Induction Year: 1981
An All-American running back for Tulane University in 1960 and a participant in several post-season all-star games, Tommy Mason became one of the first stars of the Minnesota Vikings expansion team in the NFL. The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder led the Vikings in rushing for two years and played in three Pro Bowls in 1962, 1963 and 1964. In his 11-year professional career with Minnesota, Los Angeles and Washington, Mason rushed for 4,203 yards, caught 214 passes for 2,324 additional yards and scored 45 touchdowns.
As a sophomore at Lake Charles High, Tommy Mason helped Coach Jimmy Austin’s Wildcats win the 1954 Class AA state football championship as they rolled past Baton Rouge High 35-12 in the title game.
His older brother, Claude Boo Mason, and tackle Allen Stough represented Lake Charles on the Associated Press Sports Writers’ All-State team that year.
Although Tommy Mason had more than 1,000 yards rushing in his senior season and led the state in scoring with 121 points, All-State recognition eluded him throughout his prep career. In his last two years, five of the eight backfield berths went to Baton Rouge players (including future LSU stars Billy Cannon, Warren Rabb and Wendell Harris) and the other three spots were split among Shreveport, New Orleans and Monroe.
Despite that snub, Mason was one of the state’s blue-chip prospects in 1956and Paul Dietzel of LSU gave it his best shot. But the Lake Charles star decided to follow his older brother to Tulane.
He excelled in three sports in high school, playing basketball and running the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat for the track team. But that wasn’t good enough for All-State recognition against such talented sprinters as Cannon and Ruston’s Pat Garret.
In his senior season at Tulane, Mason was the Green Wave captain and led the Southeastern Conference in both rushing (663 yards) and scoring (78 points, on 13 touchdowns). But Tulane teams coached by Andy Pilney won only three games in each of Mason’s three varsity seasons.
In 1960, Mason averaged 58 minutes a gameplaying halfback on offense and safety on defense. He gained 107 yards rushing in a season-opening 7-3 victory at California and helped Tulane hold Paul Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide to a 6-6 tie the following week. Alabama lost only one game that year, to Tennessee.
In its third game, Tulane fell to a strong Rice team, 10-7. but mounting injuries took their toll as the season progressed and the Wave won only two more games. Mason had 110 yards rushing in 40-8 rout of William and Mary, and led the Wave past Vanderbilt 20-0 for its only victory in Southeastern Conference play.
Despite the team’s poor record, he was named to the All-SEC teamand Time magazine placed him on its All-America team.
The Minnesota Vikings, an expansion team in the National Football League, made mason the first choice in the NFL draft and later picked another member of the All-SEC backfieldGeorgia quarterback Fran Tarkenton.
Cannon (who later opted for the Houston Oilers of the American Football League was the first player picked in the 1960 NFL draft and Mason was No. 1 in 1961, giving Louisiana a two-year run at the top. The Rams selected Cannon, but lost a court battle with the Oilers.
I remember sitting in Lake Charles signing the contract and thinking how great it was to get paid that much to do something I enjoy doing, Mason said.
His contract called for $12,500 the first year and $15,000 each of the next two seasons.
Mason’s first NFL coach was Norm Van Brocklin, who quarterbacked the Philadelphia Eagles to the NFL championship the previous year and went directly to a head coaching position with the expansion Vikings.
Tarkenton passed for 1,997 yards in his rookie season and Mason ranked among the team leaders in four other categories. He was first in kickoff returns with 25 for 605 yards, second in punt returns with 14 for 146 yards, fourth in receiving with 20 catches for 122 yards and fifth in rushing with 60 carries for 226 yards and three touchdowns.
That added up to 1,097 all-purpose yards for a team that stunned the NFL by thrashing the Chicago Bears 37-13 in their first game. The first-year Vikings later beat the Baltimore Colts and the Los Angeles Rams.
The following year, Mason led the team in rushing with 740 yards and was second in receiving with 36 receptions for 603 yards. He also had 3533 yards on kick returns for a total of 1,696.
Mason became Minnesota’s first All-Pro selection in 1963 with 763 yards rushing and 365 receiving, scoring nine touchdowns.
Fullback Bill Brown led the Vikings in rushing in 1964, but Mason had another solid year with 691 rushing and 239 on 128 receptions as Minnesota tied Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers for second place in the Western Conference. The Vikings won their last three games to wrap up their first winning season8 wins, 5 losses and 1 tie.
Unable to develop a defense that could complement his offensive unit, Van Brocklin resigned in the middle of the 1965 seasonbut was talked out of it a couple of days later. The Vikings were 7-7 as Mason had 597 yards rushing and a career high 10 touchdowns and 341 yards receiving.
Throughout those first five NFL seasons, running behind a makeshift offensive line took its toll on Mason. He spent nearly as much time in Dr. Don O’Donahue’s office as he did on the football field.
He later played as a spot player for George Allen’s Los Angeles Rams and Wahsington Redskins. He was a member of the Over The Hill Gang (including Jack Pardee, Richie Petitbon, Diron Talbert and former Packer Boyd Dowler) that Allen assembled with the Redskins. But five knee operations and two shoulder surgeries took their toll. Mason was limited to spot duty in 1971 and was sidelined by injures in 1972, when the Redskins beat the Cowboys in the National Football Conference championship game and dropped a 14-7 decision to unbeaten Miami in the Super Bowl.
In 1973, after 4,203 yards rushing and 2,324 yards receiving in his pro career, Mason decided to do something else. He entered law school.
When he was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1981, mason’s wifeformer Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigbyattracted more attention from media types covering the event than he did.