FOXBORO — Alicia McGuire always stressed the importance of academics to her son, even if it came at a cost.
Anytime her boy received good grades, she rewarded him. That usually meant a special meal at a restaurant of his choosing. Since Shaq Mason was a straight-A student, there were many dinners, usually at Ruby Tuesday.
There in Columbia, Tennessee, Mason flipped through the menu. He usually settled on cheesy fries for an appetizer and then a nice entrée. For a single mother, working up to three jobs to stay afloat, it wasn’t easy to pay for these special nights. That’s why McGuire only ordered an appetizer. On other occasions, she’d just sip on water.
When her son asked why she wasn’t eating, she’d hide the truth.
“I’d just let him eat, and I’d get some water and be like, I’m not hungry,” McGuire recalled. “As a kid, all he knows is that I’m working and he’s getting everything that he needs. He wouldn’t have known that we were poor. He probably thought we were rich. He may have not known that I was working paycheck-to-paycheck sometimes. He just knew that mama took care of him. He didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes.”
When Mason was teenager, he asked his mom about those nights. She explained that she didn’t eat because she couldn’t afford to. It was always more important that he enjoyed those dinners, since her goal was to reward her son and shield him from her own struggles. When the truth hit him, it opened his eyes to just how strong his mother really was.
“There’s things that, growing up, that you didn’t know, that she hid from us,” Mason said. “But once I got older, in high school, I was like, ‘Wow, this is really how we’re living.’ It was something I didn’t know. I thought it was normal.”
Little did McGuire know, her work ethic rubbed off on her oldest son, who’s now living his dream with the Patriots.
McGuire was a 21-year-old student at Martin Methodist College when her son was born on Aug. 28, 1993.
She briefly stopped her education to focus all her time and energy on her boy. She knew it wouldn’t be easy, and part of her was worried. McGuire saw firsthand what could happen when a male strayed down the wrong path in life. So, with no financial help from her son’s biological father, McGuire began working two, and sometimes three, jobs to pay the bills. Her main source of income was factory work, but that wasn’t enough, so she did side jobs like clean houses.
“It’s just one of those situations in which once becoming pregnant, knowing that now that I have a child to take care of, you have to hit the ground running, and it’s all about him at that point,” McGuire said. “That was my focus — take care of my son. I looked at it as not having an alternative, but to work and work and work and work.”
She preached education and hard work to her boy. When times were tough, she taught him that things could get better. When the factory closed, the company offered employees a chance to go back to school. She did that and eventually got into the corporate world.
Growing up in that environment wasn’t easy, but Mason soon realized how his mother’s work ethic influenced him.
“The hardest working person I ever met is my mom. I never met anyone who worked harder than her,” Mason said. “She provided for me and my (younger) brother. All those years with no help. I just learned from her always, she told me at a young age, ‘It always can get better.’ We know what the bottom feels like, so it can only go up from here. That’s something that always stuck with me.”
Learned from mistakes
When Mason was a boy, he was involved in nearly every sport offered each season. He played football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. If that wasn’t enough, he even took karate lessons.
McGuire was always a sports fan — that’s why she named her son Shaquille Olajuwon Mason, after her two favorite basketball players. However, turning him into an athlete was never the goal. She wanted to keep him safe, and needed to keep him busy.
“Growing up, the way we grew up, my most important goal was to not let him be a statistic,” McGuire said. “I’ve always been a sports person. I love sports. But I couldn’t care less if he played a down of football or shot a hoop in regards to his education. So I always pushed his education first, but I always wanted to occupy his time because I felt like I didn’t want the streets to get a hold of him.”
McGuire saw what could happen. Two of her brothers went down the wrong path and ended up in and out of prison. She knew if he got into the wrong hands, he could’ve easily been interacting with drug dealers instead of football coaches.
As Mason grew up, he witnessed several events that turned out to be teaching moments. That’s why every day his mom told him the same thing — and still does — “make good choices.”
“I was exposed to a lot. You get the picture. I was exposed to a lot of things at an early age,” Mason said. “Thankfully, thankful to god, I didn’t fall victim to those things. Likewise, my uncles had been in prison, but one thing I can say, they always thought me — ‘Don’t do this. This is not the route you want to take.’ They were role models to me as far showing me the route not to take. They told me, ‘You want to be better than us.’ Things like that. I could’ve easily feel victim to it, but thankfully I didn’t.”
Mason never strayed. He was a great student and excelled in sports. His focus is what set him apart among his peers. Before you knew it, Mason approached academics and football like his mom approached her work — he hit the ground running and never turned back.
He beat the odds
When he was 5, Mason would tell anyone who asked, he wanted to be a football player, but no one really thought it was possible. That story usually doesn’t happen in Columbia. It was a pipe dream.
“That was always a goal of mine.” Mason said. “That’s every kid growing up, but coming from where I come from, that’s not realistic.”
Even after he earned a scholarship to Georgia Tech, it didn’t hit him or his mother that he was actually going to the NFL until his senior year.
The truth is Mason’s an outlier. When you combine an elite work ethic in an elite athlete, you usually get positive results. Like his mother, this offensive guard never stops working. When the Patriots drafted him in the fourth round in 2015, he was considered raw. Sure, he already was a solid run blocker, but he was far from being a complete offensive linemen. Before you knew it, Mason was just that and a full-time starter by his second season.
That didn’t happen by mistake.
Mason always put the effort in. McGuire saw him putting in the extra work — before practice, after practice. He even ran on the weekends and made sure he ate right. Of course, it’s easy to see where that comes from.
“A lot of my drive comes from her,” Mason said. “Just from seeing what she did. She motivated me to want to take an extra mile — like she did.”
Last year, Mason bought his mother a new house in Columbia. This year, he was rewarded for his hard work with a five-year, $45 million contract from the Patriots. On the field, he continues to get better. Mason is arguably the most talented offensive linemen on the team and one of the best guards in the NFL.
“Hard work pays off. He worked so hard. He always just strives so hard to do better and better,” McGuire said. “He’s always just push, push, push. I think it’s because he always wanted to be better.”
Like mother, like son.