Tre Mason can be found here, in Lake Worth, Florida, on a pier that stretches into the Atlantic Ocean.
On this humid July day, he doesn’t resemble a volatile renegade at all. The running back who disappeared from the NFL takes a seat at Benny’s on the Beach and gazes off into the sparkling blue waves that crash quietly against the shore. Ray-Bans shield his eyes. He has a ring on each pinkie. Two gold chains and their pendants hang around his neck—one of Jesus Christ, one of the cross.
He’s not anxious, not paranoid. He’s not threatening to call the White House anymore or fleeing the cops on his ATV. No, Mason polishes off an omelet smothered in cheese and…philosophizes.
Are you happy?
It’s a question, he says, people don’t ask enough.
“Yeah,” Mason replies to himself. “I woke up today. I have no complaints. Zero complaints.”
Mason points to the beach below, where he trains, and describes a scene straight out of Rocky. According to him, it’s gotten to the point where kids gather ’round in awe to watch him cut and sprint and sweat.
The back who shattered Bo Jackson’s single-season rushing record at Auburn didn’t play a down of football last season and isn’t even on a team, yet is still built like a 5’9” UFC fighter and hasn’t lost a shred of confidence. Any team that seeks a stick of human dynamite capable of going the distance at any moment should give him a call. Mason assures he’s the one who “applies the pressure,” the one who’ll “set it off.”
“People call Bo one of the best athletes of all time,” Mason says, “and I broke his record.”
After citing Jay-Z as one of the true “GOATs” of hip-hop, he pauses for eight seconds.
“That’s my mentality,” Mason says. “I’m trying to be the greatest of all time. I believe in myself. If you think there are limits, you must not know the sky.”
And yet the reputation that precedes Mason—that he was a lost cause spiraling out of control—is impossible to ignore.
To recap: In March 2016, Mason was pulled over for driving 75 mph in a 35 mph zone and Tased when he refused to exit his vehicle. In July 2016, he was caught doing wheelies and driving recklessly in an ATV before then fleeing the cops. His mother, as captured on tape, subsequently told authorities her son was “22 in a 10-year-old’s mindset” due to concussions, adding, “Tre is not himself at all.”
Cops were called to his home five times in four months, once for what Mom described as “irrational statements.” That police report indicated that when Mason saw the cops he threatened to call the White House and have them all fired before then saying police were responsible for teaching al-Qaida how to fly planes.
In July of that year, Mason was admitted to a South Florida hospital for a mental health evaluation, according to a Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office report. Then, in August, Mason was cited for blocking a lane of traffic with his Maserati.
He never showed up for Los Angeles Rams training camp.
He was AWOL, unresponsive and in need of help, at least according to then-Rams coach Jeff Fisher, who said the team tried to reach Mason “numerous times” but that he “made a decision not to communicate with us, not to talk.” The Rams, Fisher said then, were “more concerned about Tre Mason’s well-being” than his football career.
Thinking back to when the Rams made him out to be a pariah, all joy fades from Mason’s face.
“How would they call it nowadays? Fake news. ‘Oh, we just hope he’s OK.’ You come to Florida and find out,” Mason says. “Fly your ass down. Sit next to me right on this beach, eat some food and you’ll see. You tell me. I’m not going to sugarcoat for nobody. If you’re really worried about me, fly your ass down.”
So that’s what B/R Mag did. Turns out, the cloud of mystery that engulfs Mason from afar still looms in person.
Is he the best running back on the market…or someone you wouldn’t want in your locker room? Is he noble for fleeing an untenable situation with the Rams...or a quitter? No teams have shown interest. Not yet.
Mason says he’s available and happy, that any team with doubt should talk to him face to face.
Whenever a team does, it’ll need to answer a different question: Do you believe in Tre Mason?
He holds out his hand, palm up, toward the beach as if presenting it as a gift.
This water. That sun. Those palm trees.
“I came back to paradise,” Mason says, “back to my hometown.”
Football is almost always ripped away from players. Rarely does anyone choose to stay home when practice begins. But that’s precisely what Mason did before last season. The “why” is not simple or straightforward. He’s blisteringly honest about one reason (the Rams) and elusive on others (the off-field trouble).
Before venting, Mason spells it out: “J-O-B.” He knows playing running back in the NFL is work. But he also felt insulted. Betrayed, even. After he rushed for 765 yards and four scores in 12 games as a rookie, the Rams drafted Todd Gurley in 2015, and Mason was marginalized. Coaches, he said, would promise “X” number of carries, and then he’d spend practically all of Sunday standing idly on the sideline. He had three or fewer carries in seven games.
In his mind, why accept this? Why settle? Mason felt compelled to make a decision himself.
“I’m not going to be used as a puppet,” Mason says. “I want to leave a great legacy. I don’t want to just be thrown to the side and ate up by the business of football. You know your worth. I was always told, ‘Know your worth.’ … I’m not going to say I’m Albert Einstein and have all the answers. But I know what I’m capable of doing.”
He doesn’t have answers for the Rams. He has questions.
“What are you trying to do? If you want to win a championship, let me know. I don’t have time for these games. This bullshit. … I’ve had enough people lie to me in my life. I ain’t got time for no more.”
He speaks so passionately, so convincingly, that you want to believe the Rams were 100 percent in the wrong in tossing Mason aside. His refusal to accept such a piecemeal role feels principled.
Of course, you could also believe Mason quit.
Mason calls the Rams a “clown show” more than once.
“Of course it’s difficult to step away from something you’re so passionate about,” Mason says. “This is what I really want to do. This is what I love to do. But it’s also, you have to be smart about the situation of ‘OK, I do know there are 32 teams in the NFL. Maybe one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’”
The cruel irony is that when the Rams cut Mason, the other 31 teams wanted nothing to do with him.
Mason is ominous and ambiguous when it comes to discussing other forces at play. He cites “family emergencies” as another reason he wouldn’t return. Football isn’t life, he asserts. He had to help his family through…something. Mason won’t detail what exactly. While owning up to the fact that he is “not perfect,” Mason doesn’t divulge much over brunch.
That ATV joyride? “In South Florida. Whoops. My bad. I’ve been riding ATVs and dirt bikes all my life. Since fifth grade. It’s not like I’m harming anybody.”
The White House and al-Qaida comments? He brushes that off as “he say, she say,” before asking, “Who wrote this?” Told that cops did in a police report, he says that “something was up,” that somebody was “masterminding” a plan.
So Mason never said it? “I don’t know. I’m not going to say.”
He does try to clear the air on his mom’s comments that went viral. Mason repeats that he never, not once, suffered a concussion. He swats away the notion that hits to the head changed him. An undying love for Mom bursts out of him. They’re still very close. He describes Tina Mason’s reaction simply as motherly instinct.
It irks Mason that four or five incidents defined him, and that those four or five incidents are what fed concern about his mental well-being. When asked if mental health was a struggle for him as it is for millions of Americans. Mason is clearly looking to keep his past in the past. “I don’t know,” he says. “I just … no comment.” He then reiterates that he’s in a great place right now.
In Mason’s mind, he never disappeared. Rams teammates actually trained with him here in South Florida while the front office simultaneously expressed concern.
Missing? He’s been here. Training.
Missing? He insists he never received a call personally from the Rams and would’ve appreciated one rather than the Rams' “making all these fucking stupid-ass stories.”
Mason could’ve put all public concern to rest with a public comment on Twitter, Facebook, in an interview, anywhere, but he wasn’t having any of that either.
“What kind of asshole or idiot would tell everyone where I’m at?” Mason says. “Am I supposed to tell you and the world where I’m at, 24/7? No. Not doing it.”
Since then, he has re-emerged. Someone hacked Mason’s old Twitter account, so he created a new one and now regularly tweets inspirational quotes. He agreed to this interview by responding directly to an Instagram message.
Mason says he’s eliminated bad influences in his life, telling anyone who texts or calls that he’s busy working on his craft. If they want to join, they can. Otherwise, he won’t be distracted.
To Mason, there was never a lowest of lows, a rock bottom. If there were dark days the last year and a half, Mason has effectively buried them and refuses to let such thoughts creep back into his consciousness.
“Down?” he asks. “I wake up ready to attack the day.”
His hope is for general managers to keep his transgressions in perspective. He wants them to realize for themselves that he never inflicted pain on others like some NFL players who have received second chances.
Mason then removes his shades, taps open FaceTime on his cellphone and calls Ricardo Louis, his former Auburn teammate who now plays wide receiver for the Browns. Louis is his go-to training partner. Eight rings pass before Louis answers from his couch and says he was already up at 4 a.m. to work out.
“That’s what I like to hear!” Mason says. “Four o’clock.”
They agree to meet in an hour. Mason hangs up and then rubs his hands together in anticipation. Mason believes he’s still writing his autobiography, still only one call away, and he knows everyone will soon associate his name with the chiseled optimist who trains on that beach below, at his old high school field, in gyms.
“The drudgery. Is that a word?” Mason says. “You know when you’re tired in the morning and don’t want to do something, but you do it anyways and afterward you say: ‘That feels good. I dragged myself out of bed. I’m working.’ I like that feeling.”
That’s how Mason believes he should be defined.
Do you believe in him?
The humidity is suffocating, but that’s the way Mason likes it. Loves it. “Lava,” he repeats. He trains when it’s “lava” hot like this 91-degree day. Sweat trickles down his tattoo-covered torso—past "Only the Strong Survive" ink—as Juvenile’s “Set It Off” booms from a speaker.
It’s no coincidence that this is the first song playing. Raw, ear-piercing rap fits his workout on this Park Vista Community High School field perfectly. Mason treats each cut with life-or-death purpose.
To Young Jeezy, his feet sing horizontally in 1-2-1-2-1-2 succession through seven cones, and Mason finishes with a paralyzing juke against an imaginary defender, the kind he used to waste tacklers throughout a 304-yard detonation in the 2013 SEC Championship Game.
He still views himself as the runt of the litter forever told he’s too small, too brittle. Alabama, for one, didn’t even send Mason a letter of interest after he tore up defenses on this very field, which made it that much sweeter to pound away at a loaded ‘Bama defense for 164 yards on 29 carries in the Iron Bowl.
“I was always told I wasn’t an every-down back,” Mason said earlier at Benny’s. “Until, school, then they’re like, ‘Oh shit.’ I gave ’em that ‘think twice' type of shit.”
The music stops abruptly, and Mason hustles over to see why. His phone, plugged into a speaker, overheated and died. Oh well. Mason tucks it into shade and hustles back to the field to resume his workout.
He can still start and stop and start in a dizzying, demoralizing blur.
Right here, right now, the sky truly does feel like the limit. You believe. Mason steps away for a photo shoot, and the belief only grows. The five other players here repeat that Mason sincerely loves the game. They see it daily. He’s literally sled-driving vehicles one day and then lifting weights until 11 p.m. the next.
“I don’t think he went anywhere,” Louis says. “I think it’s still in him. I think he can go into the league now and still dominate. He just has to continue to stay on a positive path. … I’m telling you, expect the unexpected.”
Picture this all as filling up a cup with water, Louis explains. Fill that cup to the top and it starts overflowing. That’s the point Mason’s at in his training. Then again, Louis is on the Browns. Tevin Homer, sitting nearby on the same bench, plays cornerback for Washington. Mason isn’t on a team. Nobody’s even calling him to talk, let alone sign a contract.
“This grind,” Louis says, “isn’t going to go unnoticed.”
The crew heads back toward the bleachers here at the “Snake Pit,” where Mason is posing for a final photo. Smiling like a proud brother, Louis busts out his phone to Snapchat his friend. They laugh, they joke, they plan a recovery session for later that night and agree to meet up on the beach to train in the morning. A photographer would like to get some more photos of Mason, and it’d be good to chat a little more too.
Mason says 8:30 a.m. works for him, heads to the parking lot, slides into his Maserati, slams the gas pedal and jets off into the distance.
Nearly three hours pass the next morning and Mason is a no-show. It rains, clears up, rains again and clears up before Mason finally reaches out past 11 a.m. He assumed we wouldn’t show up with this erratic weather. Plus, Mason adds, “My phone was dead.’’
All understandable, of course, but one more conversation sure would be helpful. One more conversation could shed light on those family emergencies, what it feels like to be Tased, if he believes he’s better than Gurley, if he did seek help through therapy and, above all, why any NFL team should believe in him. So Mason is asked if he’s up for lunch, dinner, you name it.
“OK,” he texts at 11:12 a.m.
“Where do u want to eat?” he writes at 1:26 p.m.
The address for a seafood joint, Hurricane Alley, in Boynton Beach is sent, and the subsequent seven texts and three phone calls over the next seven-plus hours go ignored. Mason doesn’t show up.
He’s not sneaking in a late-night workout with his crew either. Reached by phone, Homer, the Washington cornerback, is fresh off a weightlifting session at a local gym but says Mason wasn’t with him. Homer has known Mason since childhood. They’ve always considered each other cousins even though they’re not blood-related. As a friend, as family, Homer has zero concern about Mason.
“I feel like he had to find himself,” Homer says. “He came home and came back to what really mattered.”
Of course, living back in Florida has been a double-edged sword. Living in Florida led to trouble.
Homer backs up Mason’s claim that he has effectively weeded out all negativity in his life, adding that if teams have any questions whatsoever they should ask Mason themselves.
“Bring him in and see where his mind’s at,” Homer says. “I know where his mind is and, man, he’s trying to take over the game. … You can’t really believe everything you see on the news and stuff. I look at it like, ‘That’s probably not what happened really.’ Seriously.
“Me, I don’t think there’s anything mentally wrong with him. At all. I know Tre. Tre’s fine. Tre’s ready to get back in the league.”
Moments later, at 9:05 p.m., Mason finally calls back. He’s been busy “handling something” and promises to circle back when he’s free. He never does.
Training camps officially open this week, and unlike last year, Mason will report.
If a team calls, he’ll answer.
Then that team must decide if it believes in him.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.