Keeping the dream in sight

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 19, 1998

By Michael Kiral / L’Observateur / January

19, 1998LAPLACE – The complaint about some athletes today is that they have hadit too easy all their lives and do not know what adversity is. They havebeen pampered because of their ability and have had to work little to getto the top.

But there are also those athletes who have had to overcome obstacles torealize their dreams. A Michael Jordan has to overcome getting cut fromhis high school basketball team. Or a Rod Smith goes from being anundrafted free agent to helping his team reach the Super Bowl. And oncethese players realize their goals, they are often more appreciative oftheir success because they realize the hard work they have had to put in toaccomplish it.

Damon Mason falls into that latter category. Mason, a LaPlace native andgraduate of Destrehan High School, has had to overcome adversity but hasnot let it diminish his dream – to make it to the NFL.

Mason is keeping that drive alive despite going undrafted after a stellarcareer at Destrehan High School and the University of Southwest-ernLouisiana. This season, he will be the franchise player of the LouisianaBayou Beast of the fledging Professional Indoor Football League.

Mason said the PIFL is an eight-team league with other franchises basedin Minnesota, Hawaii, Colorado and Texas. The Bayou Beast will be based inBaton Rouge and will play in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

The PIFL is similar to the Arena Football League with minor changes.

Fields are 50 yards long and there is no punting. Mason said that the headcoach of the Bayou Beast, Buford Jordan, a former New Orleans Saint, saidit is like playing ice hockey with tennis shoes.

Tryouts for the Bayou Beast were held this past weekend at LSU, andMason said the team currently has 60 players. A final cutdown to 30players will be made before the season with 22 players allowed to dressout for games.

Mason said the Bayou Beast is made up mostly of players from Louisiana.The majority of the players have college or semi-pro experience with acouple of players having played Arena Football.

The team’s first preseason game is at Minnesota March 21 with the firsthome game in the Assembly Center March 28 against Texas. The regular season begins April 11 at home, and the team will play 14 games. The top four teams make the playoffs with the championship game in August.

Mason said the Shrivers want the Bayou Beast to be a community team.Because the players earn only $200 a game, the owners will find jobs forthe players who do not have them.

“The league helps guys who do not get the chance to go the pros,” Masonsaid. “It gives them a chance to follow their dreams and gives themanother avenue.”

Mason seemed destined for stardom after a stellar prep career atDestrehan High School. His performance with the Wildcats aftertransferring from East St. John his freshman year earned him ascholarship to USL.

There, Mason hit a roadblock, failing out of school his freshman year. Butthe USL coaches did not give up on Mason, sending him to Jones JuniorCollege in Mississippi. At Jones, Mason had success on and off the field,getting named to the All-Mississippi team his first season. Mason’sperformance in the classroom and on the field regained his scholarship toUSL for his junior and senior years.

Mason made the most of his second chance, becoming one of the bestdefensive players ever to come out of USL. He set seven school records asa safety, including the most tackles in a two-year span. Mason’s 21tackles against Houston was another school record, and he is third on theschool’s career tackle list.

For his accomplishments, he was named to the All-Louisiana and All-Independent Conference first team. He followed that up by being selectedthe defensive most valuable player in Louisiana and the IndependentConference his senior year. The Ragin’ Cajuns honored Mason fol-lowing his senior season by retiring his uniform number.

Unfortunately, NFL scouts decided to overlook these accomplishmentswhen it came time for the NFL draft. They looked at Mason’s stature anddecided he was too small to play safety in the pros.

Undrafted, Mason tried out for Calgary in the Canadian Football League.Mason had a good first game and looked to have made the team but was cutshortly afterwards.

Mason’s dreams of making it to the NFL seemed to have died until he got acall from James and Caroline Shriver of Lafayette recently. The Shrivers,the owners of the Bayou Beast, had watched Mason at USL and wanted himto be their franchise player.

Mason has not given up on his dreams of playing in the NFL. He envisionsthe PIFL as being a kind of minor league for the NFL and said the leaguehas been set up where NFL scouts can watch.

“The owners are not doing this for the money,” Mason said. “They want togive the opportunity for the players to be seen and for the guys to playball again.”

Mason said he turned down an offer to play in the World League ofAmerican Football to play for the Bayou Beast.

“I get a chance to play for the home team,” Mason said. “Why go away toEurope for the same thing?”

Mason said he will try out for the Saints at their open tryouts in March andalso has a tryout for the Florida team in the Arena Football League inFebruary. He sees this latest obstacle as another chance to prove himself.

“I didn’t come this far to give up,” Mason said. “I have to work hard and Ihave to prove myself. It is making me more mature. If I do get fame andfortune, I will respect it more because I worked real hard for it. I plan onbeing in the NFL.”

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