He still remembers it like it was yesterday.
It was the biggest game of his life and he had the biggest game of his career.
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette defensive back recorded nine tackles, two forced fumbles, one sack and two interceptions, with one of them returned for a touchdown against the No. 25 ranked Texas A&M Aggies.
The Ragin’ Cajuns defeated the Aggies, 29-22, in that Sept. 14, 1996 showdown. It was the first time the school, then named University of Southwestern Louisiana (USL), had defeated an Associated Press Top 25 team.
That feat has only been accomplished one other time in school history: earlier this season against Iowa State. The Cajuns defeated the No. 23 Cyclones, 31-14, in the team’s Sept. 12 season opener on the road.
The ’96 Cajuns were led by senior starting quarterback Jake Delhomme, who went on to have a successful 11-year NFL career and even led the Carolina Panthers to a Super Bowl appearance.
Delhomme and receiver Brandon Stokley, who also went on to a successful NFL career and won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in 2000, made for a difficult QB-WR tandem to slow down.
But, as Mason recalls, it was the defense that made the plays needed to shock the Aggies and the entire college football world. And they knew it would happen leading up to the game.
In the ’96 victory, UL’s defense forced eight — yes, EIGHT — turnovers and returned three of them for touchdowns, including Mason’s interception TD.
“It was the preparation that we had that entire week,” Mason recalls. “At that time, we had just come off the bye week after playing Florida … the defense, we played pretty well (against Florida), and A&M struggled with passing the ball, and myself being the strong safety I took it personal that they thought they were just going to come to Cajun Field and run right up the middle; run, run, run.
“That interception touchdown, again that was just the preparation … seeing the formation that I recognized on film. I actually did the same thing in practice. They brought the receiver in motion, when I saw the receiver in motion I knew he was going to try to crack me, so when the ball was snapped I peeked outside to see where he was and then I just backed up. When I backed up, he didn’t hit me he hit the linebacker, so I kind of hid behind him, the ball was thrown in the flats and then I made the easy interception. That’s the same thing I did in practice that week.”
His second interception of the day sealed the Cajuns’ historic win in Lafayette.
“At the end of the game, we’re dog tired,” said Mason. “The offense scored one touchdown, the defense played a hell of a game and now we’re trying to seal a victory. I was just so tired. I was an extra defensive back and we were in a dime package, I believe. I was playing a rover, so to speak, and my roommate (linebacker Britt Jackson) was covering the best receiver, so I thought ‘I’m going to follow Britt.’
“I was just following him, Britt tipped the ball and I was in a position where I could dive and catch it … and that’s what happened. The rest is history.”
After his college career, Mason had professional football hopes. Unfortunately, he went undrafted in the 1997 NFL Draft.
When his NFL dreams weren’t realized, Mason received an opportunity to try out for an Arena Football League team.
From there, he went on to play in the league for 13 seasons. He’s still the all-time AFL leader in career tackles (903) and pass breakups (173). He is also tied for ninth all-time in career interceptions (47).
Mason, now living in Georgia, still follows the Cajuns football program. He’s excited that the team is doing so well this year. Under head coach Billy Napier and coming off a record-setting 2019 campaign, UL is 5-1 heading into today’s Homecoming showdown with Arkansas State (11 a.m. central time kickoff).
“You have to get to the point where you don’t compare this Ragin’ Cajun squad to the 1996 squad,” said Mason. “The coaching staff is different, the kids are different, the mindset is different — and they proved that. We beat Texas A&M and then got blown out the next week … the Cajuns (this year), they played a tough Georgia State team. It went into overtime, but regardless of how it ended, they found a way to win the very next week after their big win, so hat’s off to them for that.”
While he’s not currently coaching the game of football, Mason is still sharing his wealth of knowledge by helping athletes with training and recruiting through DM9, LLC.