'He is the team': How UNC football draws inspiration from team chaplain Mitch Mason
Mitch Mason is guided by his servant’s heart.
For 11 years, the North Carolina football team chaplain has mentored countless Tar Heels in their journeys beyond the field. His players aren't inspired just by his selflessness, but also his unbreakable mentality in the face of illness.
Over the past three years, Mason has battled idiopathic small fiber neuropathy, an incurable nerve disorder that prevents him from getting out of bed without assistance. The UNC football program has rallied around Mason and his fighting spirit, helping to build a team culture that now appears more connected than ever.
UNC quarterback Drake Maye said Mason, along with Tylee Craft and Tez Walker, have been a point of inspiration to the team — negatives that the Tar Heels are trying to turn into positives.
"If you ask me, he is the team," graduate tight end Kamari Morales said. "He is the glue of this team."
‘I don’t run from this stuff’
During his junior year of high school, Mason partially severed his finger in a weight training class when his classmate accidentally released her feet from a leg press machine.
His track coach, Al Sutton, was there to treat the accident. But two days later, when Mason returned to practice, Sutton asked the junior where he had been.
After Mason held up his injured hand, Sutton told Mason something he'd never forget.
"That's just your finger hurt. Ain't nothing wrong with your legs."
Sutton promptly pulled up a chair, sat in it, pointed to the nearby track and told Mason to "run 'til I get tired."
Per Sutton's instructions, Mason ran 22 laps around the football field that day, blood dripping from the gauze on his finger.
Mason said that moment was integral to developing the mental fortitude he has today, and it propels him to continue showing up for the UNC football team in spite of his illness.
“Coach [Sutton], 20-something years ago, prepared me for this moment," Mason said, tears welling up in his eyes. "So that’s why I say, I don’t run from this stuff."
‘We still continue to grow together’
Mason, who is assigned to UNC through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, was brought on by former head coach Larry Fedora in 2012. When Mack Brown returned to UNC as Fedora's replacement in 2018, he made sure Mason stayed on board.
Brown was on the way to his introductory press conference when he delivered the news to Mason. With an entourage of cameras and reporters around Brown, the newly hired head coach saw the chaplain walking the other direction and stopped him.
"I need you to do me a favor," Mason recalled Brown telling him. "I need you to stay on board. I need some help mentoring these young men, and I heard you're really good at it."
As UNC's recruiting took off with Brown at the helm, Mason's involvement in the program expanded. He soon became a part of the recruiting process.
"Coach Brown has a philosophy that he wants everyone in the building to meet the recruits," Mason said. "Sometimes it's a one-on-one thing, sometimes it's just a corporate thing for me and my role. But he explains my role to them as a chaplain, just providing spiritual care, pastoral care to everyone in the building."
Many players, such as Morales, cite Mason as one of the primary reasons they chose Carolina.
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During his recruiting visit, Morales and Mason bonded over their Floridian upbringing, and Mason developed a strong connection with the then-three-star recruit's family. Morales' mother, Jacquelyn, promised Mason some fried chicken, which Mason jokes he's still waiting on four years later.
In his true first-year season, when Morales was redshirting and far from home, he sought out Mason for guidance.
While Mason was walking around the field after practices, he would often find Morales hitting the tackling sled all by himself. Mason instilled hope in Morales — emphasizing to him that it’s not a matter of 'if', but 'when.'
Today, Morales holds the program record for receiving touchdowns for a tight end with 10.
“I was able to go in his office, talk to him and lean on him, and he was able to give me the word of God,” Morales said. “That definitely helped me to get to where I am now, and we still talk. We still continue to grow together.”
'He's there every day'
After being diagnosed with idiopathic small fiber neuropathy during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mason was forced to take a step back from the team. During this time, the team has expressed their gratitude by returning his acts of service, be it grabbing him a plate of food or simply checking in with him on the sidelines.
Brown said the players give Mason a standing ovation when he comes into work. Maye said that even after Mason contracted COVID-19 last year and missed the remainder of the road trips with the team, he continued to support the players in any way he could.
"He's there every day fighting and limping," Brown said.
Mason said this year’s team is like a family, and he credits that to the hardships they've faced together.
And no matter what Mason is going through, he knows one thing is for certain: he will be there in the trenches with his guys and live by Sutton’s words to always be tougher than his excuses.
“You got to go through something to get something,” Mason said. “When you are going through adversity, yes, it reveals character but it also solidifies character. It solidifies who you really are.”
Shelby Swanson contributed reporting to this story.