EDITORS NOTE: This is the fifth of a six-part series on the 2018 Louisiana Athletics Hall of Fame Class.
By: DAN McDONALD
LAFAYETTE – Damon Mason was never far from football, and still isn’t, since the LaPlace native only recently accepted his first head coaching position in the fledgling National Gridiron League.
But ask him about his favorite and most vivid football memory, in a sport that he’s been involved with for three decades, and it takes only an instant to recall Sept. 14, 1996, and the most famous night in Cajun Field history.
That was when Mason and the rest of the then-USL defense forced Texas A&M into eight turnovers, capitalizing on those on the way to a 29-22 win that remains the Ragin’ Cajuns’ only win over a ranked opponent.
“It wasn’t just the game, it was everything leading up to the game,” said Mason, who is one of six inductees into the 2018 Louisiana Athletics Hall of Fame. “I still tell people, they don’t understand the mindset we had. Some people thought we were playing to not get embarrassed. We were playing to win. The whole week, the preparation, we believed that and we prepared for that.”
Mason had a 46-yard interception return for a score early in that game, and it was fitting that with 31 seconds left, it was the diminutive 5-foot-9 cornerback that stepped in front of another pass at the USL 13. That interception set off a wild scene that went on long after the final horn, with one goal post eventually getting torn down and leaving the stadium.
Mason had his jersey retired at the end of that senior season, and went on to a storied career in the Arena Football League both as a coach and a player. But that night remains etched in his memory, and not just because he added two forced fumbles, a sack and nine tackles that night in being named national Defensive Player of the Week.
He now comes full circle and will be honored along with fellow former student-athletes Scott Dohmann (baseball), Tiffany Clark Gusman (softball) and Anna Petrakova (women’s basketball), and Lifetime Achievement recipients Yvette Girouard (softball) and Gerald Hebert (administration) as the newest Hall of Fame members.
The group will be inducted into the Louisiana Athletics Hall of Fame on Friday at an evening reception, will be honored during the university’s annual Homecoming parade Saturday morning, and recognized during halftime activities of Saturday’s Homecoming game against New Mexico State at Cajun Field.
“When I got the call, it was like, wow, it happened,” Mason said. “I got to thinking about guys like Orlando Thomas, Jake Delhomme, Brandon Stokley, Jeff Mitchell, guys I played with, guys like Brian Mitchell that played before me. I came to USL knowing I was meant to play football, but it was there that the coaches made me realize how much I had to learn.
“They kept saying what was I going to do when adversity hit. Are you going to sit around and complain, or are you going to fight? I learned so much from that.”
Mason was the state’s Defensive Player of the Year in his 1996 senior season, the same year that Lafayette’s Kevin Faulk won the offensive honors while at LSU. He had 135 tackles that year, still atop the all-time list for tackles by a defensive back and the third-highest single-season total ever for a Cajun defender. He finished his career with 243 tackles and six interceptions.
He earned All-Louisiana, All-Independent and All-Big West Conference honors during his career and was a third-team All-America pick as a senior, but that’s when he thought his football days might be over.
“I wanted to go to the NFL and didn’t get a sniff,” he said. “I went to Canada and got cut. I did a lot of praying and asked God to give me another chance to play. I didn’t want to give it up.”
Not long after that, he got a call from Jay Gruden and the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League in November of 1997.
“I told the coaches at USL that I thought the Arena League was suicide,” Mason said. “But quickly that became a blessing.”
Over the next 13 years, from 1998-2011, Mason became the all-time leading tackler in AFL history with 1,009 tackles in an offense-dominated league. He was a part of two Arena Bowl champions while playing with Orlando, New Jersey, Las Vegas, Carolina, Grand Rapids, Austin, Utah and finally back in his home state with the New Orleans Voodoo.
“The Arena league teaches you the art of your position,” he said. “I was a good football player in high school (All-State at Destrehan High), and I became better in college, but Arena was where I learned the art of covering, how to properly cover a receiver.”
He credits Gruden with putting him on a “collision path” to coaching, one that led to him serving as a player-coach in the AFL for six seasons. He was still coaching part-time for the Jacksonville Sharks of the National Arena League when he got a call to become head coach of the Baton Rouge Red Sticks in the new NGL that will begin play next year.
That call came only a week after Louisiana athletics director Bryan Maggard had also phoned, letting him know of his Hall of Fame honor.
“Blessing after blessing,” he said. “When they come, they come in bunches, I guess. It was such an honor to be part of some of those defenses.”