Born & Bred: Carolina's Father Figure

Even as he battles a debilitating disease, a host of Tar Heels count Mitch Mason as one of their most important influences in Chapel Hill.

By Lee Pace, July 27, 2023

Over the last 12 years of Tar Heel football, there have been two head coaches, more than two dozen assistant coaches and some 300 scholarship players. There have been the heights of winning 11 straight games in the 2015 season and shellacking Miami with 778 yards offense to end the 2020 season and land an Orange Bowl berth. There have been the depths of being buried in an avalanche in a 59-7 lambasting at Virginia Tech in 2017.

One constant through it all has been Mitch Mason, who was hired in 2012 by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Coach Larry Fedora’s behest to serve as the team chaplain. His salary and benefits paid for by private donations to FCA, “Mister Mitch” and “Chap” as he’s known in the halls of Kenan Football Center has been the Godfather to the program and the man behind the scenes with a smile, a hug, a pat on the rear and a relevant verse of scripture or motivation.

He’s watched his own two children evolve through grade school into high school and beyond. Daughter Sydney just finished her sophomore year at Clemson and son Riley will enter High Point University this fall. Mason remembers he and his wife Chondra leaving their daughter at Clemson two years ago and him breaking down in the car leaving town.

“I prayed leaving Clemson, ‘Dear Lord, I know there will be someone there for her that will support her and encourage her like I’ve tried to do for these guys,’” he says.

Meanwhile, he tends to his flock of Tar Heel football players. Mason has counseled a Tar Heel player on dealing with his mother’s cancer diagnosis. He consoled another whose younger sister was assaulted and was in the hospital. He soothed another player whose parents were splitting up. He’s in regular conversation with Tar Heel receiver Tylee Craft, who’s one year into a battle with a rare form of lung cancer, and dispatches frequent text message to Craft imploring him to “Keep swinging!”

“I come from a big family and liked Carolina because it felt like a family,” says Bug Howard, a Tar Heel receiver from 2013-16. “Mitch made me feel like I was ‘home’ all the time. If you had no one else to talk to, if you didn’t want your dad or your girlfriend to see you cry, Mitch was there. He’d shoot straight—not always telling you what you wanted to hear, but telling you what you needed to hear.”

Mason remembers once taking a call from the mother of a Tar Heel who told him her son had had four men of influence in his life. One, his father, had walked out on him. Another, the Carolina assistant coach who recruited him, had left for another job. Now a third, his high school coach, had just died.

“You’re the fourth,” the mother said. “Please don’t let him down.”

Zach Rice was one of the most highly coveted high school players in the fall of 2021. The offensive lineman from Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg, Va., could have signed with any D-1 program in the country, but he chose Carolina because he and his mother Mary felt it was the best combination of football, academics and mentorship he could find. Mister Mitch was a part of the Carolina equation.

“Having someone there to feed Zach positivity, messages about God, encouraging him and supporting him, that was important,” Mary says. “Mitch being there gave me some peace of mind. As a single parent, I’ve valued any man who can pour good values into my son. When you’re not there to take care of your child and you’ve got someone telling him what he needs to hear in a loving, kindly and Godly way, you appreciate it so much.

“Mitch has always got a smile and a gentleness and a peace about him. I’m amazed, I’m in awe. I so respect him and appreciate him. He’s a rock star in every sense of the word.”

That awe has taken on a new dimension the last three years as Mason and a battalion of doctors have attempted to diagnose and treat a rare nervous system disorder.

Mason first noticed some pain in his back in February 2020. He vomited at odd times and found his mobility limited. The staff at UNC Hospitals dug deep for a diagnosis. He consulted specialists in Birmingham and Atlanta. Doctors at Duke Medical Center eventually diagnosed his affliction as Idiopathic Small Fiber Neuropathy, a nerve disorder for which there is no known cure.

The modifier idiopathic is the nut as it means “no known cause.”

“The hard news is, it’s irreversible,” Mason says. “It’s not cancer, it’s not an infectious disease, it’s not some autoimmune condition. At first we wondered if it was Covid. But because it’s none of those, it’s almost impossible to treat. That’s the issue. We’re putting band-aids on these bullet wounds.”

Over three years, Mason has been dogged with migraines, seizures, difficulty walking and using his hands, occasional fainting and memory loss. Of late the burden has expanded into gastrointestinal issues; nervous system disorders are affecting his ability to enjoy food and digest it. He takes 22 medications a day, beginning with eight pills as soon as he climbs out of bed with Chondra’s assistance. Doses that were once prescribed at 250 milligrams are now perhaps up to 500. Doctors have used a spinal cord stimulator to help his mobility problems.

The physical issues are obvious.

The emotional ones are mammoth as well.

His neurologist grabbed him by the shoulders one day and said, “I need you to understand, the man that you were is dead and gone. He’s not coming back.”

It’s indeed sobering to have to draft a will in your mid-40s (he turned 48 in June), to teach your kids to drive your stick shift because the day is coming when you’ll not be able to yourself, to try to mow your lawn but run out of energy.

Yet Mister Mitch exudes a level of grace and acceptance rare for someone with so many obstacles. He smiles walking down the corridors at Duke, proudly wearing his Carolina gear and fending off catcalls. “Aw, don’t help that Tar Heel!” is a common refrain.

“I mess with them and they mess with me,” Mason says. “I tell them, ‘I’m at D-U-K-E and the team we play is d-o-o-k.’ Everyone laughs. But they have been awesome—even if they do give me a hard time.”

He uses social media to practice what he’s preached over 25 years since accepting Christ in May 1998 following an All-America playing career as a defensive back at Missouri Western State. On any given day you might see him on Twitter under the handle @TarHeelChaplain:

“Always remember, God is good even when life isn’t. Keep the faith and finish your race!”

“God doesn’t give us life so we can spend it complaining. Keep it positive or keep it moving!”

“Do something nice for someone and try not to get caught!”

One day he posted a photo of Chondra piloting his wheelchair at the hospital and said how nice it was to have a wife “push me around.” He added a laughing emoji and #WheelchairUp hashtag.

“The more people we can have in our program who have overcome so much as Mitch has and still stay positive helps us so much,” Tar Heel Coach Mack Brown says. “Their stories are invaluable. Mitch puts everything in perspective when he comes to practice with a smile on his face. You’ll quit griping about little day-to-day things in a hurry.”

Mason had to distance himself from the program for much of 2020 because of Covid and the medical team trying to develop a treatment protocol. But by the 2021 season opener at Virginia Tech, he had returned to his regular day-to-day interactions with the staff and players, albeit his schedule riding the crests of his personal ups-and- downs.

“These guys don’t realize how much they minister to me, how much they feed me,” Mason says. “We talk about seizing the moment, taking advantage of the opportunity. You don’t know how much time you have. None of us know. A lot of things I took for granted I can no longer do.

“I’m still here because I love these guys and I gave my word to their parents when we were recruiting their sons that I would be there to help them grow into men.”

One of the defining moments of Mason’s ordeal came on the last Saturday in October 2021. The doctors warned it was coming at some point, a level of pain so severe it would render you still, balled up, breath fleeting, eyes blurred. That moment came as the Tar Heels were leaving the field at Notre Dame Stadium after pre-game warmups. Mason was walking up the stairs from the tunnel to the locker room when, suddenly, his illness exploded to a new crescendo and hit him like Defcon 5.

“My hips felt like they cracked and my pelvis went out,” Mason says. “I could not move.”

Players were emotionally jacked as they passed him, some of them yelling, “Yo, Chap, we got this!” not realizing the spasms of pain shooting through Mason’s midsection. He needed help to make it to the locker room, where team doctors attended to him. He remained there throughout the game. Later, he was able to make light of it.

“Don’t worry about me,” he told the players. “I got enough meds in me, I’m so high I make Snoop Dogg jealous. I’ve got some heavy hitters now.”

Mason looks back at the moment.

“At that point, I said, ‘If I’m going down, I’m going down swinging. I’m going down on my own terms.’”

That led to the decision early in 2022 to buy a Cam-Am Ryker motorcycle, a three-wheeled affair that’s somewhere between a small car and a two-wheel motorcycle. He tootles around his neighborhood and drove it to Durham in early April to attend the Durham Bulls season opener and deliver the invocation. Mason smiles and bursts out in animation telling the story of having to sell his wife on the idea, but the cycle ticked a box of his neurologist suggesting he do something he’d always wanted to do. At this stage, the little things matter, and the sun and the wind on an open road and a hearty laugh go a long way to deaden the pain.