Any UNC football player who came through the program between 1927 and 1973 will tell you Morris Mason “ran the place.” He was there when Carolina played its first game in historic Kenan Stadium and he never missed a game there during his 46-year career.
If you look at a roster of the all-time lettermen under the letter “M” you will see “Mason, Morris . . . Honorary.”
September 10, 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of Mason’s death. Morton volunteer Jack Hilliard takes a look back at the life and times of Morris Mason on the UNC campus.
“He walked in the shadow of heroes and became one himself.” —UNC Sports Information Director, Jack Williams, 1973
October 25, 1958 was band day at Kenan Stadium. Guest conductor Joseph B. Fields, UNC class of 1953, led 3,379 student musicians from 52 high schools from across North Carolina in a spectacular halftime performance, during the 54th meeting between the Tar Heels from Carolina and the Demon Deacons from Wake Forest. When the music stopped and the dust had settled on the Kenan turf, Carolina had won the game 26 to 7.
Following an ACC game like this one, somebody often gets a shoulder ride by the winning team. Who got the ride on this beautiful Chapel Hill afternoon? Was it UNC quarterback Jack Cummings who completed a 55-yard touchdown pass to John Schroeder, or was it Schroeder? Was it Wade Smith who crafted an electrifying 62-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter? Was it Head Coach Jim Tatum who got his 12th win since returning to UNC? Or was it Joseph Fields, the band director from Asheboro High, who entertained 35,000 fans at halftime?
The answer: none of the above. The Carolina players lofted longtime equipment manager Morris Mason to their shoulders and paraded him to the middle of the field. Hugh Morton was in place to document the celebration.
It was Labor Day, 1927, when UNC Athletic Director Robert Fetzer hired Morris Mason as fieldhouse custodian. He soon became equipment manager, trainer, team “valet,” father figure, and unschooled psychiatrist. He continued in all those positions until July 1, 1974 when he officially retired.
Mason had been a part of every Carolina win and loss in Kenan since its beginning in 1927—and he never missed a game, home or away, going back to 1928. In all, he was an important part of 451 Carolina football games.
“I almost missed one game when one of my relatives died,” Mason recalled in a 1973 interview. “But I hurried from the funeral to the game and made it before the kickoff.”
He also had a near-miss during a road trip to Virginia.
“I went to sleep on the train and didn’t wake up until the train was pulling into Washington, DC. But they put me on the next train going back toward Charlottesville and I got there in time to help unload all the equipment.”
Mason loved to travel with the team and he made every road trip starting with the ‘28 season.
“I’ve been to the Sugar Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, the Gator Bowl, the Peach Bowl, the Sun Bowl and even to the Oyster Bowl,” he said with his unique smile beaming.
In his 46 seasons at Carolina, Morris Mason worked with nine different coaches during eleven coaching changes and was on the athletic department payroll for more than 17,000 days. In 1968, former Tar Heel players and coaches showed their thanks by presenting Mason with a new car in a special ceremony at halftime of the Carolina–Duke basketball game. Also, as part of the tribute, he was given a plaque which reads:
With deep gratitude for sharing the joys of our victories and suffering the pain of our losses through the years. . . .
The plaque is signed by more than 200 former players and well-wishers. Included in that list: Mister Justice, Mister Weiner, Mister Hanburger, and Mister Willard. Morris Mason always referred to Tar Heel players as “Mister.”
November 17, 1973 was a cool, pleasant homecoming day at Kenan Stadium. In addition to the homecoming game with Wake Forest, the Justice Era players held one of their reunions and the day also marked the final game for Morris Mason. He was introduced on the field, to the delight of the 37,500 fans, with Justice, Weiner, and Athletic Director Homer Rice. Following Carolina’s 42-to-0 win, he was presented the game ball. Said Head Coach Bill Dooley, “Our players rode Morris Mason off the field on their shoulders and gave him the game ball. That was a fine tribute to a fine gentleman.”
After his official retirement on July 1, 1974, Mason got to fulfill a longtime wish. During the 1974 season he got to watch a Carolina football game from the stands. Although retired, Morris Mason continued to be an important part of the UNC football program. I recall during graduation/reunion weekend in May of 1989, Hugh Morton and former UNC end Bob Cox put together a slide show and panel discussion about the late 1940s. When Morris Mason was introduced, there was a standing ovation in Memorial Hall.
A little over three years later, on September 12, 1992, a somber crowd of 48,500 filed into Kenan Stadium for an evening game against Furman. Morris Mason had passed away two days before on September 10th. Football Saturdays in Chapel Hill would never be the same. When Charlie Justice got the news that Mason had died, he traveled to Chapel Hill and spent the next two days in the Mason home consoling those left behind.
Over the years, reporters would often ask Mason to name his favorite player during his 46 years in the Carolina locker room.
But the answer was always the same: this player was good or that player was great, but he would never name a favorite. However, shortly before his death, when asked the question he said, “Mister Justice was a great ball player. Maybe the greatest. And he is a wonderful man, too. He didn’t try to be a big star off the field. He was just one of the fellows.”
As the fans filed out of Kenan on September 12th, the Carolina blue sky from earlier in the day had turned into a full Carolina moon beaming down. Said one Tar Heel alumna, “that’s Morris’ smile beaming down on us.”
On Wednesday, September 16, 1992, Morris Mason was laid to rest in Shriners Cemetery in Durham. Mister Justice was scheduled to offer a eulogy to his old friend but was too choked with emotion to speak.
Legendary sports writer Furman Bisher described Mason as “one of the most lovable persons I have ever known in sports. He was more than an equipment manager, he was a wonderful friend.”
UNC All America end, Art Weiner, in an interview following Mason’s memorial service, said:
“Morris knew everybody. From the first day you arrived on campus as a freshman, he knew your name. And when you’d come back years later, he always remembered your name.”
Morris Mason will forever be remembered by the Tar Heel faithful. His name in gold letters over the Kenan equipment room door will forever be a reminder.