Prairie Ridge wide receiver Paul Anderson, like many of his teammates, could not believe the messages on the football team’s group chat Thursday night.
Anderson had just finished a track and field meet when he started reading messages that something had happened to assistant coach John Mason.
“I was like, ‘There’s no way. I saw him today and he was perfectly fine,’ ” Anderson said. “He was healthy as a horse. He told us he goes on runs all the time. It was a shock to all of us.”
Mason, a 1994 graduate of Woodstock, died at his family’s Crystal Lake home Thursday after school. He taught in Prairie Ridge’s social science department and coached in the football program for 14 years. He was wide receivers coach for the Wolves’ back-to-back Class 6A football state champions the last two seasons.
Mason and his wife, Michelle, have two children, Natalie and Zach. An account was set up Friday for the Mason family at mealtrain.com in which people can donate to help with food. By late Friday night, the account already had more than $3,100 in donations.
“It’s crazy,” Anderson said. “It’s definitely one of the hardest days for the whole Prairie Ridge community.”
Chris Schremp brought Mason onto his staff in his third year as Wolves head football coach. Mason had coached at all levels for Schremp.
“I don’t think there’s a person who has more pride in Prairie Ridge football than John,” Schremp said. “He was so happy to be a part of our program and so thrilled for our success. He was a big part of that success. He had a big influence on our program.”
Schremp put Mason in charge of the Prairie Ridge football Twitter account. He felt Mason’s enthusiasm made him perfect for that job.
Prairie Ridge’s players remembered how Mason always had a smile on his face and often put them on others as well.
“No matter how his day was going or how our day was going, he always had a smile on his face,” Wolves linebacker Joe Perhats said. “He always had some funny ‘dad jokes’ that everybody got a kick out of. Really just a good man.”
Prairie Ridge football players reacted on social media Friday about Mason and what he meant to them.
Running back Ethan Kirchberg’s account read: “Coach Mason was not only a wonderful human being, but a phenomenal mentor that always knew what to say when the time was right. I will be forever grateful for the amount of time that he invested in our team over his own family. He was truly a special man. Rest In Peace.”
Tackle Jeff Jenkins posted a tribute on his Facebook page that included pictures of him with Mason, Natalie and Zach from a WWE event they attended. He also reminisced about them chopping down trees and putting mulch in Mason’s yard.
“You cared about everyone and always made it a funny time when you were around,” Jenkins posted. “You pushed me in the classroom and taught me how to be a better student and a better man. The time I got to spend with you is something I’ll never forget.”
Mason played football at Woodstock and then at NCAA Division II Winona State. Mason was instrumental in helping three of Prairie Ridge’s four-year varsity starters land scholarships from Winona this year.
Perhats, running back Zach Gulbransen and linebacker Jacob Ommen all will play for the Warriors next year. Winona head coach Tom Sawyer was Mason’s coach, and some of Mason’s former teammates are on Sawyer’s staff.
Anderson said even the toughest workouts were fun with Mason around.
“He was a friend figure, a dad figure and an amazing coach all in one,” Anderson said. “That’s straight from the heart.”
Prairie Ridge graduate Steve Drain, the owner of TNT Athletics, posted an emotional video on Facebook Friday morning. Drain, who loves training but not running, was going for a run to end his workout, in honor of Mason. Drain played football for the Wolves when Mason was an assistant coach, and later trained Mason at TNT.
This is part of what Drain posted with his video: “You told me in high school that you thought I was going to be someone very important and you saw BIG things in my future. You said that to me … and it has always been in the back of my head. I regret never telling you how that impacted me, but I promise to make sure I impact kids that way you did with me. True definition of a players’ coach. Love you, Mas dog. RIP.”