled to earn respect. Vincent Mason was a high-schooler on Long Island when he and two friends recorded 3 Feet High and Rising. The album was released in 1989, and "Me, Myself and I" was its biggest hit. As hip-hop was spilling over into the mainstream, De La Soul proved that the genre could take an artistic tack. In the two decades since, De La Soul has influenced dozens of hip-hop and pop stars. But at the time the group recorded its debut album, Vincent was planning to join the military if music failed to provide an income.
The record struck a chord within the music industry, and when the elder Mason, known professionally as DJ Maseo, was younger than Tre is now, he went on tour with LL Cool J, Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane and NWA -- all first-ballot hip-hop hall of famers. So Vincent understood well what Tre was going through as he morphed into the Tigers' most reliable offensive star during their miraculous run to the BCS title game. Fame came fast, but the elder Mason offered some sound advice as his son rose to stardom almost as quickly as he did. "We talk about it," Vincent said. "It's not that deep to discuss. He's seen how I've operated throughout my career. I think just based on how he's been brought up. Staying grounded is always important. Be who you are on the way up, because that's who you'll be on the way down."
At the moment, following a late-season surge that helped Auburn earn a BCS championship date with Florida State on Monday night, Tre stands near the top of his chosen field. He gained at least 117 rushing yards in each of the Tigers' final five games. He ran for 164 in the Iron Bowl win over Alabama, and he followed that with an SEC Championship Game-record 304 yards on 46 carries against Missouri. Mason didn't emerge as Auburn's featured back until a 45-41 win at Texas A&M on Oct. 19, but his play over the season's final two months earned him Heisman Trophy votes and a trip to New York. While Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston ultimately took home the award, Tre may have surpassed his father as the most famous person in the family. "We just try to accept everything gracefully and respectfully," Vincent said. "The world is definitely changing around him because of what he's accomplishing. But he's the same Tre. He's just maturing a lot faster because of what's going on."
Vincent knew before Tre entered kindergarten that the boy was an athlete. Vincent can't recall if the party was for Tre's fourth or fifth birthday, but he remembers holding it at a park near the family's home in New York. Tre had floated a little too far away from grown-up eyes, so Vincent set out to retrieve his son. In the next few seconds, Vincent would experience firsthand what SEC tacklers had to endure this season. "I come after him, and he dips," Vincent said. "He runs -- like kids do when they don't want to listen or just want to be playful. I realize I'm really running after this kid and I can't catch him." The family had set up an apple-bobbing station at the party, and after Tre broke free of his dad, he ran to the bucket, dunked his head in and emerged with an apple clutched in his teeth. He didn't spike the apple, but he could have.
Vincent moved the family to Florida when Tre was eight, and all four of the Mason children adopted an athletic, outdoor lifestyle. Tre began to play organized football in middle school at North Broward Prep in Coconut Creek, Fla. Once again, Vincent realized quickly that his son had a preternatural gift for evading tacklers. "Freakishly, he ran for this touchdown," Vincent said. "Then he did it again. Then he did it again. Then he did it again. I was like, 'Tre, what did you see?' He said, 'Daddy, I just see myself down there.'"
But by the time Tre was a freshman at Park Vista High in Palm Beach, Fla., he had given up football altogether. He had decided he was the next Allen Iverson. His mother, Tina, gently suggested that Tre might be passing up on a gift for football. "It was definitely mom really being on his case about pursuing what truly could be his genius," Vincent said. "He was that good at it." After attending a Park Vista football game as a freshman, Tre realized his mother was correct. "I think I could do this," Tre remembers thinking while at the game. "I think I could dominate."
He did. Mason ran for 1,634 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior. But that wasn't good enough to land scholarship offers from Florida, Florida State or Miami. Mason would have to leave the Sunshine State to prove himself. He took official visits to Auburn, Ole Miss and West Virginia, deciding in January 2011 that he wanted to play for then-offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn on the Plains.
The 5-foot-10, 205-pounder won the starting kickoff return job as a freshman, but he carried only 28 times as the Tigers relied on backs Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb. Malzahn left to become the coach at Arkansas State and new coordinator Scot Loeffler brought in a pro-style offense in 2012. Mason led Auburn in rushing that year with 1,002 yards, but the accomplishment felt hollow as the Tigers stumbled to a 3-9 (0-8 SEC) season. Malzahn's return as coach helped set the table for a magical season for Mason, but it was the arrival of junior college transfer quarterback Nick Marshall that made Mason even more dangerous. Some duos were born to play together, and even though Mason and Marshall don't share genes, they act as if they do. "Me and Nick, we're always together," Mason said. "He's like my brother."
This relationship is especially critical in a read-option offense such as Auburn's. On read-option plays, the quarterback decides whether he'll hand the ball to the tailback or keep based on a "read" of one unblocked defender. Essentially, when the defender commits to tackling one player, the other keeps the ball. This forces quarterback and tailback to stay "meshed" for a moment as chaos swirls around them. The quarterback places the ball in the tailback's gut, and the tailback must know whether to clamp down and keep the ball or whether the quarterback is going to pull it. There is no time for verbal communication, so the players must work by feel. This can be improved by practice, but only to a point. "Obviously, a lot of it is not coaching," Tigers offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said of the reads made by Mason and Marshall. "It's just them playing." Said Mason: "We know each other's tendencies. Sometimes, when he's not supposed to pull it, he pulls it because he knows he can get around the edge. It's just a great chemistry we have."
That chemistry helped Mason gain 2,137 all-purpose yards this season, breaking Bo Jackson's 28-year-old school record. It also earned the respect of Jackson himself, who watched Auburn's SEC title game win over Missouri on Dec. 7 from the sideline. As Mason continued to pile up carries, Jackson offered the best advice Bo knows. "He said, 'Run north and south,'" Mason said. ""Don't waste no movement going east and west.'" Mason swears he wasn't overworked in the game in spite of his 46 carries. "I wasn't going to stop until the clock hit zero and we won; I wasn't tired," Mason said. "Even after the game, I was celebrating. I was happy. I probably could've went another game."
Malzahn confirmed that account. "I think we could have given it to him 10 more times if the game was on the line," the coach said. "In fact, I know we could have."
Malzahn believes Mason's style hearkens back to a day when backs routinely begged for carry totals in the 30s and 40s. "He's got some old school in him," Malzahn said. "There's no doubt."
Of course he does. Mason is the son of one of the kings of old school. Old school hip-hop, but old school nonetheless. The younger Mason's musical selection leans more toward Lil' Wayne than Big Daddy Kane. In spite of Vincent's best efforts, Tre hasn't totally embraced the legends in the field. "Of course he tried to," Tre said. "I always tell him 'That's not my era, dad. That's not my era.'"
This is Tre's era. After a lifetime spent watching crowds cheer for his father, he's now the one in the spotlight. "I just always had a dream of being a big star on that type of stage," he said. "And it happened. God blessed me with that."