The author Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again, but South Pasadena High School alum James Mason clearly disagrees.
That’s just what the 1988 grad and former Tiger football player is doing by returning home to the team this season — as an assistant coach for freshman football.
“I always wanted to coach, so what the heck?” Mason told the Review this week.
After a successful college-football career and two decades in business, he’s said he’s looking forward to bringing the skills gained on the gridiron and in the boardroom to the young men of SPHS.
A love for challenge and overcoming adversity runs deep for Mason.
After graduation, the SPHS defensive back went on to play for the University of Redlands all four years on a scholarship. He earned a BA in international relations in 1992 and then an MBA at Pepperdine in 1995.
From there he embarked on a successful career in health care. He helped start an oncology business, New Century Health, and sold the company in 2010. He joined SynerMed, a health-care risk company, in 1999 and helped grow it from five employees and a negative cash flow to 750 employees with $1.2 billion in revenue and $120 million in earnings as president and CEO before selling the company in 2018.
He has also been involved in mentoring young executives.
Mason hails from Los Angeles, the youngest of eight kids in a big Irish-Catholic family. His father worked within the aerospace industry. When the industry dried up, he moved the family to Little Rock, Ark., in 1979 to pursue the oil and gas industry. In 1985, they returned to Southern California and Mason enrolled in SPHS as a sophomore.
In Little Rock, he played on a state championship team with 130 freshman. At SPHS, the JV team consisted of 12 players, with one dedicated kicker and the rest playing all the positions and special teams. He said the creative versatility that the small team had to show under pressure left a positive mark on all the players. The team went 5-1-1 until a substitute was declared ineligible.
“That year I had to play defensive back and offensive guard,” Mason recalled. “Although my size wouldn’t fit that profile, you do what you got to do. But the grit I think that gave to all who participated those years, that was the key. This is what it takes to work hard. This is what it’s like.”
While attending Redlands and playing defensive back for the team, Mason met his wife Margaret at the school and they married in 1994. Their son Miles attends St. Francis High School and daughter Meg attends Westmont College.
Last October, Mason returned to SPHS for his 30th reunion alongside fellow team members and classmates. He has remained tight with about 10 of his SPHS classmates since graduation. During the reunion they went to see the Tiger football team take on Monrovia and watched as their team went down 41-0. In the aftermath, his friend Kyle Eng encouraged Mason to get involved.
With more time on his hands after a full-time business career and time split between private equity and Catholic charity work with South L.A.’s St. Francis Center and Hollywood’s Monastery of the Angels, Mason took the encouragement to heart and saw an opportunity to give back to the school.
He reached out to Jeff Chi, varsity head coach and SPHS class of 1987, who gave him a welcoming green light.
Mason said the sport helped him learn to be both a leader and a follower, and to look out for all involved. He feels that spirit crosses over into all other aspects of life.
“Your worst player is the player you need to rely on most because it’ll get exposed,” said Mason. “It really becomes a self-sacrificing sport. That’s really true in life. You get into a business, you get into any organization and you really start realizing you’re all a part of a team. You really need to support one another and coach each other up and be there for one another.”
Chi said Mason will be helping out wherever there’s a need.
“He’s kind of doing everything right now, helping out with the running backs and the defensive backs — he’s pretty knowledgeable on both sides of the ball,’’ Chi said of Mason.
Mason’s classmate Eng, now president and CEO of retail advertising agency Big Rhino near Phoenix, Ariz., thinks Mason’s leadership, shown on the football field and the business world, will translate strongly into his work with the freshman team.
“I give him a lot of credit to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to try to mold young kids from the beginning of their high-school experience,’ ” said Eng. “I really think that’s why he’s going to be successful, because he’s a really driven person. He’s a goal-setter, and he likes to accomplish those goals. I think these young kids are just really going to benefit from the balance of this guy’s hard work.”
Another former Mason teammate, Gil Villanueva, now associate vice president and dean of admission at Richmond University in Richmond, Va., said Mason’s focus and confidence stood out to him from the start at SPHS as a sophomore.
“It was pretty clear to all of us that this guy is the kind of guy who will back up all of his talk, who will bring excitement, enthusiasm and a commitment to all the things that he’s going to do,” said Villanueva.
Mason considers this Tiger freshman team to be similar in many regards to his own JV year, with 15 players currently on the roster, with the hopes of more to be added before school starts. He noted that for many area schools, football recruitment is down, with many families having concerns about the health risks involved in the game. He said he wants parents to know that the SPHS coaching staff is working to make the plays as safe as possible.
“There are different techniques that we’re using for tackling and blocking and the like to keep the head out of the game to make sure that the game we love so much, that gives so much to these kids, can continue,” said Mason.
With a good summer of training already in gear, the SPHS freshman football team is getting ready for the season and will take on Mountain View for their first game Aug. 22. Mason is primed to get the season started and see what the players can do.
“I think these kids they realize not everybody has it, and there’s something special about being from South Pasadena,” said Mason. “There is a stickiness to it in a positive way.”