Charlie Justice was the most loved. Lawrence Taylor and Julius Peppers were the most feared. Dré Bly had the knack, Eric Ebron the smile and the stride and Chris Hanburger the scowl and the clothesline tackle. The superlatives roll quickly off the tongue in a canvas of the thousands of players donning a Carolina Blue jersey in Kenan Stadium since its opening in 1927.
But behind the scenes, the most revered name in the sport over half a century in Chapel Hill was that of Morris Mason.
Over six months researching and writing my forthcoming book, Football in a Forest—the Life and Times of Kenan Memorial Stadium, the most consistent question from Tar Heels who played through the mid-1970s was one the ilk of:
“Will Morris Mason be in the book?”
“Has anyone told you about Morris Mason?”
“I’ve got a great story about Morris Mason.”
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.”
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.”
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 Ragazzo, 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.”
The story of Morris Mason and many more fixtures in Tar Heel football since 1927 will be told in “Football in a Forest,” due out in early August. Watch for details on availability and ordering.