Anatomy of an Era: Mike Mason, Part 1
Excerpted from Chapter 74, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 2 by Paul Koch
I never remember feeling tired by work, though idleness exhausts me completely.
-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Who doesn’t love a good behind-the-scenes yarn? A glimpse into the secret sanctuary, a peak behind the Wizard’s curtain, a place where things really happen before they actually happen? The Nebraska Football equipment room was such a place. A bustling sweatshop of shoestrings, sweatpants and shoulder pads, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more unique crossroads where guys and grass stains, equipment and elbow grease, Cheer, conversation and connivance were the daily routine.
In the old South Stadium you couldn’t walk from the locker room to the training room without passing that sacred Big Red repository: helmets and jerseys being prepped for Saturday glory. Manning the post in those days were Glenn Abbott and Mike Mason, always washing, cleaning, drying, folding, polishing, grinding… yes, grinding… and anything else that needed tending to before the team emerged glowing red & gleaming white, all shiny and pristine for the Tunnel Walk and pre-game jubilation.
Glenn Abbott has since exited this hard world for the realm of the heavenlies, but I was fortunate to catch up with Mike, his most able and indefatigable assistant. Always busy, let’s give ear to his reminiscences and take a trip back to that place and time from the Equipment Room window…
Notable quote #1:
“They policed themselves, and I think that brought the players closer together than any time I’d ever seen around there. That was a culture change there. Not that they weren’t tight before, but you had more guys taking care of each other and making sure they were doing the right things instead of coaches having to watch over everybody.”
Question: Hey Mike, Jay Terry from the present-day equipment room was kind enough to give me your phone number, so I’m glad I got a hold of you. Starting off, where were you from originally?
Mike Mason: Ord, Nebraska.
Q: My folks were in Ord just last week for a high school basketball game! So how does a kid from Ord end up working in the equipment room for the University of Nebraska Football Team?
MM: Well, basically my brother-in-law worked down there from ’77 to about ’82. His name is Steve Sintek and at that time he was going out with my sister… and they ended up marrying. Basically, he hooked me up with a job down there with Glenn Abbot and Walt Johnson. He knew I was going to school down there and I went down during the summer before school started and talked to Glenn and got a feel for what the job would be like. And Glenn said that if I wanted the job to show up in August.
Q: So I’m guessing you grew up a big Cornhusker fan?
MM: Oh yeah, I was a huge Cornhusker fan. I kind of new it was my job if I wanted it, and I kept in touch with Glenn. And what Glenn did was try to find kids from back there, actually, because we‘re hard workers. Steve was a hard worker and his cousin was too: Craig Mason, Todd Mason, some guys from North Loup/Scotia and Ord. It was kind of a little bit of a pipeline going through there. (laughs)
Q: What year did you begin?
MM: I started in ’88. August of 1988.
Q: So you went to work with Glenn right away in the varsity locker room in South Stadium? Or with Walt Johnson first?
MM: I worked with Walt at North Stadium for about two years and then moved to South Stadium my third year with Glenn.
Q: So it mimicked many of the players’ experiences, where you’d spend a year or two in North Stadium before graduating to the varsity lockers in South Stadium? (laughs)
MM: (laughs) Yeah, kind of. Like I was a freshman and redshirted for a year, then I guess you could say I was ‘promoted’ to the south end. It’s not like that anymore. They’re all in the same spot now.
Q: That’s almost a shame, isn’t it?
MM: Yeah, it takes away a bit of what it used to be like. But if you’ve seen the locker room they have now, it’s beautiful.
Q: I’ve been in the new weightroom, but not the new locker room.
MM: It’s pretty nice, very nice. That’s the way it’s gotta be, you know. Everybody tries to outdo everybody nowadays.
Q: What stood out to you when first joined the staff? Remember your first few days working?
MM: The first two or three weeks was mostly a learning experience, just kind of watching the other student equipment guys and learning from them.
Q: Anything surprise you?
MM: Just the amount of stuff. Shoes! Enormous amounts! In the north end there was 133 lockers, and most of those lockers were full when I was a freshman, when I first got there. So you’ve got 133 guys: that’s 133 sets of shoulder pads, 133 helmets, 133 jerseys… (laughs) I mean, that’s a lot of stuff. So I would say the biggest thing for me was just the amount of stuff that was down there. The south equipment room was not even half the size of the north, so we had to keep most of the stuff in the north equipment room. It was jammed in there, and what I learned right off the bat from Walt was that he was a pretty stingy guy. (laughs) He was one of those guys where if you needed a new jock strap you needed to bring the old one to us saying, “Hey, this is stretched out, broken, or something, whatever.” Same for socks. That’s kind of the way it was. (laughs)
Q: Sounds just like Mel Woerster over at the Devaney Sports Center equipment room…
MM: Oh yeah, I think Walt and Mel were both cut from the same cloth. (laughs) But as the years went on we got the adidas contract and a lot of that stuff kind of went away as far as being stingy. We had so much stuff that we didn’t have to be as stingy anymore.
Q: I suppose you had turf shoes, grass shoes, differing lengths of spikes for the grass shoes…
MM: Back then we had Astroturf, so you had two sets of shoes for that. You had the ‘dry turf’ shoe, which was basically like a basketball- bottom shoe, and if the turf was wet you had a ‘rain shoe’ with little cleats on it. When we were with Converse we had a lot of problems: the trainers thought the shoes had a little too much grip. At that time they actually didn’t really have a dry turf shoe, that’s why we had to shave off half of those cleats with grinders…
Q: You did what?!
MM: (laughing) Yeah, you want to talk about a pain in the butt, man? You’d have rubber in your ears, your nose. That was not good.
Q: So you and a few other student assistants had grinders in hand?
MM: Walt did most of that. We’d go outside, out back of Shep’s area out there and Walt had a little grinder. He’d grind ’em off and we’d put ’em back into a box and mark them ‘dry turf’ or whatever. And we’d do hundreds and hundreds of pairs of shoes. It was crazy. And after we did that for a couple of years they finally started making a shoe with a flat bottom on it, so we didn’t have to keep doing that.
A few guys, like Steve Taylor, he’d want a new pair of shoes every week. I know that the guys at the South End would take his old shoes, put them in a box, and they’d just rotate about three different pairs of shoes. He’d think he was getting a new pair, but he wasn’t. (laughs) There were always ways to trick guys, because nobody liked to grind those shoes down. It was one of those things you didn’t like to do.
Steve Taylor QB
Q: I’m sure that kept you busy during the summer months…
MM: Oh, yeah. We’d do that during the summer. It was hot and humid and you’d have to wear those breather/respirator things over your face and it would still get in your nose. It was terrible.
Q: Kind like hauling straw bales on the farm? I don’t care what you have on, at the end of the day you’ll still find some straw in your underwear, right?
MM: (laughs) Yeah, everywhere! And that’s how it is, too. You’d take a shower and there was just rubber going everywhere. And to tell you the truth, adidas, when we went to them we were still on Astroturf, and they had some shoes the guys liked -but the trainers, again, thought they had too much grip for the dry turf- so we went backwards when we went with adidas. We had to go back and grind some of their shoes off, too. We went with a different shoe company and kind of went backwards every couple of years.
Q: (laughing) If I recall, before Converse we had Nike. And the players loved the Nike’s but couldn’t stand the new Converse shoes…
MM: Yeah. In fact, the first year they had Converse was my first year down there, or maybe the second. It might have been ’87 they started wearing the Converse. But I knew it was pretty new and it was kind of a fiasco. I heard a lot of griping, yeah.
Q: So you’re working with Walt. In what way did you get moved to South Stadium with the varsity? Did you look forward to that?
MM: Oh yeah, usually what happened is: a guy graduates, so he leaves and they move another guy up there. There is seniority, and a guy I was working with was Chris Severance, who was working there a year or two ahead of me and he could have moved up, but he didn’t want to, because he wanted to stay with Walt. He didn’t like the prima donnas; he wanted to stay down with the guys who weren’t going to give him a whole lot of crap. So instead I got moved up to that, the ‘intimidation spot.’
Q: So what was that move like?
MM: It was good. I’d been there long enough and knew what was going on and it wasn’t really a problem for me. You’ve got to take care of those guys a little bit better, back then anyway. When they asked for something you usually got it for them, unless it was something that was out of whack and you knew they were trying to pull something over on you.
Q: Like asking for a dozen pair of socks so didn’t have to do any laundry for the next two weeks?
MM: Right. (laughs) My typical response to that was, ‘What, are you starting your own sporting goods store when you get out of school? Is that what you’re going into? Stocking up on socks, are you?’ (laughs) You just kind of played with them and had a little fun with them when they asked for too much stuff.
Q: You made them earn it?
MM: Exactly. If you gave them a little grief about it they might think twice before they ask again. Or they’ll think of a better excuse. (laughs)
Q: So I’m guessing two-a-days was the worst time of the year for you guys?
MM: Oh yeah, you might as well just live there. We’d get there at 5 in the morning and sometimes we’d break it up so some guys would stay overnight. But still, you’re there until about 8 o’clock at night. You had laundry in between practices and then after that last practice you had to get it done for the next morning. We had one or two guys finish it up and put it away for the next morning.
Q: So let’s say you’re now standing in the old South Stadium equipment room. How many washing machines are we talking about?
MM: Back then there were two washers in the south and two in the north end. And four dryers in each. Total washers and dryers were 4 washers and 8 dryers.
Q: All larger, industrial models of course?
MM: Yeah, industrial. 100 pounders. You could do a lot of laundry in them.
Back then we had so many players. I’m trying to remember how we did it back then and when I started, but then we started using the ‘mesh bag system’. Before that we had ‘rolls’, where everybody had a number on a shirt and shorts, and then rolled up jocks and socks. (I never had to do that, thank God.) But we did the bag system, and that’s a lot of bags: 133 bags at the north end and 120 at the south end. That took some time. It took about a half hour to wash and an hour to dry. Both locker rooms were full. We had the freshman team, so we had 250 kids when we had the freshmen, and that lasted until ’91. After that they kind of started cutting back on the roster. There were still probably close to 180-200 kids, and it gradually started coming back down to 150-160-170, though. Compared to most places like Oklahoma, 110 or 115 was the most they’d have back then. More guys to beat up on. (laughs) If you beat up on the first guys you had the second group to beat up on. (laughs)
Q: So you move over to the South Stadium and then you’re working full time with Glenn Abbott, right?
MM: Yeah, Glenn was a lot like Walt. They got along pretty well together. Glenn was a good guy. The way he got the job, in fact -Skip Babcock was the equipment guy before Glenn, and Glenn used to work for General Stores at the time, and when he’d get off of work he’d stop over and watch practice- well, one day Skip goes over and starts talking to him and that’s how he ended up getting the job, if you can believe that. (laughs) He had no experience at all. Just kind of fell into it that way. Glenn was good guy, a hard worker. He was there all the time. That was his baby.
He was a good guy to work for and he’d get on you if he needed to. When you’re in college you probably do a few things that aren’t the smartest things in the world: you’d show up late…
Q: Hung over?
MM: Yeah, you know, a few times, maybe. (laughs) If Glenn needed to get on you he’d do that, but he’d never get on you so you wanted to quit or anything like that. He liked to have a good time like anybody else, so he understood. But if you got too far out of line he’d let you know.
Q: So when was your last year there, Mike?
MM: Well, as a student I graduated in December of ’93 and I kind of hung around there, because I knew they were going to hire assistants. Then I got hired full time in August of ’94.
Q: Was that before the Kickoff Classic?
MM: Yeah, that would have been ’94, because that was Wistrom’s first year, against West Virginia out there. That was full-time and I worked there in the equipment room until 2005. My wife works for Gallup so we moved to Omaha in 2000, I think it was. Basically it was just killing me to drive back and forth every day.
And I actually quit in November of 2007. I took less hours and went to work in the mailroom. When they got North Stadium finished they put a dock and a mailroom over there on the north side and I made sure everything got to where it needed to go.
Q: Wow, you were there for quite a renaissance of Nebraska football…
MM: Yeah, even ’93 when we should have beaten Florida State in the Orange Bowl. We really should have won the National Championship in ’93, ’94 and ’95, and we probably should have won it in ’96 if we didn’t have a bunch of guys get sick. Before we played Texas in the Big 12 Championship game a lot of them got sick the day before and day of. It was a lot of guys. Even a couple of coaches were sick. I’m trying to remember… I know Kevin Steele got sick, but I can’t remember if it was that game or one of the Orange Bowls we were at.
But think about it… I don’t know if you remember that ’93 Orange Bowl against Florida State: the refs were horrendous. They probably cost us twenty-one points in that game. It was horrible. But even then we almost beat them if Byron Bennett hits a last-second field goal. That was an amazing run, ’94 through ’99, really. We only lost one game in ’99, I think. We beat Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl and we beat them pretty good.
Q: I remember driving from San Diego to Tempe for that game. It was a good game.
MM: We just pounded them that year. But ’93 through ’97 was just unbelievable.
Q: So you were in the equipment room, smack dab between the training room and the locker room and saw just about everything and everyone every day, no?
MM: You pretty much saw everybody every day. Everybody had to walk by our window.
Q: So harkening back to arriving on campus in ’88 and the following years, do you recall any change in the atmosphere after being there in the South Stadium for awhile? Any vibe you could put your finger on?
MM: It was for the most part, from my recollection, all the same. T.O. pretty much ran everything the same as far as attitude and work ethic and all that stuff. When things started changing, I’d say it would have been after the ’90 Citrus Bowl against Georgia Tech. Especially on defense when we went away from the 5-2 and started going more for the 4-3, and they started recruiting speed and athletes for defense. That’s when things started changing as far as our defense turning into a real machine. Charlie had some guys he could really turn loose and let them play. And we got the guys like the Peter brothers and the Wistroms and the Tomiches, and you mixed those guys in with some good Nebraska players like Phil Ellis and Mike Anderson and Eric Stokes. You had some good, hard working Nebraska kids and you mix them in with guys from New Jersey and Missouri and other places, and they just clicked.
I guess the biggest difference I could see when I got there in ’88 was the players didn’t take ownership as much as when the Peter brothers were there, and Wistrom. Those guys basically took the team over and when anybody got out of line they just took care of it. The coaches knew they didn’t have to do anything, that Christian or Jason or whoever would have them up at 5 in the morning running stairs. They policed themselves and I think that brought the players closer together than anytime I’d ever seen around there. That was a culture change there. Not that they weren’t tight before, but you had more guys taking care of each other and making sure they were doing the right things instead of coaches having to watch over everybody to make sure they were doing the right things.
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Q: Do you recall any profound changes in the way people acted or the way they treated each other?
MM: In that whole time frame, it basically came down to those guys saying, “Nobody’s going to beat us.” People were basically afraid of us back in those days, a little bit. It’s just the way they carried themselves, their attitudes, “We’re not going to be beat.“ Just the confidence they had. They believed it. If your best players believe it, it trickles down. Your coaches believe it and everybody believes it. It was everybody: coaches, trainers, everybody believed it. That stretch was just unbelievable.
Q: Makes you scratch your head and find it hard to imagine that you were a part of it all?
MM: It was a good time to be there. Absolutely.
Q: Speaking of, I’ll bet you have a great Big Red Room, your in-home Husker shrine? (laughs)
MM: You know, I need to work on that. I have enough stuff to have one. It never seems I have enough time to get anything done. I really should get it done.
To be continued….
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Photo Credits : Unknown Original Sources/Updates Welcomed
Author assumes no responsibility for interviewee errors or misstatements of fact.