The NFL draft was held on April 28. The Star Tribune devoted 15 full pages to previewing the draft on the seven mornings leading to the Vikings' selection of Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson with the seventh overall pick.

Peterson was the 10th running back chosen in the first round by the Vikings in their 47-year history.

The first of those was Tulane's Tommy Mason before the 1961 season. There was somewhat less of a buildup for that draft, even though the Vikings would be making the No. 1 overall selection and it was their first draft ever.

The Minneapolis Tribune's preview ran on the morning of that draft. The hype consisted of four paragraphs on an inside page, along with 27 lines of agate (small) type, listing a few of the top players at various positions.

"No doubt, there has been an inflation in newspaper type devoted to the draft," Mason said. "But I would venture to say the inflation in money is greater than the inflation in type."

Oakland selected quarterback JaMarcus Russell with the first choice in the 2007 draft. The Raiders allegedly have offered more than $30 million in guaranteed money, and he has not yet signed.

"My first-year salary was $12,000," Mason said.

The running back was able to extract that ransom from the Vikings because he also had offers from Boston of the fledgling American Football League and Ottawa of the Canadian Football League.

"I wasn't sure the AFL was going to last, and Canada seemed a long way away for a Louisiana boy," he said. "There was some talk about an agent, but my dad, Bill, was a watchman at a chemical plant, and my mom, Mary, was a nurse, and they couldn't believe it ... that this team from Minnesota was willing to pay their boy $12,000 to play football."

Different time, different draft

The NFL draft was held on Dec. 27, 1960. The scouting was so rudimentary that teams sent information cards to players, asking for height, weight and a few other details.

"I received an information card from the Vikings during my senior season at Tulane," Mason said. "I didn't know anything about NFL expansion. As far as I knew, the Vikings were playing in some seven-man league in the Midwest."

There was not the same level of paranoia about injuries among front offices and coaching staffs as exists today. Teams spent six or seven weeks in training camp engaged in full contact. They played six exhibition games.

In Mason's case, here's the No. 1 overall draft choice, and he was on the roster for two all-star games that summer before reporting to the first Vikings' camp in Bemidji.

The College All-Star Game pitting top senior players from the previous fall against the defending NFL champion was played from 1934 through 1976 (with the exception of 1974) in late July or early August in Chicago.

There was also a Coaches All-American Game played in Buffalo, N.Y., in June in the early 1960s. Minnesota's Murray Warmath coached the West in the first game in 1961, and Mason was a running back for him.

Why would NFL teams allow a player in whom they had invested to play in two summer all-star games before he reported to camp?

"Because, as I said, the investment was only $12,000," Mason said. "If I got hurt, it wasn't going to put them out of business."

Mason suffered a neck injury in practice for the College All-Star Game. He missed some time once he arrived in camp in Bemidji.

The Vikings had picked up veteran Hugh McElhenny in the expansion draft. Hurryin' Hugh led the expansion Vikings with 120 carries in their 14 games, twice as many carries as Mason was given as a rookie.

A monkey named for his coach

Norm Van Brocklin had come directly from being the NFL's Most Valuable Player (as the quarterback of the champion Philadelphia Eagles) to being the coach of the Vikings. He was an acerbic gentleman, to say the least.

"Norman chewed my rear end enough times, but I knew he was a supporter," Mason said. "My relationship with him was a lot different than Tarkenton's. I don't know how I would've handled it to have someone on me as heavy and as constantly as Norman was on Francis.

"Norman's position was quarterback, and he wanted someone to play the position exactly like he played it. That just wasn't Francis. The relationship between those two personalities never had a chance."

Tarkenton might have been the team's immediate star, when he scrambled his way to a 37-13 upset of Chicago in the Vikings' first game, but Mason quickly caught on with local fans and the media as a true character.

He played both guitar and ukulele. He bought a silver Cadillac with part of that $12,000 he made as a rookie. He also adopted a monkey as a pet and named it "Dutch" in honor of Van Brocklin.

"I don't remember the monkey, but I remember the Cadillac, and I remember that Tommy was never short of dates with good-lookin' women," said Roy (Moonie) Winston, a fellow Louisianan who came to the Vikings a year after Mason.

There was a feature story in a Minneapolis newspaper on Mason's quirks, complete with a photo of "Dutch." Soon thereafter, Mason had the misfortune of missing a block that caused Tarkenton to get clobbered.

"At that time, the offense and the defense would watch film together," he said. "Norman would run the film. The room was crowded and dark, except for the screen and the light coming from the projector.

"Van Brocklin got to the play where I missed the block. He showed it, stopped the film, went back and showed it again, then again ... four, five times.

"And then he turned off the projector and, in the darkness, all you heard was Norman's voice: 'Mason, take that Cadillac, that guitar and that monkey and ...' "

Van Brocklin made a very candid suggestion as to where Mason should place those three things, and then added, " ... and start caring about being a football player."

Making big strides

Mason turned into a tremendous player for the Vikings in 1962. His explosiveness was demonstrated with a 71-yard run for a touchdown and a 74-yard reception. He led the team with 740 yards rushing and 603 yards receiving.

He was the Vikings' lone Pro Bowl representative in '62, then made the Western Conference squad again in 1963 and 1964.

Mason was much like Chuck Foreman would be after he was drafted in 1973: an equal threat as a runner and a receiver. Mason had sprinter's speed and excellent elusiveness.

He had his first knee injury in 1965 and missed three games. He had surgery on his right knee after the season. Later, he had surgery on his left knee and also on each shoulder.

Fullback Bill Brown had been the team's leading ball carrier in 1964 and 1965. In '66, Boom Boom had 251 carries, compared to only 58 for Mason. Eventually, Dave Osborn replaced an injured Mason as the starter at halfback.

George Allen was the coach of the Los Angeles Rams, and he had a great fondness for veterans. This allowed Jim Finks, the Vikings' general manager, to make a trade that had historic implications: Mason, tight end Hal Bedsole and a second-round draft choice to the Rams for 15th overall pick in the 1967 draft.

The Vikings turned that choice into Notre Dame's Alan Page, perhaps the best defensive tackle in NFL history.

Mason played four years in Los Angeles. He was going to retire, but then Allen now the Redskins coach convinced him to come to Washington in 1971.

He played in 10 games for the Redskins in 1971 and was convinced to come back for one more year.

"My knees were shot by then," Mason said. "There's no way I could have lasted a whole season. I was going to retire, but Allen said I could spend the year on the injured list and only play if someone got hurt.

"No one did, so I didn't play all year and made more money $51,000 than in any other season in my career. The only bad part was that the Redskins went to the Super Bowl, and I wasn't active.

"I had a couple of very interesting head coaches. Van Brocklin was an offensive genius who had no time for defense. Allen was exactly the opposite. He just wanted a bunch of veterans on offense who weren't going to turn over the ball and put his defense in trouble."

Law student, beer distributor

Mason had been married to a Minnesota woman in the '60s and then divorced. He met Cathy Rigby, the Olympic gymnast. They were married in 1975 and divorced a decade later. They have two sons, Buck and Ryan.

"I also have a younger son, Taylor, who just graduated from a prep school on Vancouver Island," Mason said. "His mother is a Canadian. That marriage didn't last too long."

Mason was an excellent student as well as a great player for Tulane.

"That's the way it worked in Louisiana," said Winston, an LSU standout. "The smart guys went to Tulane, and the football players went to LSU. But Tommy ... he was both."

Mason went to law school in California after his NFL career was over.

"Once I got out, I decided not to practice," he said. "I became the distributor for Coors Brewery in San Bernardino. I did that for 17 years ... was very lucky with it.

"I got into a fight with Coors in the '90s. When you're fighting big brother, you might as well sell, because you're not going to win. So, I sold the beer company and became an Allison Transmission dealer ... transmissions for heavy equipment."

Mason, 68, now lives in Anaheim Hills with Karen, his fourth wife.

"We've been married since '99, and she's definitely the one," he said. "Great gal."

 

 

Patrick Reusse • preusse@startribune.com