AUBURN, Ala. — In what would prove to be the final outings of Tre Mason’s college career, he had only one priority: Winning.
Despite the Heisman Trophy talk that grew louder with each passing game, the junior running back tuned it out. The same goes for those who wanted to discuss whether he would depart for the NFL with one year of eligibility remaining. Those things meant nothing to him.
Coming home from California with the crystal football — more properly and verbosely known as the AFCA National Championship Trophy — was foremost on Mason’s mind.
“I was just focusing on winning that game,” said Mason, referring to Monday’s BCS championship game, which saw Auburn fall to Florida State 34-31. “I wish we would have. I had prepared, made sure everybody's mind was right, ready to go to war with these guys. I love my teammates. They're my brothers, and I wouldn't trade them for anything in the world.”
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Not even a championship. But it pains Mason that he hasn’t won a ring during his playing career. Thanks to his efforts Monday night, which saw him run for 195 yards (trailing only Vince Young’s 200 yards in 2006 for the highest total in BCS title game history) and a touchdown, the Tigers nearly emerged victorious. His biggest play of the game — a bruising 37-yard touchdown run — came at critical juncture, giving Auburn a 31-27 lead with just 1:19 remaining.
It was too much time for Jameis Winston, though.
The Heisman winner hooked up with receiver Kelvin Benjamin on a go-ahead, 2-yard touchdown pass with just 13 seconds to play, foiling Mason’s chances at capturing that elusive title.
It’s a factor that will continue to motivate the Palm Beach, Fla., native as he moves on to the NFL.
“My mind's not just set on money, it's set on championships,” he said. “I have yet to win a championship and my mind-set's not going to change. I still want to, (and) God willing, I will win a championship at the next level."
Championships aside, Mason achieved nearly all of his other aspirations.
Namely, surpassing Bo Jackson’s single-season rushing record.
The 37-yard score was the run that put him over the top, helping Mason finish with 1,816 rushing yards, 30 yards clear of Jackson’s total (1,786) in 1985.
“I just came in wanting to be the best,” he said. “ Breaking Bo Jackson's record was a goal of mine since the beginning of the season, and I believed and God blessed me with the opportunity to do that.”
Gus Malzahn helped, too.
At the beginning of the season, the Tigers used a three-pronged rushing attack consisting of Mason, Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne. But as the season wore on, Grant and Artis-Payne fell to the wayside, making Mason the feature back. The stats bear it out.
Over the final seven games of the year, Mason carried the ball 198 times.
In that same span, Grant and Artis-Payne combined for 60 rushing attempts.
Not that Mason minded.
It was the role he had been waiting for since arriving at Auburn, after all.
“It was a big dream of mine. I wanted the ball bad,” Mason said. “I feel like I can do something with the ball in my hands. God blessed me with the coaches I have today to put the ball in my hands and blessed me with the ability to do what I could do with the ball.”
Malzahn couldn’t say enough about Mason’s willingness to become the team’s workhorse.
“People knew we were running and knew he was getting it and he was able to have positive yards and make some very hard yards,” the coach said. “We played some very good defenses at the end of the season and that's when he was at his best.”
Other teammates and coaches held Mason in similarly high regard.
“Had the honor to block for this man for (three) years now and proud of the man he has become,” right guard Chad Slade said on his personal Instagram account. “(P)roud to call him my little bro. You deserve this.”
“Really proud for (Tre Mason),” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee tweeted. “He will make a great pro. Represented Auburn exceptionally well this season.”
They were far from the only members of Tigers to send their well-wishes Mason's way as he pursues an NFL career. But it’s a testament to the respect they have and the difference he made in three seasons as a Tiger.
Then again, Mason would point right back at others — the coaching staff, specifically — for helping to change him for the better.
“They made me into the man I am today, a more respectful person,” he said. “And (they helped) me to remain hungry and realize the blessings that are given to you.”
As he took one last look at the season just past — from the numerous last-minute victories to his own record-setting performances to everything else in between — even Mason had a hard time convincing himself it had really happened.
Starting out, the turnaround season was just “a dream,” Mason said.
By season’s end, it was far more than mere fantasy.
“I just gave all I could to get there (to) make that dream become a reality,” he said. “Who knew? I never knew we were going be in the national championship this year. It's just a blessing.”