- Tim Struby
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6:00 A.M. FRANKLIN, TENN.
DERRICK MASON WAKES up before it's light out, as he does every morning. Sometimes he feels stiffness in old battle wounds -- a reconstructed scapula, a left knee plagued by tendinitis, a right pinkie that doesn't bend. But mostly he considers himself lucky; after 943 receptions, 12,061 yards and 66 touchdowns -- 15 seasons in the NFL -- he's not suffering from anything really serious, like arthritic hips or headaches due to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
He showers, dresses in jeans and a snug Pepsi T-shirt, and 30 minutes later he's in his white Range Rover, off to pick up his kids and deliver them to school. During the week, they live with their mother, Marci, with whom Derrick remains friends. The couple, now divorced, talk a dozen times a day, mostly about daughter Bailee, 13, and 10-year-old Derrick Jr. -- what activities are scheduled for the day, who needs to be where and when. For Mason, who retired in June 2012, his children have become the center of his universe. He takes them to school every morning, picks them up every afternoon, watches every lacrosse practice and every dance recital. On weekends, he feeds them, cleans up after them and chauffeurs them, endlessly, around Nashville, where he was based for eight years while playing for the Oilers-turned-Titans. It's a good thing, though. His last seven seasons he made it home only once a week; Mason lived in Baltimore for six of them, then in New York and Houston his final season. He missed out on school plays and scraped knees, Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas parties. Not anymore. "I've become a part of my kids' lives again; I'm able to be a dad," Mason says. "The cheering's stopped, but I still have the two biggest fans in the world."
Coffee in hand, Mason is back at the house by 8 a.m. Home is a handsome four-bedroom in one of Franklin's upscale developments. It's a nice, modest home, certainly no McMansion. Through the front door, Mason immediately sets about his chores. Ginger, his 8-month-old boxer, has pooped in her crate. After he lets her into the backyard, he puts on yellow rubber gloves, grabs a bottle of Mr. Clean and takes the kennel outside into the crisp October air for a hose-down. Next on his list: two loads of laundry to be sorted and put away.
The No. 12 receiver on the NFL's all-time list doesn't mind being Mr. Mom. It's better than being Mr. Nothing or, worse, Mr. Tragic. The problems facing retired NFL players can be dire: multiple concussions and CTE that lead to depression and, in extreme cases, suicide; or unwise investments, expensive tastes or costly divorces that lead to Chapter 11. Yet many of the struggles most former players face don't make the news. Their issues are far more pedestrian, far more common, like getting a job, finding a calling, being productive. "Retirement has been life-changing," Mason says as he carefully places folded clothes into a laundry basket. "It's frustrating at times because I was so used to doing something. Now it's kind of hard to fill the time."
Mason has his health, he has money -- he still has a decent chunk of the nearly $40 million (before taxes anyway) that he made in the league. He doesn't live extravagantly, yet he still struggles. "Some days are better than others," he says. The bad days occur when Mason doesn't have much to do. Time slows to a crawl. The good days are busy days -- days like today. Days when there's not a lot of time to reflect on the future. Days when he feels useful.
"Do I miss the NFL?" Mason says. "Sometimes." He misses the camaraderie. Misses being part of something. Misses the anticipation on game day and the rush of running out of the tunnel into a stadium that explodes with cheers. "But I had my share, I had my allotment in life," he says. He pauses, then grabs another handful of clothes from the dryer.
11:45 A.M. MPOWER FITNESS, FRANKLIN
BEADS OF SWEAT glisten on Mason's shaved head as he does standing cable rotations. After a minute's rest and some water, it's on to lat pulls, the incline bench and leg lifts. Under the supervision of trainer Chris Neville, Mason works out silently, intensely.
"In a month or two, he could be in football shape," Neville says.
Not that Mason is out of shape. At 203 pounds, he's only 8 pounds off his playing weight. He's still ripped, powerful and, for once in his life, enjoying the gym. "It's nice not to have to work out because your job requires it," he explains as he towels off. "I also don't have to train for explosiveness and speed. It's just to maintain my joints and stay healthy enough to keep up with Derrick."
Mason spends two mornings a week at MPower; Wednesdays and Saturday mornings he plays pickup basketball at a local high school gym. He also kickboxes three days a week in addition to the flag football league he joined. The three games he's played in were fun, he says, but a bit weird. "They didn't throw me the ball much," he admits with a laugh. "Guess they figured it wouldn't be fair."
Mason's exercise itinerary isn't totally unusual for a guy into fitness, but in his case it isn't simply about staying in shape. It's about creating structure. Setting a schedule. A need that's common for recent NFL retirees. "Just ask guys around the league. The NFL doesn't foster independence," says Jason Mathews, who played 11 seasons at tackle in the league and now teaches economics and coaches football at Brentwood Academy in Tennessee. "It doesn't teach self-reliance."
Nine months out of the year (and even more during their college years), the daily lives of NFL players are completely mapped out. Meetings and practices and film and meals and travel are all planned to the nth degree. It's so intense that players often equate the rigid structure to the military, or even to prison life. "One of the toughest adjustments is not having a regimented life," Mason says. "Knowing where I had to be every hour of the day, that part I really had to get used to." That's why he wakes up at the same time each day. Buys coffee at the same Starbucks. Goes to the same Mass every Sunday.
"I try to accomplish little things each day," adds Nate Jones, an eight-year NFL vet who's using his finance degree to look for a job on Wall Street. "Have breakfast, work out, maybe visit family. But it's a struggle."
Mason does a final set of iso pushups. Breathing heavily, he wipes his face with a towel. "I thought this year would be difficult," he admits. "I've heard so many guys say so. It gets you kind of scared -- doing one thing for the past 20 years and all of a sudden not doing it."
1:30 P.M. 102.5 THE GAME, NASHVILLE, TENN.
MASON SITS IN a small, soundproof studio painted maroon and black at 102.5 The Game, a local radio station. Beside him is former Titans teammate Brad "B-Hop" Hopkins, current host of the morning show. On this day, Hopkins is filling in on the afternoon show, and he has invited Mason to be a guest.
As Mason tries -- and fails -- to plug his headphones into his MacBook, B-Hop, in a white and blue patterned shirt and blue-tinted glasses, gives his old pal a little ribbing.
"D-Mase, where's your jack?"
Mason shakes his head. "Aw, man, I don't know about these things."
As the show begins, though, it's evident that Mason does know sports. In addition to Titans football, Mason and B-Hop cover a variety of topics: Lance Armstrong, A-Rod, Predators hockey, the upcoming Auburn-Texas A&M game. The two have a good rapport, Mason's straight man to B-Hop's animated jokester.
"All-time favorite football team?" asks Hopkins.
"Gotta be the Chargers with Air Coryell," replies Mason, referring to legendary coach Don Coryell. "Fouts, J.J., Winslow."
Mason is making peanuts for his appearance, but he's happy to be there. After retiring, he wanted to become the next Mike Golic or Cris Collinsworth. His first weekly radio gig was in Nashville. Since then, he has done radio in Baltimore and TV spots on the NFL Network, and these days he's a regular on The Game, filling the airwaves every Sunday night, and Monday mornings during the season. "We love D-Mase," gushes station manager Jeff Kolb. "He's a straight shooter. Doesn't pull punches."
Mason can take these smaller jobs, can afford to develop his career locally. He isn't in the broadcast booth for the money. "I could have to work eventually," he says. "But thankfully it's not urgent."
So he doesn't need to work. But he needs to work. Because at 38, he's old enough to retire from the NFL but far too young to retire from life. Finding a post-NFL gig, though, can be difficult. "Coming out of the NFL, you don't have 10 years on Wall Street or medical school," Jones says. "You've never worked in a real industry, so where do you go from here?"
Many, apparently, don't go anywhere. Talk to former players -- guys who logged five, seven, 10 years in the league -- about their careers after the NFL, and many pursued what they knew best: sports. According to Troy Vincent, NFL senior vice president of player engagement, close to 300 former players are coaching high school football. A few others are lucky enough to land in broadcasting -- most before they even take their last snap. But countless others have no clue as to their next move. "After leaving the NFL, I felt Munsoned," says former Titans lineman Zach Piller, referring to Kingpin character Roy Munson, who went from bowling prodigy to lost pilgrim. Piller, an eight-year veteran who hasn't played since 2006, dabbled in medical equipment sales, barbecue catering and vending machine distribution before "settling" into driving a cart at the Nashville airport, shuttling people between the terminal and the rental car lots for $2.35 an hour, plus tips. It's a far cry from the $4 million signing bonus Piller scored in '03, but he thinks it's better than the alternative: sitting around doing nothing. After all, filling time is filling time. "Guys like Ray Lewis will slide right into a gig after the NFL," Piller says. "But they're the lucky 5 percent. What about the other 95 percent?"
Thing is, that other 95 percent most likely hasn't prepared for a career after football. The overwhelming consensus in the "Not For Long" league is that if you're thinking about your next job, you're somehow jeopardizing your current one. "In order to have success in the NFL, you can't let retirement enter your mind," says former 49ers lineman Eric Heitmann. "You're not gonna play as long or be as good if you think like that."
The NFL is aware of the problem. In 2007 the league sponsored its first "Broadcast Boot Camp" -- a three-and-a-half-day workshop that introduced 20 current and former players to the sports broadcast industry. Since then, the NFL Player Engagement Program has increased its offerings to include 10 seminars on things like music, franchising, Hollywood, and a hospitality and culinary management workshop. "The real adjustment isn't about money, it's psychic and social," Vincent explains.
"Financially, I'd planned," agrees ex-Packers linebacker George E. Koonce Jr., who recently finished writing a book on players' transition to real life. "But when I was playing, I put all of my time and energy into being one of the 1,800 players in the league, not thinking about my next job. So when my NFL career ended, I didn't have a career to transition to. After two years, I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do."
After a couple of hours of radio banter, Mason removes his headphones. Hopkins and producer Austin Huff are all smiles. They thank the two-time Pro Bowl receiver for coming in. But as Mason heads to the parking lot, he explains that a couple of hours a week isn't fine, it's frustrating. "I know I could be full time on ESPN or the NFL Network," he says. "But everything happens for a reason. I'm trying to do more local news shows and time on The Game. Like B-Hop says, you gotta put in the hours. Put in the reps. Just like in sports."
3:00 P.M. SWIFTWICK OFFICES, BRENTWOOD, TENN.
LOOKING TO KILL some time, Mason decides to go look at socks. Tens of thousands of socks, actually. Ankle-high, calf-high, knee-high. Stripes and solids. Some with logos like Papa John's, RadioShack, Superman.
In 2008, on the advice of his money manager, Mason invested in Swiftwick, a Tennessee-based company that produces high-quality compression performance socks. Now about twice a month, he drops by the unassuming Swiftwick headquarters, tucked between a Staples and a tiny post office branch. The front of the offices consists of 10 cubicles, none of which belongs to Mason, and a meeting room. The back holds a warehouse and distribution center. As he roams the premises, the employees greet him with warm smiles. Mason is a friendly guy -- a genuine, humble guy who, while somewhat reserved, radiates an attractive warmth. He was, according to Piller, the perfect teammate. "One of the most competitive guys on the field," he says. "And one of the nicest gentlemen off."
Swiftwick has been a good investment, Mason says. He likes being a part of the operations, albeit marginally, and he loves the socks themselves. Wears them all the time. But this is a man who played in a Super Bowl (1999), holds the Ravens' career receiving record (5,777 yards) and is the only player in NFL history with at least 10,000 receiving yards and 5,000 return yards. It's not a stretch to say that socks don't excite Mason. They don't inspire him. "I need to find something that makes me happy," he says. "Something I enjoy getting up and doing."
For many, including Mason, that's easier said than done. "It's hard trying to find the same drive I had as a player," Heitmann says. "Every athlete, even first-round picks, has a chip on his shoulder. He needs to prove himself. Now I need to find something to get that chip on my shoulder back, to harness that energy, that fire."
"The trick is to find a new purpose, a new mission," Koonce says. After his nine-year NFL career ended in 2000, Koonce found himself adrift, depressed, lost. Eventually he mustered the courage to go back to school, at Marquette University, and in 2012 submitted his Ph.D. dissertation. Its focus? The struggles of former players transitioning to life after the NFL. "Guys need to identify others who can help. A new team with a new game plan. That way they can rekindle the passion they once had for football."
7:50 P.M. ENSWORTH SCHOOL, DEVON FARM CAMPUS, NASHVILLE
IT'S A CHILLY fall night, and Mason is back on a football field in uniform. Not helmet and pads, but orange sneakers, black slacks and a black-and-white polo emblazoned with an orange "E."
Last August he became Coach Mason, the Ensworth Tigers' wide receivers coach. The hours are 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, with Friday night games that include two preseason, eight regular-season and, if all goes according to plan, three playoff games en route to the Tigers' third consecutive state title. Tonight's clash with Mathews' Brentwood Academy team is their biggest so far this season. Not only is it being televised nationally on ESPNU, but the Tigers, at 8–0, need a convincing win to retain their No. 18 national ranking.
Mason enjoys coaching: teaching young men how to get separation, to avoid straightening up at the top of a route, to do it like a pro. He also likes being around the game without being in the game. But he never wanted to be known as Coach. The Michigan State standout, who majored in communications, initially resisted coach Ricky Bowers' offer. "I didn't want to commit," he recalls. "Because what if radio or broadcasting work comes up?" But the phone never rang. As winter turned to spring, Mason reconsidered. Not for the money. He simply needed to get out of the house.
It was an unexpected turn, but these are strange days for Mason. Days like the one a few weeks earlier, Week 1 of the NFL season, when the Titans hosted the Patriots. After a guest radio spot with B-Hop, Mason took a surreal stroll through the LP Field parking lot an hour before kickoff. "I'd never walked into a stadium before," he says. "Never seen tailgating in person."
Mason roams the Ensworth sideline, headset on. He rides the ref when a Tigers receiver is called for a holding penalty. But he does little else. No playcalling, little interaction with his wideouts. It's not his fault; the Tigers have arguably the best running back in Tennessee, and when the final whistle blows, sealing the home team's 20-0 win, the Tigers' aerial attack totals 4-for-7 for 12 yards. "I'm excited for these boys," he says. "Not so much for me."
Mason shakes hands with fellow coaches, congratulates some players and heads to the stands to look for Bailee. En route, he stops to chat with a parent he knows from his daughter's class and graciously poses for a few photos. But Mason seems restless. Not completely comfortable in this pedestrian world. In his new life.
He finds Bailee beside the grandstands, decked out in sequined Uggs and a gray sweatshirt. As he puts his arm around her shoulders and they head for the exit, she looks up at her father and laughs warmly. "It's weird having you around all the time," she says.
Mason doesn't say anything, just keeps walking, nodding in agreement.
In ESPN The Magazine's NFL Preview issue, Tim Struby writes that for Derrick Mason, NFL retirement isn't about battling CTE or dealing with bad investments. He's just a man struggling to fill his days.