SI Vault
Edwin Shrake
September 28, 1964
In the melee of the National Football League's two-game-old season—with no team unbeaten or untied—the Minnesota Vikings first walloped the contending Colts and then scared the champion Bears
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September 28, 1964

Now The Nfl's Toddlers Run With The Big Men

In the melee of the National Football League's two-game-old season—with no team unbeaten or untied—the Minnesota Vikings first walloped the contending Colts and then scared the champion Bears

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"I run my tail off," Mason says. "I can run with any back in the league and with most of the ends and flankers, and I ought to be able to outrun a linebacker." He always does. In Mason's second season, 1962, the Vikings scored six touchdowns on the swing-and-up pass. Last year, whenever Mason set to the strong side the defense went into a zone to be certain a safety man would be tagging Mason deep, but the swing-and-up pass worked for three touchdowns. Two weeks ago in the second quarter against Baltimore, Mason and the flanker set left and the Colts went into a partial zone—or trick—defense on the same side to try to protect themselves against the swing-and-up. So Brown ran the swing-and-up pattern from the weak side. It turned into a foot race between Brown and Linebacker Bill Pellington, a race Brown won easily to score on a 48-yard pass from Tarkenton.

" Brown is really the big man for us this year," Mason said. "If they key on me, Bill drives them crazy. I sure am glad we have him." The kind of running Mason does best is hit quick and then disappear over the horizon. "But I had trouble learning that," Mason said. "In my rookie year, 1961, we had Hugh McElhenny, and he sort of took me under his wing. Most of the stories about me say I didn't play regularly as a rookie because I was hurt [he got a pinched nerve in his neck during workouts for the Chicago All-Star game], but that wasn't the reason at all. I didn't play regularly because McElhenny was better than I was. He was great to me, though. He tried to teach me everything, and that's how I got into trouble.

" McElhenny was a dancer. He had great balance and footwork. I tried to copy him. I would be dancing around looking for holes, and wham! While I was dancing the hole closed and I was nowhere. I finally learned what I had to do was break for that hole and run as fast and as hard as I could. I'm no dancer. But the thing McElhenny helped me most on was my confidence. He used to put his arm around me and say, 'Kid, you can be the best halfback in this league.' Eventually I believed him. You can't be anything as an athlete without confidence."

Mason's long runs are a result of planning as well as instinct and ability. "Of course, you can't really plan a long run, but you can make it a lot easier for yourself," Mason said. "I can diagram everybody's assignment on every play, and when I break into the secondary I know where my help is most likely to come from. I know what defensive backs are fastest and should be avoided if possible. I can nearly set my pattern for going downfield. Then much of it depends on reflex. I see a flash of color and go the other direction. If, for example, I see a flash of color on my right and know I'm about to be hit from that side, I prepare for it. I spin and give them a limp leg and try to twist out and keep going. I can't overpower the guys in this league.

"I never have felt I have run as well as I am capable. I look at movies and see where I made a wrong cut. I made it in a split second with bodies all around me a few feet away, but still I see in the movies where it was wrong. I'm working to improve that and to improve my balance."

As a blocker Mason is excellent, though he had to make some embarrassing adjustments in his early days as a pro. The first time he tried to pass-block Doug Atkins, Chicago's 6-foot-8, 255-pound All-League end, Mason ducked and lunged. Atkins leaped over Mason's head and landed on Tarkenton. "They call Atkins 255, but he hasn't been that light since he was 10 years old," said Mason. "He's at least 285. Next time I kept my head up and he grabbed me by the seat of the pants and scruff of the neck and tossed me aside like a bouncer throwing a drunk out of a beer joint. But blocking is a matter of pride. I can knock down a 230-pound blitzing linebacker if I really hit him hard. I've found out I feel it less if I hit him hard. If I get set and wait he'll knock me end over end. Football is a game of hitting. I don't think of myself as a hard-nosed player. But I know you have to keep hitting and hitting and hitting until you make the other guy quit, and that's how you win. I haven't missed an assignment in two years through not knowing what I was supposed to do. If I didn't get the job done it was not because I was in the wrong place or not trying."

Mason's exuberant personality has brought him more than the usual amount of locker-room jockeying. He sings and plays his guitar at the slightest invitation, he drives a new Cadillac with a stereophonic tape machine on the front floorboard blaring Percy Faith records, he likes to keep his brown hair long, and he is not reluctant to wear his black-and-gray cowboy boots with a suit. All of that can be, and often is, used against him. Once when the Vikings met to watch movies of a game with Green Bay, Van Brocklin called their attention to a play in which Mason slipped as he was trying to block Linebacker Bill Forester. Mason sprawled ingloriously on the wet turf, and Forester sprawled on Tarkenton. "Gentlemen," said Van Brocklin, "that is how a guy blocks who has a Cadillac and a banjo."

"He also pointed out my long hair and said I looked like a Hollywood beach bum," Mason said. "But I didn't mind. Dutch chews me out the same as he does a rookie. Nobody gets special treatment on this team. So we try to help each other. I think when I made All-NFL last year we were all proud—not for me but for the Vikings."

Mason began singing at the age of 4 when he would walk along the banks of the Calcasieu River in Lake Charles, La., harmonizing with his mother and older brother, Boo. At Lake Charles High School, Mason played saxophone in the concert band for four years. But by then Mason was also playing football. He broke the district high school rushing and scoring records Boo had set and, despite an impassioned selling job by Paul Dietzel at LSU, Tommy followed Boo to Tulane in 1957, the year hurricane Audrey smashed ashore at Cameron and destroyed the Masons' home on the Calcasieu. In 1958 Tommy and Boo, who is now a captain in the Air Force, played in the same backfield.

In his senior year Mason led the Southeastern Conference in rushing and scoring and played 48 minutes per game. That was also the year a woman influenced Mason to change his course of study. Mason had been a predental student. He abandoned that and became an English major. He did it so he could expand his range of conversation with Lily Christine, an exotic dancer who goes by the name of the Cat Girl.

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