Tommy Mason, the first draft pick in Vikings history, died Thursday morning in Newport Beach, Calif., at the age of 75.
No cause of death was released but Mason had been in hospice care.
Mason played six seasons at running back for the Vikings, producing 4,941 yards from scrimmage, earning three Pro Bowl nods and becoming the franchise’s first All-Pro selection.
“The entire Minnesota Vikings organization is saddened by the loss of Tommy Mason,” Vikings owner and team president Mark Wilf said in a statement. “Tommy played a significant role in the history of the franchise. He remained a part of the Vikings family, appearing at multiple events over the past several decades. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Mason family.”
After a standout collegiate career at Tulane, Mason was selected first overall by the expansion Vikings in the 1961 NFL draft.
He spurned offers from the American Football League and the Canadian Football League to sign with the Vikings, who paid him $12,000 his rookie season. With part of the money, he bought a silver Cadillac and adopted a pet monkey, which he named “Dutch” in honor of coach Norm Van Brocklin.
In a 2007 story in the Star Tribune, Mason said he got his large signing bonus because he also had offers from Boston of the AFL and Ottawa of the CFL.
“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.”
After backing up veteran Hugh McElhenny during his rookie season, Mason emerged in his second season, leading the Vikings with 740 yards rushing and 603 yards receiving. He was the team’s lone Pro Bowl representative that season, the first of three consecutive Pro Bowl selections.
Mason followed with a career-high 763 rushing yards, along with nine total touchdowns, to be named a first-team All-Pro in 1963.
Mason rushed for 3,252 yards and 28 touchdowns in his six seasons with the Vikings. He also caught 151 passes for 1,689 yards and 11 more touchdowns.
“Tommy was an enormous talent,” former Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton said in a statement. “He was a great player, a humble man and an outstanding teammate.”
Injuries slowed Mason in his final two seasons with the Vikings. He suffered his first knee injury in 1965, requiring surgery after the season. He later had to have surgery on his left knee and also one on each shoulder.
“Tommy was as complete of a running back as they come,” longtime Vikings athletic trainer Fred Zamberletti said in a statement. “Because of injuries, Tommy did not have the career that he wanted to have but he was a very talented, hard-running, slashing player.”
After rushing for just 235 yards in seven games in 1966, Mason was traded by General Manager Jim Finks to the Los Angeles Rams, along with tight end Hal Bedsole and a second-round draft pick, for the 15th overall pick in the 1967 draft. The Vikings used that pick to select Hall of Fame defensive tackle Alan Page.
Mason played four seasons in Los Angeles before finishing his career with the Washington Redskins.
“He’ll always be remembered as one of the original Vikings,” Zamberletti said. “He will be sorely missed.”