- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 15, 2009

OWINGS MILLS, Md. | Derrick Mason was happily musing about the type of conditions he would prefer in Pittsburgh for Sunday’s AFC championship game against the Steelers.

“Those are the games you remember,” he said. “Those are the games 10, 20 years from now they show on NFL Films. You really enjoy games like that, where it’s cold and two powerhouses are fighting and every inch matters. And they start to show the game in slow motion. You see face masks getting pulled, guys’ heads getting twisted and it’s muddy and it’s snowing, and that’s just football in its essence.”

Wide receivers, in their essence, are temperamental, self-preserving and unruly. And none of that describes the Baltimore Ravens receiver, a player who calls himself a “defensive player at heart” who’s “just trying to go out there and play the game the way it needs to be played.”

“The guy’s a warrior, and he’s proven it time and time again,” Ravens safety Jim Leonhard said. “He doesn’t have that mentality most receivers are pegged with. He’s a tough guy.”

On a team known for its savage defense and pounding running game, the 5-foot-10, 192-pound Mason fits right in.

The 12-year veteran dislocated his left shoulder Nov. 9 against Houston but finished the game. In a win at Dallas six weeks later, he aggravated the injury and lay on his back, flailing his legs in pain, and had to leave the game. Then he returned. Twice more this happened. He finished with six catches for 66 yards and a touchdown.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a tougher player in 25 years of coaching,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said afterward.

Marveled rookie quarterback Joe Flacco: “He’s probably had all kinds of other things wrong with him the rest of the season. He’s been playing hurt all year, and for him to come out and play like he has is incredible.”

The shoulder remains separated, limiting his practice time, but Mason maintains his sunny disposition. He has become the unofficial master of ceremonies at the weekly media briefings, introducing his teammates with an enthusiastic, comic flair. On Wednesday, when it was the quarterback’s turn, Mason intoned, “I’m gonna bring out to you THE veteran of the group… Joe ‘Wacko’ Flacco!”

Meanwhile, Mason is downplaying the injury. What hurts, he said, are the muscles around the shoulder and not the shoulder itself, as if that would make the pain any less.

“It’s getting better every week,” he said. “I haven’t taken any direct hits, haven’t fallen on it awkwardly. The actual shoulder is doing fine. … The good thing is that it hasn’t popped out as much.”

Added 6-2, 292-pound defensive end Marques Douglas: “He’s playing with one-and-a-half shoulders. I don’t think I could do it. But kudos to him for doing it.”

The Ravens’ top receiving threat since joining the team in 2005 after eight years with Tennessee, Mason had nine catches for 149 yards and two touchdowns in playoff wins over Miami and Tennessee. After torching the Titans’ secondary for a 48-yard touchdown catch he said, “I may be 34, but I can still get behind you.”

Mason won’t be able to say exactly that after the Steelers game because he turns 35 on Saturday, the day after Flacco’s 24th birthday. The two have a great on-field rapport, each helping the other.

“Maybe that Capricorn thing has something to do with it,” said Mason, who caught 80 passes for 1,037 yards and five touchdowns in 2008.

It was his seventh 1,000-yard season and ninth straight year with at least 60 catches. No other active receiver has done that. Yet Mason, while not unnoticed, has remained largely unsung compared with his faster, mouthier counterparts who generate more highlights and headlines.

“I can’t do anything about that,” he said. “All I can do is play game the way it’s supposed to be played. I’m not the flashy guy; I’m not always talking. But I’m consistent. I don’t think a lot of people care about consistency. They want to see the high-fliers and the acrobatic catches regardless of if you don’t do it each and every week.”

Said ESPN analyst and former Titans general manager Floyd Reese, who drafted the Detroit native out of Michigan State in 1997: “He’s just very reliable. The quarterback knows where he’s gonna be, so they become in tune with him and comfortable with him, and they want to get him the ball. He’s got great hands, great concentration.

“And he’s tough.”

For all his notable numbers, the one Mason values most is 106 - the number of consecutive regular-season games he has played in. He has missed just six contests in his long career. It’s a testament, he said, to a regular and rigorous offseason training program - and perhaps some good fortune, too.

“I think that matters more than anything, the durability,” he said. “It shows the coaching staff and the players that you take care of your body during the offseason and that you can be counted on to play every week. I’ve been truly blessed.”

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