WANT TO see pain? Watch 34-year-old Ravens receiver Derrick Mason remove his undershirt and shoulder harness after a game, as he did last Saturday in Nashville following Baltimore's 13--10 playoff victory over the Titans. The grimacing started as he slowly maneuvered the tight half-T over his left shoulder, which he'd dislocated two months ago against the Texans. "It's starting to wear off now," said Mason, referring to the painkilling injection he'd taken four hours earlier. "The back of the shoulder is pretty bad."
This is an article from the Jan. 19, 2009 issue
Then with his right hand he detached the Velcro straps on the black harness that helps hold the ball of his left arm in the shoulder socket. Mason groaned as he slowly peeled the harness off, looking up at the ceiling and then closing his eyes for a moment. Once free, his left arm hung lower than the right. Finally, in one quick motion, Mason yanked off the butterfly bandage that covered the injection site, revealing what appeared to be at least two needle marks.
"Aaaaaahhhh," he said softly. "Made it through another one."
The sixth-seeded Ravens, who have beaten the conference's third (Miami) and first (Tennessee) seeds on their journey to Sunday's AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh, have many people to thank. Rookie quarterback Joe Flacco hasn't thrown an interception, fumbled or taken a sack in his first two playoff games. Rookie coach John Harbaugh primed his team not to back down from a Tennessee club that one of his players called "bullies." (A bit of the pot calling the kettle black there.) The defense, which bent like a palm tree in a Caribbean hurricane, forced three Titans turnovers in the red zone. And after the win inspirational director of player development O.J. Brigance, a special-teamer on the 2000 Super Bowl team who's battling Lou Gehrig's disease, received a game ball from safety Ed Reed.
But Baltimore most likely wouldn't be in the NFL's final four without Mason, the Ray Lewis of the offense, a pepper pot with sure hands and the speed to get behind top NFL corners—as he did in scoring the Ravens' only touchdown last Saturday, on a 48-yard grab. "On this team, if you can walk, you can play," Mason says, and that has become his mantra as he has endured an injury that, without medication, makes it excruciating for him even to lift his left arm. He'll take the painkillers when it's essential—shots before games, pills for a day or two after—but because he doesn't want to become dependent on them, he has resorted to other means to stay on the field.
For the last three weeks Mason has been treated by an acupuncturist. "I feel every little prick," he said, "but it's been great. It's helped loosen up the muscle and take away some of the spasming." Then he plays another game. At 5'10" and 192 pounds, Mason doesn't radiate physicality, but looks can be deceiving. On Saturday he often grappled within the five-yard bump zone with Cortland Finnegan, Tennessee's feisty Pro Bowl corner, the medication masking the pain.
"I'm comin' all day!" Mason yelled at Finnegan in the first quarter. And he did, catching a team-high five passes for 78 yards. "That's one receiver who brings it every play," Finnegan said. "I've got a ton of admiration for him, playing with what he's playing with."
Afterward, the shoulder—Mason says he has a torn labrum—began to throb again; the Ravens' medics will treat it as well as they can to get him ready for the Steelers. "Me and pain are pretty much constant companions," Mason said. "But we got an understanding: I get to the end of the season, and I'll deal with him. Not until then."
Says fellow wideout Mark Clayton, who set up Matt Stover's fourth-quarter field goal with a leaping 37-yard catch and Stover's 43-yard final-minute game-winner with an eight-yard reception, "Every man on this offense looks up to [Mason]. His passion and desire affect all of us. To see him drive past the pain he has to deal with every day fuels us."
This has been a grind-it-out team from the start of the season. The defense is still superior, but the pass coverage by linebackers and corners was mediocre against the Titans, who had 391 total yards. Baltimore survived because it played mistake-free and the Titans had butterfingers. But that's all that counts in January: survival. The night before the game, Harbaugh marveled at his team's energy and desire. "I could not believe what I saw at practice this week," he said. "They're jumping out of their skin, ready to play. No matter what obstacles they've faced, all these guys care about is the next game. Derrick, with what he's gone through, is just like that. He's a real metaphor for our team."
On Baltimore's third drive of the day, Tennessee defensive tackle Jason Jones plowed into Flacco late, and the 15-yard penalty moved the Ravens into Titans territory. Three plays later, on third-and-13 from the Tennessee 48, Flacco nimbly stepped out of a scrum just as Mason sped past cornerback Nick Harper on the right side. Tight end Todd Heap sold his seam route downfield, forcing strong safety Chris Hope to stay with him a split-second longer—and keeping Hope from giving Harper the over-the-top help he desperately needed. The ball was slightly underthrown, but Mason waited and caught it, Hope coming too late to prevent the tying touchdown.
"I may be 34," said Mason, a 12-year veteran who turns 35 on Saturday, "but I can still get behind you."
In Mason's first six seasons he was mostly a possession receiver on a run-first Tennessee team, never reaching 80 receptions. In the six seasons since—two with the Titans, four with the Ravens—he has had five 80-reception seasons and quietly risen up the alltime charts, with 790 catches for 10,061 yards to push him into the top 30 in both categories. Never has he had to play in this much pain, though, and as the Ravens' second win of the postseason sunk in on Saturday night, even he seemed a little amazed at how he's held up. "Superman's still here," he said.
On an imperfect team and with an imperfect left shoulder, Mason was exaggerating only slightly.