BY ANDY BAGGOT
MADISON, Wis. — When D’Cota Dixon came to the University of Wisconsin to play college football in 2014, he brought with him more than talent and desire. He came with a searing back story that was equal parts heartbreaking, jarring and compelling.
Over the course of five years, it was found to be inspirational, too. How a sullen teenager from Florida emerged from the depths of poverty, drugs and family tragedy to become a revered two-time captain of the Badgers. How a product of homelessness and foster care became the on-field patriarch for some of the best teams in UW history.
That Dixon became comfortable enough to share his account with the world is testament to his relationship with a small-town Iowan who didn’t play football in high school and whose favorite workplace vantage point is from behind the scenes.
Dixon said that Brian Mason, the assistant director of brand communications for UW football, embraced his story with the utmost respect and sensitivity and, in the process, “became more of a friend to me than anything.”
It’s a relationship that continues to this day and helps give some vital context to why Mason has been chosen to receive the College Sports Information Directors of America Achievement Award for the University Division.
The award is given annually to associate or assistant media relations directors with 10 or more years of athletic communications service who have made outstanding contributions to the field and provide exceptional service to their institution or conference office.
1/2 Congrats to these @CoSIDAnews Special Awards honorees today: @gusjohnson, @FOXSports college football & basketball announcer, earns the Jake Wade Award. CoSIDA’s Achievement Award honorees are @UWBadgers‘ @Brian_Mason & @RedDragonPride‘s Dan Surdam. https://t.co/62sCPMmLIM
— CoSIDA (@CoSIDAnews) February 25, 2021
Mason said the most gratifying aspect of the honor is that “the work you do matters in the grand scheme of things.”
“There’s a lot of people and a lot of pieces, everything it takes to make college sports happen, especially at the level our teams compete at Wisconsin,” he said. “To know that the work you do is valuable to that process is the most satisfying part.
“Even though I fill a number of roles and work in a number of areas, the constant part of that that I really enjoy is the people you’re dealing with and working with on a daily basis are people that you want to be around. They’re people you want to do good work for and good work with.”
At least one person was unsurprised by the development.
“This dude was one of the hardest working guys on the (operations) team,” Dixon said of Mason. “He was one of those guys who made the players feel at home and welcomed because he had the players’ interests in mind. He wasn’t just trying to do his job. He was always thinking about the players.”
Dixon’s story was told so consistently well and touched so many people that he received the inaugural Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award for perseverance and character in 2018, the Capital One Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award in 2017, as well as the Wilma Rudolph Student-Athlete Achievement Award, also in 2017.
“He was so much more than an ops guy,” Dixon said of Mason. “He impacted the players’ lives around him.”
Mason is in his 15th year with UW Athletic Communications and 12th as the day-to-day contact for football, focusing on media relations, statistics, records and press box oversight. He’s also worked with men’s basketball, assisting on back-to-back NCAA Final Four runs in 2014 and ’15; men’s soccer; men’s and women’s cross country and track and field; and men’s and women’s swimming.
Mason’s involvement with Wisconsin football is felt on numerous fronts. Most obvious are the coordinated promotional campaigns that have involved two Heisman Trophy finalists, four Doak Walker Award winners and 20 first-team All-Americans since 2011. The Badgers have had a consistent top-25 presence for nearly three decades, winning six Big Ten Conference titles and playing in a bowl game every season since 2002.
But the heart of Mason’s job description is his work with the media and UW team members. Trying to serve two masters with such divergent agendas is not easy, but it’s seen as one of his strengths. That was acknowledged in 2018 when the Football Writers Association of America gave the Wisconsin communications staff a Super 11 award for its effort, dedication and service.
Brian Lucas, the director of brand communications for Wisconsin football, said he nominated Mason for the CoSIDA award in part because of his colleague’s ability to fairly, consistently walk the narrow path between reporters and subjects.
“We’re caught in the middle of that and he navigates it very well,” Lucas said.
That’s experience talking. Lucas has been on the UW athletic communications staff since 1999 and served as the primary contact for UW head football coaches, from Bret Bielema to Gary Andersen to the current tenure of Paul Chryst, since 2008.
“I’d be lost without him,” Lucas said of Mason. “The football program would be worse with someone else in his position. I can confidently say that.”
Lucas said Mason “helps shape so much of what is seen” with the Badgers, whether he’s taking time to sit down in a pre-game setting and share anecdotes with national TV announcers who call the game for millions of viewers, or helping reporters cultivate story ideas, or shining a social media spotlight on recruiting, or keeping close tabs on former players after they’ve left Madison.
“I’m not sure there’s a person who, behind the scenes, does more to shape what a Badger fan sees about the football program than he does,” Lucas said of Mason. “He has his hands in almost every aspect.”
Mason grew up in Waverly, Iowa, and graduated from Northern Iowa in 2007. He impressed UW officials involved in the hiring process with his writing and technical skills as well as his measured presence. One of his initial tasks was to manage and edit “Varsity” magazine, a weekly digital collection of stories and features.
“He could be the official scorer at a soccer game or facilitating a media availability for (director of athletics) Barry Alvarez,” Lucas said. “I’m not sure there’s many people that can do both at his level.”
Associate director Diane Nordstrom, the most tenured member of the communications staff at 31 years, lauded Mason for his writing skills and his all-around value to the operation.
“Just a great overall SID,” said Nordstrom, who received the inaugural CoSIDA achievement award in 2015 and currently oversees the awards committee.
Mason brings the same character traits to every meeting and assignment.
“He’s never satisfied,” Lucas said.
“The one thing about Brian is that he always cared,” said Mick Byrne, the director of men’s and women’s cross country and track and field. “You felt like he cared about you as a coach and that your opinions mattered and your kids’ opinions mattered.”
Mason was at Byrne’s side in 2011 when the Badgers won the NCAA men’s cross country title for the fifth time, but the first with Byrne in charge.
“He had a genuine interest in our program,” Byrne said of Mason. “He wanted to see us succeed at the Big Ten level. He wanted to see us succeed at the national level. You almost feel like you disappointed him if you didn’t do well.
“His knowledge of our sport and his passion for his work was his strength. That was infectious.”
Dare Ogunbowale, a walk-on who played for the Badgers from 2012 to ’16 and is an NFL veteran, got to know Mason in a unique way. Ogunbowale roomed with Melvin Gordon, the 2014 Heisman Trophy runner-up whose final season with the Badgers was a whirlwind of national media attention.
“You probably know that Melvin’s not the most responsive person to the media, so me living with Melvin, Brian was hitting me up a lot to make sure Melvin was making it to his interviews and had an idea of where he was supposed to go,” Ogunbowale said with laugh.
That behind-the-scenes collaboration gave way to a friendship that continues today. Ogunbowale, a UW co-captain in 2016, became such an eloquent spokesman for the student-athlete experience that Mason nominated him to give the keynote speech during the 2016 Big Ten Conference pre-season luncheon.
“That was a great opportunity that I had,” Ogunbowale said.
During his time in the NFL with Tampa Bay, Ogunbowale said he reached out to solicit advice from Mason on more than one occasion.
“The way that he made me feel comfortable around him right away and the way he was a good guy to be around, I knew that this was someone I wanted to have in my corner,” Ogunbowale said. “As our relationship grew — as we got closer and became friends — I leaned on him a lot. I would consider us really close friends. He’s a great guy.”
Dixon, also an NFL free agent following an injury-plagued stint with Tampa Bay, knows how Ogunbowale, his former teammate, feels.
“Brian is a great man,” Dixon said. “He’s one of those guys I could call on and totally depend on in that regard.
“He’s a very happy guy, very inviting presence with a lot of joy about him. I love Brian for that reason. There wasn’t a time I was around Brian that he didn’t smile.”
The trust Dixon invested in Mason enabled him to detail his harrowing past, one touched by family tragedy, drugs, crime, mental illness, foster care and homelessness. When the Badgers played Miami in the 2017 Orange Bowl, Dixon spent one night tracking down and finding his birth mother, who was living on a street corner.
As if that weren’t enough, Dixon, an outspoken man of faith, suffered a life-threatening infection in the spring of 2016 that put him in the hospital for a week and left him unable to walk for a time.
“Anyone who’s had the good fortune to cross paths with D’Cota in any walk of life is better for it and I’m certainly in that category,” Mason said. “The chance to tell his story and really try as best I could to get him what I felt was credit he so greatly deserved for what he has done in his life and, more importantly, the way he’s gone about it and become the person he’s become, championing him was something I was proud to do.
“It’s easy to care about good people,” Mason said.
Dixon feels the same way about his friend in his moment of acclaim.
“No one deserves it more,” Dixon said.