By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 18, 2007
As the Washington Redskins made their way off the practice field Wednesday night, one group remained down by the far goal post. There, the rookies huddled together with the team's helmets, jerseys and pads. They were responsible for carrying the equipment back to the players' facility at Redskins Park.
They also were in planning mode, as it's tradition for all Redskins rookies to perform skits for their coaches and veteran teammates during training camp. For his moment in the embarrassing spotlight, undrafted free agent Marcus Mason decided he would impersonate running backs coach Earnest Byner.
"I listen to every word that he says in the meetings," said Mason, the only rookie running back on the team and a graduate of Georgetown Prep. "I call him up just to see how he's doing, and I've got his accent down pat. I've been speaking to him almost every day since April, and now I think I know him pretty well, and I can do it."
Mason's constant contact with Byner since he showed up for local tryouts may give him an edge when imitating his position coach's mellow tone and cool cadence. But Mason's inquisitive manner also is one of the reasons the 23-year-old sticks out.
"Even in [organized team activities] and the minicamps, he was always asking me questions. He's real hungry for the knowledge, and it's good to have somebody like that around," Byner said, adding that Mason will call him regularly or stop by his office to talk football or just about anything else.
"That's rare with any player to tell you the truth, but it's an indicator of the kind of guy he is."
Mason knows he's playing against long odds as he tries to crack a roster that already has talent in the backfield.
"I have so many veteran running backs helping me out whenever something goes wrong, so in that aspect it's been a breeze," Mason said. "But it's tough, too, because I don't know exactly where I'd fit in."
He'll have ample opportunity to show where he fits in tonight against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Rock Cartwright, who had seven carries in last week's preseason game against Tennessee, hurt his hamstring Wednesday night and probably won't be in uniform for tonight's game. With Cartwright and Clinton Portis out and Ladell Betts likely receiving limited carries, Mason could be handed the ball often.
"Derrick [Blaylock's] going to play, and Marcus is going to play, and hopefully Dee [Brown] is going to play," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "We're going to get them all in there I hope this week, and I think every time somebody gets in there they've got an opportunity, and we tell them: 'That's your chance. It's going to be on film, we're all going to see it and when you get a rep in there it needs to be what you are, what you can do.' "
It might be hard to spot the 5-foot-9, 215-pound Mason as he dodges through massive offensive and defensive linemen, but when he emerges from behind tacklers, it becomes easy enough. Mason is most noticeable when he reaches the end zone, as he did in the Redskins' first preseason game.
After Mason scored his first NFL touchdown against Tennessee, he calmly stood up and handed the ball to the official. He later received a game ball to commemorate the occasion.
Byner, who touted Mason's power and knack for finding holes as his biggest assets, said the rookie's lack of celebration showed how the NFL game may not be too big for the Potomac native.
"He feels it, he knows within himself that he can play," Byner said. "It's not a surprise for him that he's successful. For Marcus it's a reminder: 'Hey I'm supposed to be doing this.' "
While attending Georgetown Prep, Mason became the all-time leading rusher in Maryland high school history, running for 5,700 yards. He also holds the record for career touchdowns and points (86 and 520 respectively). Mason attended Illinois for two years, but he was dismissed from the team in August 2005 for a violation of team rules.
When Mason started looking for football teams in need of running backs, his first choices were James Madison and William & Mary. Those programs had no open spots in the backfield, but his coaches suggested Youngstown State.
"It happened fast," Mason said. "I was in Illinois, and I called [Youngstown Coach Jon Heacock] up and said, 'I'd like to come to Youngstown.' He told me: 'Well, we start camp tomorrow. Can you be here?' So I packed up my car at 12 a.m., drove out and showed up in the morning ready to practice."
Mason finished his two-year career at Youngstown with 2,739 yards rushing and 31 touchdowns. Heacock said he put a picture of Mason's touchdown against the Titans in his team's locker room to make sure they know where hard work can get them.
"We embraced him," Heacock said. "I think he really treated this game with respect. He worked as hard as he could work, always had a little smile on his face. He was the starting tailback, and he rushed for a zillion yards, but he was the hardest-working guy on the team."
The work ethic that got Mason through college carried through to this summer's training camp with the Redskins, and so far Byner said he has been pleased with Mason's ability to learn and adjust his playing style.
"I'm really proud of him," Byner said. "He's really showing me a lot toward his ability to listen to concepts, understand what is given to him and then take it out on to the field. He can be a fine football player in this league."