In the moments before Michigan took the field in its season opener against Minnesota last Saturday, Ben Mason asked to speak. The fifth-year senior fullback-turned-defensive tackle-turned-H-back has never been shy. As someone who relishes hitting like few others, Mason can come off like a caricature — the type of football player Faux Pelini would create in a lab.
So, in keeping with that image — snot dripping from his nose — Mason turned the conversation onto junior quarterback Joe Milton.
“What he said was, Joe, this is your night,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “We are gonna block, we’re gonna catch, we’re gonna do everything in our power to make you successful.”
And block Mason did. On the Wolverines’ third play from scrimmage, he heard a whistle and kept blocking a Golden Gopher defender until he had run over the first down marker and into the Minnesota bench. The play drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and killed a drive, and no one in Michigan’s program will say a negative word about it.
“They made a movie out of that called The Blind Side,” Harbaugh said. Call it a tone-setter. That was certainly Mason’s goal. He also did it because it’s how he’s been taught to play football. His explanation is as simplistic as it is delightful.
“All that I was thinking was that I’m gonna block my guy for as long as I can and I’m not gonna let him touch Joe because he has the ball,” Mason said. “So, ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been taught, run through the guy and drive your legs. My youth coach and my dad taught me that. That’s just something I’ve done ever since.”
The play represented something of a return to normal for Mason. Prior to Josh Gattis’ arrival, Harbaugh used him as a fullback — a position he cherished. When Gattis came and installed a spread offense that relied heavily on 11 personnel, there wasn’t much of a place for a fullback within the offense, so Mason moved to defensive tackle, bringing his weight up to about 278 pounds.
To put it shortly, the move didn’t work. Mason got pushed around on the defensive line, and by about the fifth game of last season, he started to move back to offense full time. Now he’s back down between 255 and 260 pounds, and back in a role he loves.
“I like blocking,” Mason said. “And they’re gonna let me block. So I think that’s just my skill.”
Never has a truer sentence been uttered by a football player than Ben Mason saying, “I like blocking.” Look no further than the first drive of Saturday’s game.
“Ben was penalized, and probably rightfully so,” Harbaugh said. Then he got to what he wanted to say. “It was a tremendous block. Tremendous, tremendous block on a tremendous player.”
One drive later, Mason helped blow open a hole for Zach Charbonnet to run 70 yards untouched and score. By the end of the first quarter, he had added an eight-yard reception — his lone catch of the day — on which he flipped over a defender for a touchdown.
By definition, a player like Mason is suited for his role. But few see it shine through in their personality in the same way as him. Harbaugh and sophomore wide receiver Mike Sainristil both, in remembering his pregame speech, noted that — unlike most pregame-speech givers — Mason backed up every word.
“Easy to make the speech but maybe a dozen or so I can think of after making the speech actually went out and did what they said they were gonna do in the speech,” said Harbaugh, who played 49 college games, 177 NFL games and on Saturday coached his 223rd game at either level. “And he did that and then some.”
When Mason spoke to reporters on Tuesday, he was asked about the block on which he took a penalty. He was asked about the speech. Over 12 minutes, the touchdown didn’t come up.
It’s hard to imagine that’s not exactly how he’d want it.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.