It wasn't all that surprising to read in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in late August that Madison East junior Marquis Mason had verbally committed to playing college basketball at UW-Milwaukee. Mason (6'5", 223 lbs.) is a strong and quick forward who averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds a game as a sophomore for the Purgolders last year. He's a wonderful basketball player.
But, it turns out, Mason is also a wonderful football player. After sitting out his sophomore year to concentrate on hoops, Mason is lining up at wide receiver for East this fall. And he's performing at a level that makes him wonder whether basketball is the right path to take.
"Football has kind of changed my perspective on what I want to play in college," Mason tells me at a recent practice. "At first, it was basketball, 100%. But I've been learning what I'm capable of, watching myself on tape. And I'm kind of undecided right now about where I want to go to college."
That might startle UW-Milwaukee basketball coach Rob Jeter and his staff, but it shouldn't shock anyone who has seen Mason in pads this fall. Five games into the season, Mason has 34 receptions for 547 yards, an average of more than 16 yards per catch. Some of those gaudy numbers will be attributed to East employing the pass-heavy spread offense.
The spread, as practiced by college programs like Purdue and Florida, lines up four or five wide receivers, forcing the defense to play man-to-man. The quarterback usually lines up in shotgun formation, allowing him to throw quick passes into space for receivers running slant routes and no-huddle plays keep defenses on their heels.
In East's version, junior quarterback Drew McAdams often takes the snap and throws immediately to a receiver on the line of scrimmage, forcing a defender to make an open-field tackle. Mason is particularly impressive in these situations, using his quickness to juke an unfortunate defensive back out of his pads or his strength to simply shove the kid aside. Of course, at 6'5", he also has the ability to out-leap most defenders.
"I knew he was fast," reflects Madison West coach Greg Valaskey, whose team recently managed a 36-34 win over the Purgolders. "But I had no idea how physical he was or how tough he was running with the football."
East coach Dennis Hill first experimented with the spread in 2006, after realizing his team didn't have the size and power to match up with other Big Eight Conference teams in a conventional running attack. Hill committed to the offense full-time in 2007 and started working on getting Mason back on the team.
"The offensive coordinator, Coach [Jeff] Mack, is also an assistant basketball coach," says Mason. "He was always chattering in my ear about football. And then my friend-slash-quarterback, Drew McAdams, was pestering me for about a year. 'Play! Play! Play! You'll do good!'"
But some credit should go to Rich Cleveland, East's head basketball coach and a guy whose team's success depends a great deal on Mason. It was Cleveland, ironically, who may have closed the deal by introducing Mason to some Purgolder history.
Cleveland, says Mason, "compared me to Donald Hayes, the former East player. He said I'm just like him. He was good at football and basketball, so he figures I could have the same chances."
Hayes, a basketball and football star at East in the mid-'90s, went on to have a distinguished career at wide receiver for the Badgers and played five years in the NFL. At 6'4", 220 pounds, he cut a similar figure to Mason's. Of course, Cleveland could have gone even farther back - to the '50s - for another tall receiver who made headlines in multiple sports for East before going on to an NFL career: Pat Richter.
Multi-sport athletes were common in Richter's day, but they're increasingly rare. Promising basketball players, in particular, are often encouraged to specialize, partly to improve their skills through off-season training and partly to avoid injuries. But Mason thinks football will help make him a better basketball player.
"I'm not coming out for football just to catch passes," he says. "I kind of like being tackled, actually. It makes me want to work harder so I don't get tackled the next time."