The Toughest Decision

ATHENS — Hutson Mason said one of the defining moments of his young life occurred during a meeting he had two years ago with Mark Richt.

Mason meandered into Richt's office, palms sweating, throat tight, and sat down to tell the coach he was considering transferring. It wasn't because he had doubts concerning the coach, the program or the University.

It was because of Aaron Murray.

Murray had just finished his second season under center and was showing no signs of relinquishing that role. As it turned out, he was only halfway through his college career, and Mason felt a foreshadowing of his possible longevity.

But make no mistake – Mason doesn't scorn Murray the way a lingering backup might. They're actually close confidants who strived to make each other better. It just so happened that the two quarterbacks arrived in Athens with about the same talent at about the same time. Someone would simply have to sit.

"A lot of people ask that," Mason said last year when questioned if he had a rift with Murray over the starting spot. "We have a real tight relationship. We've got one goal and that's to win a championship however we can. I'm always trying to push Murray and compete for that No. 1 spot but there's no issues and there never has been."

Though Mason had no problems with Murray, he did with his playing time. So when he met with Richt that afternoon two Decembers ago, the coach wouldn't offer a promise that he'd eventually start, but a solution to the problem at hand: Redshirt a season to create some separation.

Mason spent the next month soul-searching in the solitude of his family. When he returned for spring classes in 2012, he had committed to return in what he called one of the toughest decisions he's ever made.

"This is just where my heart is," Mason said at the time. "I always knew I wanted to be here. It was harder for me to think about leaving than it was to think about staying, even though it might not be the ideal situation right now. In the end, I felt like it was the right decision. I still have a bright future."

Athens is home to Mason, and he knew that from the beginning.

A Georgia Peach

Mason came to Georgia in 2010; one of the oddest quarterback years for Richt. The coach, long known for having a stable of capable quarterbacks, had a group with plenty of depth but almost no experience. Heading into fall camp, the four vying for the starting job – Murray, Mason, Parker Welch and Greg Bingham – were freshmen, walk-ons, or a mixture of both.

"The quarterback room has got to be the youngest room maybe in the history of college football," Richt told reporters just before the start of fall camp that year. "It's scary in there."

Mason signed with the Bulldogs with the hope that he'd get an early look to play due to the inexperience at the position. He was a three-star recruit from the Atlanta suburbs, where he led Lassiter High School to a 24-11 record as a three-year starter, and became one of the state's most prolific passers. His 8,265 career passing yards and 85 touchdowns ranked second and fourth all-time, respectively, when he left. Mason still holds the state record for most passing yards (4,560) and touchdowns (54) in a single season.

He turned down offers from the likes of Florida State, Mississippi State and others in favor of Georgia because he felt he'd fit well in offensive coordinator Mike Bobo's scheme. Mason thrives in a pro-style offense and particularly one that runs up-tempo.

But the biggest draw to Georgia was the home-like feel of Athens.

"I will be very happy at Georgia with or without football," he told Scout during his commitment ceremony. "I like the people there, I like the campus there, I like the student body there, and I just enjoy being in Athens. If I never even got to play, I know I would be happy there."

Little did Mason know that his affection for Georgia would face the ultimate test.

Finding comparable characters

Richt has a knack for finding the quarterback he wants in recruiting and developing them into three- and four-year starters. For as long as Richt has been in the SEC, which is more than any active coach in the conference, he's only started five quarterbacks for an entire season.

David Greene, Matthew Stafford and Murray collectively account for just under 11 of Richt's 13 years, with D.J. Shockley and Joe Cox each sprinkling one-year stints in between.

And that's what Mason will get: just one year.

He hopes to make that year special in a manner comparable to Shockley, who led the Bulldogs to an SEC championship during his first and only starting season in 2005.

Shockley has in fact been one of Mason's mentors through the years because of the pair's unusually similar circumstances. Shockley faced pressure from his father to leave, but ultimately stayed on his own terms. And that's exactly what he instilled in Mason.

"He told me to follow my heart," Mason said of Shockley. "He's a great guy and offered me so much great advice. I'm blessed to have Shockley to lean on because he was in that situation. Me and him have a lot of things in common that we talk about."

Shockley was the embodiment of patience and perseverance. He became Richt's first verbal commitment at Georgia when the then 40-year-old offensive coordinator left Florida State just six weeks before Signing Day.

Richt never assured Shockley that he would start, but did promise that he would leave Georgia with a smile on his face. The coach made the same offer to Mason.

Earlier than planned

Mason prides himself on his preparation. As the acknowledged backup the past four years, he knew his number could be called at any moment.

"The thing about it is you never know when it will," Mason said. "You can look real stupid if you just kind of go about your business and don't ever prepare. I wanted to make the most of it because I knew my opportunity was short, and that window was short."

Though Mason redshirted in 2012, his status was atypical in almost every regard. He wasn't a freshman, he had the talent to start elsewhere, and he was preparing every week as the No. 2 guy. Richt made it clear during preseason camp that should Murray go down, whether in the season opener or conference championship, Mason would be forced to play – burning his redshirt and leaving in tack the lack of separation between him and Murray.

"It shows that he's got a ton of character because he's a team-first guy," said Georgia receiver Michael Bennett, who is also Mason's roommate. "We have words like humility that we talk about in the locker room and one of the players who represents that is Hutson Mason. He wants to help the team as much as he can, and he's shown that day in and day out."

If Mason hadn't already coped with a multitude of unfortunate circumstances, the manner in which he assumed the starting role certainly qualified.

That moment came during Georgia's final home game of 2013 in one of the most emotional Senior Nights in recent memory. Though it was a collaborative celebration of the entire graduating class, the Bulldog Nation made it particularly special for Murray. Little did they know that they would say their final ‘good-bye' before halftime – and in tragic fashion.

Murray sustained a season-ending ACL tear during the second quarter. And just like that, his iconic Georgia career was over.

The Hutson Mason era had officially begun.

Foreshadowing a confident future

Mason was distraught over Murray's injury. Murray seemed the epitome of health during his four years in Athens, having logged a program-high 52 consecutive contests while never leaving a game to injury for more than a few plays. The last thing Mason wanted to see was his friend and mentor go out on those terms.

"Sports are cruel," Mason said. "But they can also teach a lot of life lessons."

There was no time to dwell. A match-up against in-state rival Georgia Tech was approaching, and the Bulldogs had already shown a knack for finding themselves in tight contests all year. That notion remained in the 2013 installment of Clean Old-Fashioned Hate.

Mason admitted the approach of his first start brought on more pressure than he would have hoped, specifically because of the circumstances – playing on the road in his hometown in the final game of a topsy-turvy season against a rival that Georgia prides itself on beating every year.

He spent much of the first half under duress, throwing an interception, enduring a pair of sacks and watching the Yellow Jackets jump to a 20-0 lead.

When all indications pointed to a Georgia Tech runaway win, Mason showed leadership in a manner eerily similar to his predecessor.

"When we came out in that second half, he looked everybody in the eye and said: ‘You've got to have the heart of a champion. You've got to play like a champion. Let's go do this thing,'" Georgia receiver Chirs Conley said of the quarterback. "Just the way he said it captivated everyone in that huddle – everyone was completely silent. Everyone got behind him."

Mason led Georgia to a second-half comeback that will assuredly go down in the 108-year annals of the in-state rivalry. Georgia trimmed a 20-point deficit to three in the third quarter, stole the momentum, forced overtime and won in dramatic fashion.

"He earned it the hard way," Richt said of Mason's role in the 41-34 victory. "This time of the year, games at the end of the year certainly define your season, but it kind of gives you a little idea of what can happen in the future, especially when you have a lot of guys returning. He's getting a little bit of a head start on what it's like to play in a game like that."

As the swarm of white and gold vanished from Bobby Dodd Stadium – angry over yet another loss to the hated Bulldogs – Mason soaked in the moment surrounded by a horde of Bulldog fans that refused to leave. He stood atop a latter in the visitors' section, conducted the echoing Redcoat band and wearing a grin that never left his face.

"I show a lot of passion just because of what I've been through here," Mason said. "I can't help but play this game with passion and play it with love. It's just not in me to be out there like a lost fly. I just looked into the Dawg Nation's eyes, and just seeing everybody up there just screaming, man, there's not one word that describes it. It makes my decision to stay at Georgia even better."

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