The sporting kind

issue 01 | winter 2024
Squash racket, Football and Baseball

Two serious knee injuries suffered a year apart marked the end of Brian Mason’s ’09 football career at Denison. They also set him on a course to the NFL.

Instead of walking away from the game, he transitioned to the sideline and accepted an invitation to become a student-coach for the Big Red.

“I wanted to find a way to stay in football,” said the former running back.

Over a 14-year span, Mason has ascended from small-college student assistant to NFL special teams coordinator with the Indianapolis Colts. The journey has been paved with lots of stops and many late nights in coaches’ offices. He toiled as a defensive line coach at Division III Bluffton University before taking a series of graduate assistant jobs at Kent State, Purdue, and Ohio State universities.

Mason credits his time at Denison — he majored in economics and history — for helping him work his way up the coaching depth chart.

“A liberal arts education teaches you to get out of your bubble and become a problem solver,” he said.

Mason became the director of recruiting and the special teams coach at the University of Cincinnati, where he developed his niche in special teams. Between stints at Cincinnati and the University of Notre Dame, his units led the nation in blocked punts three times in a four-year window.

His NFL debut in 2023 saw him return to his native Indiana, where he grew up cheering for the Colts.

“It’s an unbelievable opportunity,” Mason said. “Both me and my wife are from the area. It’s a homecoming.”

The onset of the global pandemic gave Jake Primack ’21 plenty of time to think about his life and reassess its direction.

He loved his days at Denison, where he majored in data analytics, economics, and global commerce. But as students were sent home in March 2020, Primack began to waver on his career path. All roads kept leading him back to his true passion.

“Prior to the pandemic, I was looking to get into the retail industry,” Primack said. “I was planning to take what I was learning with data analytics and apply it to that field. But it really didn’t speak to me the way baseball did.”

During time away from campus in the spring and summer of 2020, he was inspired to pursue a career in baseball after reading The Alchemist, an allegorical novel that teaches readers to listen to their hearts and follow their dreams.

“I understood the odds were stacked against me because I hadn’t played or worked in baseball since high school,” Primack said. “But the broad skill set I developed at Denison gave me an opportunity.”

It took him about nine months after graduation to land an internship with the Philadelphia Phillies. Primack made such an impression that the organization offered him a full-time position in its player development department.

He’s based in Clearwater, Florida, the player development hub and spring-training home of the Phillies, where he helps the franchise develop its next generation of major leaguers.

At Denison, he learned the value of empathy and the need to become a lifelong learner, which now has him learning Spanish to better communicate with Spanish-speaking ballplayers and coaches.

“I came from a pretty homogeneous area in Wisconsin,” Primack said. “At Denison, I was exposed to a more diverse community and learned to look at life through a different lens. That’s really helped me with my job with the Phillies.”

Not many graduates are exactly where they want to be in life at age 24. Jill Reiner ’22 is among the exceptions.

She’s an analyst in the hockey research and development department for the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the flagship franchises in the NHL.

Reiner gives thanks to Denison for helping her land the job right out of college. She became a hockey fan at age 8 and has been building toward a career in the sport since majoring in data analytics on The Hill.

“I could talk about Denison’s influence for hours, for days,” Reiner said. “The data analytics department not only teaches you the skills to succeed but also lets you

carve out your own path. I was doing hockey-related projects when I was in school.”

Denison’s data analytics program was founded in 2016 — among the first of its kind at a liberal arts college — and Reiner has helped elevate its profile. In 2021, she was named a collegiate-level winner in the NFL’s Big Data Bowl before being hired by the Maple Leafs a year later.

Few NHL teams are more heavily invested in analytics. She’s part of an eight-person staff in Toronto that assists the hockey operations department.

“It’s been really rewarding to be a part of an organization with great people in it,” Reiner said. “I’m learning something every day. As someone who grew up loving hockey, it really is a dream job.”

After their final game, the football careers of most Big Red players are over. Not for Max Paulus ’13, the program’s second all-time leading passer with 6,545 yards. He’s still in the game and trying to win a Super Bowl with his boyhood team.

Paulus is the director of college scouting for the Cleveland Browns. He’s been with the organization for a decade and was an area scout in 2020 when the Browns won their first playoff game since 1994.

“The most exciting part of the job is being able to contribute to the pursuit of building a championship roster and organization,” Paulus said. “To have a small role in pursuing a goal that is shared by many, in the sport that has given me so much and taught me so much, is rewarding.”

Paulus was one of at least seven Big Red alums with NFL jobs during the 2023 season. Paulus grew up in Massillon, Ohio, a town so obsessed with the sport that a local hospital tucked miniature footballs in the cribs of newborns for decades.

While few attend Denison expecting to reach the NFL, Paulus said his education prepared him for his career in scouting.

“I did not know this at the time, but being a student athlete going to a liberal arts college teaches you how to manage your time at a young age, while also exposing you to multiple disciplines and ways of thinking,” said Paulus, a double major in history and economics.

Denison also taught Paulus the value of adaptability and being a steady leader.

“In any profession, there is a learning curve, but especially in professional sports where you are constantly being evaluated and experiencing shifts in leadership,” Paulus said. “These two qualities have aided my career.”

The sweetest ride on campus arguably belongs to an 88-year-old grandfather with helping hands and a lead foot. Bill Mason ’57 drives a metallic blue 2019 Corvette Grand Sport.

His passion for sports cars is such that at age 85, he couldn’t resist the chance to take a spin around a Nevada closed-course track in a Corvette similar to his own.

“Down the back straightaway, we were running 107 miles per hour,” said Mason, who’s owned 15 Corvettes in his life.

It seems nothing can slow down the former Denison athlete, educator, on-field official, and man for all seasons. Father Time cried uncle years ago.

Mason remains part of the Big Red coaching staff for the swimming and diving team, serving as its strength coach. His trim, athletic physique is the envy of ex-jocks half his age.

“Bill is a terrific ambassador for Denison and our swimming and diving programs,” coach Gregg Parini said. “He’s a strong advocate for our student athletes and, in the nearly 20 years he’s been with us, he’s been consistent in bringing a positive ‘can do’ attitude to our program.”

It’s been that way since he arrived on campus from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, in 1953. He played basketball and lacrosse for the Big Red. As a senior, Mason captained the lacrosse team, won MVP honors, and led it to a conference title. After graduation, he worked as a Denison assistant coach for a decade and played the sport late into his 50s.

Mason is enshrined in four athletic halls of fame. He’s the only person to be inducted into the Ohio Lacrosse Hall of Fame in four categories: player, coach, official, and pioneer. He’s also a member of Denison’s Varsity D Association Athletic Hall of Fame and the Orange High School Hall of Fame.

In 2023, the Ohio High School Athletic Association added him to its officiating hall of fame for his 65 years of work in basketball and lacrosse.

Sports and sports cars are only part of Mason’s story. He loved empowering students as a teacher, principal, and, for 22 years, an assistant superintendent of Newark (Ohio) City Schools.

Back on campus, he serves as the Sigma Chi alumni house director, a role that comes with a designated parking spot where you’ll sometimes see his Corvette.

“How many 88-year-olds get to do what I’m permitted to do?” Mason asked. “I’ve been so fortunate. I’ve never had a job I didn’t like.”

Published December 2023
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