Newtown product Ben Mason stood at the podium last December in a familiar position, and shared a story that epitomizes why he was there in the first place.
He described how his father walked up to him and cut the sleeves off the shirt underneath his jersey — thus making him the only player without them — prior to a game in frigid temperatures, and why it was important to do so. The winner of the Toughest Player of the Year as a freshman at the University of Michigan was bred to be tough from a young age.
The episode told took place in third grade.
“Yeah my wife was mad at me for that one,” joked Mason’s father, Bob. “It was cold as hell; it wasn’t so much as ‘I’m tough,’ but I’m going to work the hardest and go through the toughest things. And when you encounter the toughest things, you just push through.”
A lifetime of toughness is paying off for Mason, who has turned heads since arriving on campus at Ann Arbor. The sophomore is atop the depth chart at fullback and primed for a big second season.
His reputation for living in the weight room quickly made waves among his teammates and coaches. Eccentric coach Jim Harbaugh was quick to recognize and praised him in early interviews. He knew he had a unique talent on his hands. Harbaugh went out of his way to praise the 2016 Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year prior to him even putting the pads on. The 250-pound Mason enrolled in January, 2017 and had a whole new batch of toys to play with in a state of the art weightlifting facility.
“I really have a great relationship with coach Harbaugh and I couldn’t say enough good things about him,” Mason said. “I was ready to play fullback and I had a mindset adopted to just be ready for anything; I just ran with it and ended up making some noise.”
The source of this toughness isn’t too far from home. Bob Mason was a Division III All-American at Ithaca College before signing with the Washington Redskins and New York Jets. A hair shorter than his son, though both are 6-foot-3, Bob — who got to coach Ben and his younger brother Dan for one season at the youth level — soon ran out of advice for his fledgling prospect as his son exploded onto the scene with the Nighthawks. The family moved to Newtown from Massachusetts when Ben was in middle school.
“I have a great relationship with my dad,” Mason said. “It’s great because he has that playing experience and he knows the game of football very well, so I can talk to him about different schemes and stuff like that. From a mental perspective I would say I got a lot of my mental toughness (from him).”
Ben and Dan would line up across from one another in the kitchen; a heavy bag in the basement served as a victim to youthful exuberance.
“I always believe people emulate what they see and as a parent you have to set the right example,” Bob said. “The kids will see from you what they think is acceptable. It’s ok to be aggressive in the right place and it’s ok to have emotion to do those things for them on the field.”
Mason’s love for the iron began under unfortunate circumstances. An ACL tear in eighth grade required rehab and resulted in lifting weights for the first time in his life. Mason followed his dad to the NYA Sports & Fitness to rehab for six months, then went on his own from there.
“If you ask anyone at the NYA, that kid lived at the gym,” Bob said. “After he tore his ACL, I started taking him there and showed him some things; by his junior year he was working with a trainer. He grew up in the environment that you’re only getting out of something what you put in.”
It paid off in a big way and Mason was an instant contributor with the Nighthawks as a freshman, when even seniors weren’t all that excited to go against him in drills. That was the start of a memorable career that included setting the state record with seven interception returns for touchdowns.
“I’m not surprised at all (with his early success at Michigan),” Newtown coach Robert Pattison said. “If there was a kid with his body and mind, a smart, physically tough player; he was ready for college. I’m surprised he didn’t play a little more because of what he did do in his sample size.”
There is no other speed than full throttle for Mason, whether it was in the house after practice with Dan, in drills at Newtown or even at Michigan. Walk-throughs do not exist.
“No slowing down,” running back Chris Evans told the Detroit Free Press last summer of Mason’s intensity. “We (were) doing a walk-through over the summer, just with the running backs. And it’s just a walk-through. It’s like a motion — we go out to the sides and we run go routes. It’s a walk-through and he just sprints. He’s out there sweating and it’s just a walk-through.”
YouTube worthy special teams hits are the manifestation of the non-stop effort, in addition to punishing blocks or truck-stick hits with the ball in his hands. Mason had the second-highest bench press on the team last year.
“It’s something I take a lot of pride in,” Mason said. “In my eyes a football player has four things that make him good: he’s either smart, fast, strong or tough. I try to be a mix of all four of those things, but toughness plays a big role.”
History repeated itself at Michigan against several odds. First, he was converted from linebacker to fullback for one of the few FBS schools that uses one, let alone more than one on occasions. He appeared in about a handful of snaps per game and notched a pair of touchdowns, the first coming against Wisconsin.
“I just pushed myself as hard as I could,” Mason said. “I wanted to get playing time; at the very beginning of the year I was used at special teams and as the year progressed my role increased on offense. I was excited to get a couple of touchdowns and at the end of the day help the team.”
Running out to a Hawk’s Nest crowd of 3,000 against Ansonia in 2014 — a night when Newtown snapped the Chargers’ 48-game win streak — was the largest crowd he encountered before college; the first game of Mason’s Michigan career came at Cowboys Stadium against Florida in front of about 80,000 fans, followed by a home opener before more than 100,000 at the Big House. The rectangle in the middle was the same in his eyes, though.
“It seems like it would be a big adjustment, but to be completely honest football is football,” Mason said. “The field is the same size and even though all those people are watching, I just think once you’re between lines you’re able to focus on the game.”
Mason was accepted into Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business and will challenge himself academically as well. He is fully recovered from offseason meniscus surgery from an injury suffered during last season and could be in the mix to see snaps at linebacker — he’s seen reps there in practice during the offseason — at some point, according to several reports. The Wolverines went 8-5 last season and hope to bounce back this time around.
“Ben came here last January, and he worked extremely hard both in the weight room and on the field and in the classroom,” Harbaugh said during the team’s award ceremony last December. “I’ve never seen a guy go forward, downhill and just hit somebody better than this guy.”