Ben Mason speaks and it’s hard not to be startled.
His voice lowers. His eyes wander. His mohawk protrudes.
“It’s just a football position,” he says with a visceral appreciation for being a fullback. “For football players.”
This is one side of Ben Mason; the overtly gruff brute of a human being. This is the Ben Mason who will tell you how much he enjoys hitting people as many times — in as many ways — as you’ll ask. In two short years, that public persona has evolved from cult hero to the stuff of legend. “Bench” Mason, he’s called. That’s all real.
Those who know him best speak to another side, though.
His friend and high school teammate, Tom Long, tells of the Ben Mason who, at an eighth grade dance, requested the DJ play an Adele song so that he could sing it in front of the whole class, channeling his best impersonation.
“Spot on, too,” Long said.
That’s the Ben Mason who compelled his high school team to partake in the “Mannequin Challenge” when it was making the rounds on social media.
Former Michigan fullback and now-graduate assistant coach Henry Poggi tells of a young freshman looking to find his way. The two were roommates during Mason’s first fall camp. Poggi — a starting fullback at the time — referred to Mason as his “son.”
After watching a Facebook video on the virtues of making your bed, Poggi decided it would be the first thing he did each morning. Mason, being the impressionable freshman he was, decided he would do the same.
Then, one day during camp, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh asked Mason to give the “Wise Words” after practice — a tradition in which one player offers a message of inspiration before ending the day. Players take the opportunity seriously, especially younger players like Mason looking to make an impression. Some opt for an inspirational quote or advice a coach gave them. Others choose a poem.
Mason took a different route.
“Ben had been talking to me about it,” Poggi recalls, “and he said he wanted to talk about how we make our beds every morning and how that gets us going.
“I’m like, ‘All right, you wanna run it through with me, so that it’s fresh in your mind so you sound good up there?’ ”
Mason declined. He had it all covered.
That is, until his moment arrived. Called up in front of the team to deliver his remarks, Mason’s mind wandered. He stared off into the distance for 10 seconds, Poggi estimates.
“People are kinda looking around like, ‘What on earth is this guy gonna say?’ ”
Then he started talking.
Every day, in the morning, me and Poggi wake up, and we yell at each other! And then we make our beds!
“And people are, like, waiting for it,” Poggi said. “He didn’t really know what else to say, he just knew that he wanted to talk about making beds. But he was so excited, he hadn’t thought about what really the point was to making beds.”
And it gets our day going!
From there, with nothing else to offer, Mason sprung into full panic mode, looking around in a plea for help. Harbaugh stepped in and gave Mason a hug.
“Ben,” he said, “that was awesome.”
“It was the best “Wise Words” because it was so genuine, so Ben Mason,” Poggi said. “Some guys will go up there and just talk and talk and talk.
“Ben, a man of few words, just wanted to talk about making beds.”
Ben Mason wasn’t always a fullback, though those around him seem to think the position was a matter of preordained fate.
“Ben is like a natural fullback,” Poggi said. “He was put on this earth to play fullback.”
The first time Poggi met Mason was during Mason’s recruiting trip. The Newtown, Conn. native was donning a skin-tight blue jacket.
“Wow, who on earth is this kid?” Poggi thought. “Hopefully I’ll be gone before he gets here.”
At the time, Mason still held out some hope of playing linebacker. Defensive coordinator Don Brown recruited Mason at the position while he was at Boston College. When Brown was hired at Michigan, Mason came too. He loved Brown’s scheme and the defensive coordinator’s passion.
Mason enrolled early and spent most of his first spring on the defensive side of the ball.
“I think that’s where coach Harbaugh wanted him at first, when they were initially recruiting him,” said Steve George, Mason’s high school coach. “I think Ben really wanted to play linebacker at the time.”
He was fast, but not quite Devin Bush-beating-a-running-back-to-the-edge fast. He was agile, but hardly Khaleke Hudson-shedding-blockers agile.
His strengths, unsurprisingly, were in run defense and sheer physicality.
Harbaugh and his staff liked what they saw when Mason went forward. So after Mason’s first spring they asked a simple, but ultimately prophetic, question: Why can’t he do that all the time?
“We felt like he was so good as a downhill type of linebacker that, to be able to do that all the time, to be a downhill, aggressive football player,” Harbaugh said, “fullback would be a great position for him.”
One day, Harbaugh called Mason and asked what he thought of a full-time move to fullback. Mason didn’t hesitate in his response.
“Oh, I would do anything that was right for the team,” he said Wednesday, thinking back, “and that I was excited to do it.”
To some, that cliche of “doing anything for the team” comes off as disingenuous lip-service. This was anything but.
“The biggest thing with me: I wanted to come in and make an impact no matter how I could do it,” Mason said. “And I was going to find a way no matter to come in and make an impact.”
This was a guy who would find his way on the field or die trying.
There was a time when Mason thought that would come on special teams exclusively, so he honed his craft at long-snapper. He still wants to play long-snapper.
“I’m still thinking of doing that in the next couple years,” says the sophomore fullback with six touchdowns on the season.
He means it, too.
After he accepted the head coaching job at San Diego, Harbaugh promised Bo Schembechler that as long as he coached, there would be a fullback on the roster.
Now, 14 years later, that sentiment still stands at Michigan. Fullback is a foundational component of this program, inextricably linked to its identity. That extends to the role on the field, sure. But to Mason, it’s deeper than that.
“I think playing the fullback position is a mentality more than anything else,” Mason said. “It’s not something physical, it’s not even your athleticism … when it comes down to it, just having the mindset that you’re going to come downhill, and you’re going to make plays for the team no matter what.”
Harbaugh once said he thinks football is “the last bastion of hope for toughness in America in men.”
If you subscribe to that kind of rhetoric, Mason might be your Messiah. His high school tape is an absurd — even comical, if you partake in Schadenfreude — array of bludgeonings.
His nearly two years at Michigan have been full of the same. Physicality is his persona, and he wears it in his emotions, his interests, his voice and, mostly, his play. A pure fullback.
And yet, the ilk of Ben Mason is a dying breed across the sport of football. Michigan currently lists six fullbacks on its roster; six of the other top-12 teams in the College Football Playoff rankings don’t even list one.
Michigan’s embrace of the fullback isn’t just abnormal in this modern era of football. It’s borderline unprecedented.
In 2017, Pro Football Focus graded 18 fullbacks total in the NFL. Roughly 10 percent of snaps in the NFL this season have included two-back personnel, according to sharpfootballstats.com. As teams at all levels of football use more spread concepts, the fullback has rapidly devolved.
“So my question is what’s the next step?” asked ESPN writer and analyst Matt Bowen.
Some believe there will come a day in which the fullback as we know it disappears. Others think it will remain but continue to dwindle in relevance. Bowen has theories of his own.
Right now, he sees a role for fullback with different skills, rather than the traditional downhill style. He points to Kyle Juszczyk of the San Francisco 49ers as a prime example.
“I think the first thing is versatility. Can you catch the football? Can you play a role in the passing game? Because if you don’t, then you’re limited in terms of game situation,” Bowen said. “And also formation flexibility. You want to be able to line in an I-set and get downhill. I think you also have to be able to motion to shift outside to run a route and catch a football.”
Both his coaches — George and Harbaugh — seem to think Mason has that ability.
George: He has a lot of different weapons in his arsenal. He has very good hands. He’s a tough runner. Really good north/south runner. … He’s also a very good blocker. He picks up the schemes quick. When you have a kid like that, I think it’s very easy to introduce him into the offense and work him into the different sets and plays.
Harbaugh: He’s got the ability to do a lot. Catch the ball out of the backfield, block, run. It’s an expanding package with Ben.
In an ecosystem predicated on zigging while others zag, Bowen sees a possibility — even a likelihood — for the return of smashmouth offense.
“You’re going to see a return of more power football, where offenses say, ‘OK, if you’re going to build your defenses on speed, we’re going to start bringing back power football and getting downhill more,’ ” Bowen said. “If that’s the case and that happens, then you’ll see the return of the fullback.
“I think it’s gonna come back. I really believe that.”
Mason, for his part, isn’t going to lose sight of who he is or what drives his passion. If you asked him whether he loves football, Don Brown posited Wednesday, “he might swing.” (This reporter didn’t dare test that.) He’s certainly not going to conform to some trend to appease any NFL goals.
But he has NFL goals and he’s not blind to what he might need to accomplish to get there. He strays from confronting those goals directly (his team goal is “to win” and his individual goal is to “help the team”). Above the fame or fortune, Mason wants to keep playing football because he couldn’t imagine life without it.
The sport of football is so deeply ingrained in who Mason is; he won’t let some modern-day trend deter that. He’s just trying to hit people. And make a living doing it.
If that means expanding his repertoire to adapt? All the better.
“I think down the line, I definitely have to prove myself as a reliable route-runner, pass-catcher,” Mason said. “I’m looking forward to doing that.
“I’m thinking right now of a snowball effect. In anything, once you do something and you’re productive with it, they’re only going to give you more of a role.”
“What more can I do?” he poses rhetorically, as if there’s a self-imposed limit.
As if the answer is anything short of “whatever I’m asked.”