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Niles: ‘A magical, mystical place’

Daughter of legendary coach Tony Mason, recalls trip ‘home’

Submitted photo Tony Mason, left, and Carey Mason, right, attend a Niles football game at Bo Rein Stadium on Sept. 4, 1993. It was the last time Tony and Carey attended a Niles game together.

Carey Mason was driving from her home in Michigan and on her way to Pittsburgh when she decided that a drive past Bo Rein Stadium was in order. It was Sept. 9, and Niles happened to be playing at home that night. Kickoff was less than an hour away, so Mason and her husband John opted to pull into the parking lot for a closer look.

Mason grew up hearing stories about the town of Niles, its people and Red Dragons football. But, that was decades ago. Maybe things had changed. Maybe her name wouldn’t even resonate with the Niles faithful.

The parking lot was already full, and Mason was told she would have to park elsewhere if she was going to stay for the game. No problem, Mason said. She told the parking lot attendant she was just there to get a glimpse of the place her dad once called home.

“So he asked who my dad was, I told him and he immediately was like, ‘Oh my goodness, let me take care of you,'” Mason said.

Mason then went into the stadium, and while purchasing some Dragons gear she struck up a conversation with Niles police officer Jim Villecco.

“Just by looking at him, I knew he wouldn’t have even been born yet during my dad’s era here,” Mason said. “But when I told him who I was, the look on his face was one of total shock. He was like, ‘Go up in the stands and mention your dad’s name, everyone here knows of him.'”

“That was the beginning of how things would be for the rest of the night. I had never experienced anything like it. Even though I never lived in Niles, I immediately felt like I was back home.”

Indeed, earlier this month Mason quickly discovered that in Niles, even William McKinley often takes a back seat to the man who once put Red Dragons football in the national spotlight.

Carey Mason is the daughter of the late Tony Mason, the legendary coach who guided Niles to a 48-game unbeaten streak and a pair of state titles in the early 1960s. Prior to coming to Niles, Tony coached at Brookfield for five years, where he had a 40-6-1 record, three consecutive undefeated seasons and a 28-game winning streak.

Tony Mason left Niles following the 1963 season to become an assistant coach at the University of Michigan. He was with the Wolverines for five years. Carey was born in Ann Arbor. Tony then served as an assistant at Purdue. Head coaching stints followed at Cincinnati (1973-76) and Arizona (1977-79).

Tony Mason went on to become a broadcast analyst for the University of Pittsburgh football program, then was a well-known motivational speaker. While on his way from Cleveland to Texas for a speaking engagement in July of 1994, Tony Mason passed away from a heart attack at the age of 64.

“Growing up, Niles was a magical, mystical place,” Carey said. “Even while my dad was moving through the college ranks, everything seemed to go back to Niles. I knew about the town, the people. I knew about the little things, like the stars on the uniforms, the sausage fry.

“For my dad, his time in Niles was a bigger than life thing. It was an event. And that’s how I always thought of it too.”

Carey acknowledged that her visit to Bo Rein Stadium earlier this month “brought with it a ton of emotions.” She admitted that she was brought to tears when she was shown the wall at the entrance of the locker room which is plastered with clippings detailing the history of Niles football. She had the opportunity to meet Michael Lastic, a former Niles player, coach, teacher and principal. Lastic and Tony were close friends.

“The entire night was a powerful, moving experience,” Carey said. “I was truly humbled by the fact that just bringing up my dad’s name brought back so many memories for so many people. Even people who weren’t even born yet during the 60’s had stories to tell.”

“Everyone was so genuine. It was as if I was part of their families and this town. Afterward I was receiving text messages from people I met only that night saying, ‘You and your family are welcome in our home anytime.’ My dad has been gone for thirty years, and that night it was like he was sitting right next to me.”

Prior to Carey’s stop earlier this month, she last visited Niles with her father when he was a guest speaker at the Niles football banquet in 1985 and again in 1993. Ironically, Villecco was a junior in high school and a member of the Dragons’ football team in ’85 and still has a newspaper clipping from the banquet. Highlighted in marker are quotes from Mason.

Niles football coach Jim Parry was in attendance at both banquets.

“Growing up in the 80s, my generation was the offspring of those who were part of the Tony Mason era,” Villecco said. “We grew up hearing the stories. We completely understood and were still experiencing the impact that Mason had on this town and the football program. I even remember (teammate) Terry Howell bringing in recordings of Coach Mason’s speeches, and we’d listen to them at halftime of games.”

“When Coach Mason spoke at our banquet, I was only fifteen years old and I saw his magic. He had us all on the edge of our seats. And this was twenty years after he coached his last game in Niles.”

Like Villecco, Parry was born after Tony Mason left Niles. Still, Parry understood and felt the impact Mason left on the town and the football program.

“He was revered by so many people in town, not just those who played for him,” Parry said. “When he came back to speak at a banquet, you wanted to go just to hear what he had to say.”

“Today we bring in alumni to speak to our team before games, and so often those speeches revert back to the Mason era. Many of our traditions got started in that era. It speaks volumes on Mason’s impact.”

Parry said he remembers sitting at the same table with Carey during the ’93 banquet.

“He ended by pointing to her and telling everyone, ‘I call her every night to tell her I love her,'” Parry recalled.

Carey said that her visit left such an impression that she is already planning a return visit next year which will include a larger contingent of family members.

“When I die, I’m going to ask God to bring me back to a 1960s Niles game,” Carey said. “I would love nothing more than to experience the crowd, the excitement, the sights and the emotion of that era of Niles that I never got to experience in person.”

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