published Saturday, March 1st, 2014

Mason follows passion to top: UTC senior a SoCon hoops leader after spurning SEC football

  • photo
    UTC's Zaccheus Mason gets ready to shoot against Tennessee Temple's John Jones.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Zaccheus Mason's high school refers to him as Zuperman.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior has been super at all levels of competition in two sports from fifth grade through today, when he will be honored before the Mocs' basketball game at 7 p.m. against Appalachian State.

He's broken bones of opposing quarterbacks, he's shattered a backboard, he's played in Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium and he could become UTC's first SoCon men's player of the year since Johnny Taylor in 1997.

"He will certainly be remembered," Mocs coach Will Wade said.

Wade's early discussions with Mason centered around the 6-foot-5 forward accomplishing three goals by the end of May.

The first is to get his business degree. He's on track for that. The second is getting the Mocs into the NCAA tournament. That's yet to be determined. The last is to improve his chances to play overseas professional basketball. That's a certainty.

Other talks involved Mason evolving into the Southern Conference player of the year.

He is one of five players in the SoCon to rank in the top 10 in scoring and rebounding this season. Only he, De'Mon Brooks of Davidson and Elon's Lucas Troutman play for teams with winning records. Mason leads the league in rebounding and blocked shots and is fourth in scoring and 10th in field-goal percentage.

He's also helped UTC flip from a 13-19 season last year, including 8-10 in SoCon play, to 17-13 and 11-4 in the league.

Not bad for a former Southeastern Conference tight end.

"Player of the year is something you shoot for, but it's also based on how well your team is doing," Mason said. "Coming off last year, it was a long shot for me to be in this position."

Folks other than Wade knew Mason had this type of potential. Of course his mother, Latrice Mason Coffey, always believed from when he ran around in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle T-shirts.

Christ Presbyterian Academy athletic director Mike Ellson saw glimpses of Mason's athletic prowess when Mason and Ellson's son were on the same fifth-grade basketball team. He followed Mason closely through middle school, through high school on CPA's Nashville campus, during his two years of football at Ole Miss and then his three years of basketball at UTC.

"His real passion and love was always basketball," said Ellson, who is in his 27th year at CPA. "In eighth grade he led our team to the conference championship. I'd watch him take over games when he wanted to."

Ellson also observed Mason's prowess on the football field. He saw Mason, playing defensive end, chase down the Battle Ground Academy quarterback from the opposite side and plant him into the ground hard enough to break the quarterback's collarbone.

Mason's mom saw it, too.

"When Z hit that kid, my heart hit the floor," Mason Coffer said. "Z was a Mack truck. After the game, I asked him to go apologize. And he did."

Mason said he likely will remember that game for the rest of his life -- also, one basketball game during a summer team-camp game at the University School of Nashville. As a rising high school senior he accomplished a feat that few NBA players have accomplished: His dunk broke the glass backboard.

"One of the guards drove from the corner, I ran from the top, he passed to me and I dunked," Mason said. "All I could hear behind me was glass pouring. I had cuts on my arms and face. It was kind of surreal, because it's not something you see every day.

"People came up to me asking to autograph chunks of glass."

The local legend started to grow about Mason's strength and athletic ability and far-too-early comparisons to the success of basketball-to-NFL stars Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez.

Recruiting letters and college propaganda were littering the mailbox during Mason's junior season.

Some schools wanted him to play basketball, including Belmont and UTC -- under then-coach John Shulman -- as well as other prominent mid-major programs. Other schools were sending him letters to play football.

"His senior year of football, it took off," Mason Coffey said. "By the third or fourth game he was getting SEC [football] scholarship offers. But at his height the big offers weren't there in basketball."

Mason's recruiting status for football vaulted him to as high as the No. 2 tight end in the country.

"When he got offers to play in the SEC he'd say, 'I want to be under those lights,'" his mom recalled. "He chose football because of an SEC school."

A redshirt awaited Mason in his first season at Ole Miss. His mother could tell that he wasn't truly happy. But she drove to Oxford, Miss., to encourage her eldest son to stick it out.

"The second year, he wasn't the Z he's been all his life as a happy person," Mason Coffey said. "At the end of the season he said, 'Mama, basketball is my passion.'

"I thought it would blow over."

It didn't.

"He called Coach Shulman and said, 'You offered a scholarship in high school. Are you still interested?'"

Yup.

"My reaction was that he's going off to do what he loves," Ellson said. "He was good, maybe great, at football, but he didn't love it."

Mason joined the Mocs in the fall of 2011 with more basketball rust than a Chevy truck from the 1970s abandoned in an Arizona desert.

He averaged 15.8 minutes, 5.6 points and 5.6 rebounds. Mason's numbers increased as his weight decreased last year to leading UTC with an average of 14.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.

"At Ole Miss, I enjoyed being there, but I didn't have that full enjoyment of playing," Mason said. "I enjoyed the [SEC] passion and all that."

But his love is basketball.

He expressed that love, and a message to do what you love, last Thursday when the sixth-grade class of CPA arrived for the Mocs game. He spent at least 20 minutes with the youngsters, delivering an inspiring message for those youth to follow their hearts and dreams.

"I wouldn't go back," Mason said. "I wouldn't change my mind at all."

Contact David Uchiyama at duchiyama@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6484. Follow him at twitter.com/UchiyamaCTFP.

about David Uchiyama...

David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...

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