The following story is excerpted from “Football in a Forest—The Life and Times of Kenan Memorial Stadium.”
By Lee Pace
The public knows the “Honored Jerseys,” the consensus All-Americas whose names and numbers are mounted on the upper-deck façade of Kenan Stadium. But to many of those players and hundreds more lettermen through the mid-1900s, the most revered name in the sport in Chapel Hill was that of Morris Mason.
Jim Tatum told freshmen during his years as head coach from 1956-59 the No. 1 sin they could commit would be to talk back or be disrespectful to “Mister Mason,” and running back Wade Smith from that era says Mason “is a powerful memory for me and dwells within my pantheon of heroes.”
Most any Tar Heel from 1927 through the 1970s is singing from the same hymnal:
“Morris was one of the finest gentlemen I ever met at UNC,” says Lenny Beck, a 1959-61 Tar Heel.
“He’s in the top five people I’ve ever known,” adds Ben Gallagher, a lettermen from 1959-60. “He had a heart of gold. He was always uplifting. I’m blessed to have known him.”
“He made everyone feel important—from the All-American to the third-string lineman,” says Ray Farris Jr., a Tar Heel from 1959-61 whose father had known Mason from his own playing days in the late-1920s. “Morris took care of everybody. He had no favorites.”
Mason was hired by Athletic Director Robert Fetzer in 1927 to be the custodian for the new Kenan Field House, and he evolved over the years through his retirement in 1974 to be the Tar Heels’ equipment manager, den mother, father confessor, confidant and friend. He worked for nine different coaches and never missed a game from 1928-73, home or away, for a total of 451 games. Former Tar Heels chipped in to buy him a car in 1968—a Carolina Blue Ford that Mason later refused to drive in the rain for fear of muddying it up—and Paul Miller endowed a $75,000 scholarship in his honor. Today Mason’s name adorns the equipment room in Kenan Football Center.
“I’d never been called ‘Mister’ by anyone until I came to Chapel Hill,” says Brent Milgrom, a linebacker and defensive back from the mid-1960s. “But that’s what he called everyone. Morris had a way of making you feeling comfortable and welcome in an environment that when you first arrived was a little intimidating.”
Phil Ragazzo had hung around the equipment room for years as a kid when his father, Vito, was an assistant coach on Jim Hickey’s staff in the early 1960s. Vito returned to coach under Bill Dooley in the mid-1970s, and Phil was offered a scholarship during his senior year of high school in 1973-74. Phil couldn’t wait to tell Mason his big news.
“Mister Ragazzo, that’s fantastic!” Mason said.
“What’s with the Mister Raggazo, Morris, you’ve known me since I was six years old?” Phil asked.
“When you were a kid, you were ‘Phil,’” Mason told him. “When you put on that Carolina Blue, you’re Mister Ragazzo.”
Players did him favors while still on the team (Jimmy Jones would shoot squirrels around Kenan Stadium in the mid-1950s and give Mason the carcasses) and for years afterward (manager Frank Holmes traveled from the Outer Banks for a game at least once a year and brought Mason a bag of Eastern North Carolina peanuts).
For many white players on a team not integrated until the late-1960s, Mason was the first black man they came to know and truly love and respect.
“I have so many memories of Morris,” says Smith, a running back and today a highly acclaimed criminal defense attorney in Raleigh. “It was a strange time when African Americans were treated so differently. Yet Morris was truly beloved. Every boy on the team would have died for him. We knew it wasn’t fair in so many ways. And we knew we were on the cusp of enormous change, which we welcomed.”
Adds Beck: “He always had a smile on his face. He knew everyone’s name, and if you came back five years later, he still remembered your name and number. The only sad thing is when we played down South, he was not allowed to stay in the same hotel with us. I wish I had paid more attention to that at the time. Unfortunately, we just felt that that was how it was. We should have given it more thought. All in all, he was a wonderful person.”
Gallagher remembers a road trip to Tennessee when Mason helped deliver the players’ luggage and equipment to the team hotel. Gallagher was in his room upstairs when he looked out the window and saw the solitary figure of Mason, suitcase in hand, walking down the sidewalk. Gallagher naively thought perhaps the hotel was full and Mason had to find a room elsewhere, but he was told by an assistant coach there was another reason Mason couldn’t stay there.
“He can stay in my room,” Gallagher offered. The coach told him again why that wouldn’t work.
“I’ve never liked Knoxville ever since,” Gallagher says.
Charlie Justice was supposed to say a few words in Mason’s honor at Mason’s funeral in September 1992 but was too choked up to talk. Smith and Farris each paid homage to Mason and his endearing and gentle nature. And as Sports Information Director Jack Williams wrote in 1973 upon Mason’s last season with the Tar Heels: “He walked in the shadow of heroes and became one himself.”
“Football in a Forest” is available by mail, phone or on-line orders from Johnny T-Shirt of Chapel Hill by clicking www.johnnytshirt.com or calling 800/554-6862. It is also available at Johnny T-Shirt’s retail store on Franklin Street; at UNC Student Stores; at Chapel Hill Sportswear on Franklin Street, Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, Scuppernong Books in Greensboro and Park Road Books in Charlotte.