Oct. 4, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
Paul Johnson was a little more charged up Tuesday than we’ve seen him this year, as he was – as might be expected – none too thrilled about certain signs he saw in his team last week. The Georgia Tech coach didn’t leave much to guess about.
He noticed a sag in practice intensity last week, and even though he raised his voice around the Yellow Jackets, some of the same substandard work habits surfaced in Saturday’s 45-35 win at N.C. State.
Johnson referred to “flaming” some players. That is presumed to be coach-code for barking at them. There may be more flaming this week, as the 13th-ranked Jackets (5-0) can’t possibly know what to make of visiting Maryland. The Terps (2-2) have been an up and down group to date.
But how about we address Johnson’s verbiage later this week when the game draws closer?
As interesting as some of Johnson’s words were, including his opinion that rah-rah speeches aren’t worth the air in which they travel and that digging up Knute Rockne for one of his famed elocutions wouldn’t be enough to rally some, today I cannot get past the budding legend of Shaq Mason.
He’s the freshman offensive lineman from Columbia, Tenn., who is making an impression in his first season on The Flats.
As far as I can tell, Mason bears no resemblance to the great Norwegian who coached Notre Dame to a 105-12-5 mark from 1918-’30 before dying in a plane crash in the spring of ’31. Rockne, in fact, wasn’t much of a football player, at least not in college.
Mason so far shows no signs of being a coach, either. He’s a tad soft-spoken, at least presently, for that.
There is, though, that name: Shaquille Olajuwon Mason.
That’s the big guy’s full label, and it’s real. You can start guessing now; read on to have your suspicions confirmed or denied.
At 6-feet-2, Mason – who is not related to Anthony — has not and probably won’t reach the height of his namesakes. He can’t quite dunk a basketball, although he can touch the rim. That’s impressive for a young man who weighs 297 pounds.
This all goes back to mom, who just loved – and still loves – hoops.
Funny thing, but Alicia McGuire has always been a Lakers fan, and when her son was born on Aug. 28, 1993 (he was 17 when he arrived on campus last summer), O’Neal was several years from being a Laker.
He had a playing style that appealed, however, and so did Mr. Olajuwon.
“I followed Shaq through college; I was an LSU fan,” said McGuire, who played basketball through high school. “My father [Alonzo Pye Jr.] wanted a son, and I came first and I’m the tomboy. My TV is always on SportsCenter. I liked the way Shaq played, and Olajuwon . . . I loved him because he was so strong and powerful.”
So, fandom begat Shaquille Olajuwon Mason.
As you might imagine, while growing up Mason reserved the right to be, “Shaq” whenever the local boys played hoops. He said, “Nobody else could use that.”
The basketball career ended officially after his sophomore year in high school, “because I just figured football was probably my best sport.” Baseball had fallen by the wayside a year or so earlier.
Mason still plays some hoops, most recently over the summer with some of his Tech teammates at the Campus Recreation Center.
Football’s his game, though, and he’s good at it. He’s one of a handful of true freshmen who has received meaningful playing time.
“It’s going pretty well. It’s a great freshman experience,” he said. “I really had no idea [what to expect]. I just wanted to get down here and work hard to try and play.” Mom works hard to see her eldest son play. McGuire’s been to four of the five Tech games so far, missing last week’s game in Raleigh. She plans to be in Atlanta for the Maryland game as well.
Shaq never saw Olajuwon play other than in highlights, but in addition to witnessing O’Neal on TV many times, he met his namesake a few years ago when an uncle took him to an NBA game in Memphis. There, the Grizzlies were playing Miami when the bigger Shaq worked for the Heat.
Wearing an O’Neal jersey purchased by his mother, the smaller Shaq was approached by a member of the Big Fundamental’s entourage. That gentleman said something to the effect of, “What’s your name, big fella?” and the answer produced – predictably – some surprise.
The man laughed and said, “You’re kidding; I need to see ID.”
Next thing Mason knew, arrangements were made for him to meet O’Neal. His jersey was signed, and a young boy went home happy.
Interestingly, the name doesn’t come up much as a topic of conversation, chiefly because few are aware of its entirety. “Most people just know me as Shaq,” Tech’s No. 70 said. “I don’t get asked about it much. When people find out, they ask.”
Mason’s not one to say a lot without being asked, at least not yet. As he grows into his role and beyond the tender age of 18, perhaps that will change.
For now, he’s ahead of several curves.
Asked about his coach’s message last week, and all that “flaming,” Shaquille Olajuwon Mason seemed to get the point Johnson was trying to make.
“He’s trying to make us play at a high level at all times, and if we get a big lead not play down to their level,” he said. “We’ve got to keep our foot on the gas.”
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