Less than a year after his release from the Ravens left him angry and bitter, wide receiver Derrick Mason returned to the organization that he said his heart never left to say goodbye to the NFL.
Wearing the same suit that he wore when he signed with the team in March 2005, Mason announced his retirement Monday, officially ending a stellar 15-year career in which he became the Ravens' all-time leader in catches and receiving yards.
"There are not too many places you can go and be embraced the way the city of Baltimore embraced me," Mason said during a news conference at the Ravens' team facility. "I will be forever indebted to this city. The decision wasn't hard to retire and then the decision where to retire was just as easy because, like I said, my heart was here. It never left. My body left, but by heart stayed right in these rooms."
Mason, 38, played 15 NFL seasons and ranks 11th in league history in catches (943) and 19th in receiving yards (12,061). He's the only player in NFL history to surpass 5,000 total return yards and 10,000 receiving yards.
During his six seasons as a Raven, Mason never missed a game, and he owns the top three seasons in terms of receptions in franchise history.
"Over the 16 years, 17 years that we have been here, we've signed a lot of free agents, a lot of them. But I don't know if there was any one player over the span of their career that did more for this organization than Derrick Mason did," said general manager Ozzie Newsome, who still remembers the phone call from vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty with the news that the team had finalized a free-agent deal with the veteran wide receiver.
"There could be arguments when you list them all, but what Derrick did in the years that he was here, he would be at the top or near the top and in my mind — at the top because of the number of years that he played here as a guy that wasn't drafted here."
Mason's career, defined by consistency and durability, ended on a sour note as he caught just 19 balls for 170 yards in 12 games last season for the New York Jets, who signed him after he was released by the Ravens, and the Houston Texans, who acquired him in an October trade.
The well-traveled season was in stark contrast to the first 14 years of his career, eight of them spent with the Tennessee Titans and six in Baltimore. But Mason said it put things in perspective and helped him arrive at his decision to retire.
"The year didn't go the way I wanted it to, but it went the way it should have went," Mason said. "I truly believe that. I believe that God had something else for me. I think there was a lesson that I needed to learn last year, and I learned it. I was able to mentally prepare myself to retire last year. My heart was still here, it really was. I still had to go out and try to perform a job knowing that the most vital part of my being, the piece of my body that I played with the most, was still here in Baltimore."
In a nearly 40-minute news conference, Mason thanked a variety of people, from his family to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to former teammates to the Ravens' security, equipment, cafeteria and public relations staffs. He heaped praised on former teammates Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, expressing admiration for Lewis' passion and intensity and calling Reed "the greatest player that I've seen play the game."
Mason forecasted big things for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and wide receiver Torrey Smith, who both attended the news conference, and he grew emotional when talking about his former Titans and Ravens quarterback, the late Steve McNair.
"Him and I more or less grew up together in the game of football," Mason said. "Because of him, my numbers are what they are. He looked for me, he trusted me and he counted on me, and I hope I never failed him. He will always, always be No. 1 with me."
Mason, who played his college ball at Michigan State, was taken by the Titans in the fourth round of the 1997 draft. He was used primarily as a returner in his first three seasons in Tennessee before developing into a go-to receiver who averaged 81 catches and seven touchdowns from 2000-2004.
He playeed longer in Tennessee and went to his only Super Bowl as a member of the Titans, yet he struggled very little with his decision to retire as a Raven.
"Tennessee is a great place," Mason said. "They gave me an opportunity to start my career and [for] that I will always thank the brass there. But my heart was here. You can't do something somewhere else when your heart is in another place. My heart was here, so it was an easy choice for me."
Coach John Harbaugh thanked Mason on behalf of his staff and the fan base for making that choice. Harbaugh said he never remembered the veteran receiver missing a single practice during the time he coached him, and he reminisced about the game at Dallas in December 2008 when Mason caught six passes, including a touchdown, despite playing with a cracked scapula that basically limited him to using just one arm.
"That's the Derrick Mason that we all know and love," Harbaugh said. "Derrick was a guy that you can count on. I've never seen a better route runner."
Mason said that in his immediately future he will spend some time with his family in the Nashville area and do a little volunteer coaching. But before long, he wants to get back to work, perhaps getting involved in broadcasting or a business venture.
When he does, he's comfortable that his football legacy is secure.
"I enjoyed my journey. It was fun," Mason said. "I went out and did my job. I hope the numbers speak for themselves. Was I flashy? No. But I was hard-working. I went out and did what I was supposed to do."