D.J. Mason walked across the stage at Panther Creek’s graduation last month to receive his high school diploma, flashing the wide smile he’s known for. As his high school days ended, his soccer career became the forefront of his concentration.
The local standout is juggling playing for his hometown team and his club and trying to decide whether to play in college or go overseas.
Neither situation is easy, but Mason, 18, has had a soccer ball at his feet for as long as he can remember.
He’s been a natural from a young age, being a dominant offensive force on his local CASL team growing up, which caught the eye of John Bradford, the director of the Capital Area RailHawks Academy.
Bradford offered Mason a roster spot on his U16 team, and Mason has been a part of the academy ever since.
“He introduced me to the academy,” Mason said. “He showed what it takes for me to be the best that I can be.”
The RailHawks Academy is part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy system, and the USSDA does not allow their players to compete for their high school teams.
So the 5-foot-8 Mason slid behind the scenes in the hallways at Panther Creek, with most of his classmates not knowing the significance of his accomplishment even as Mason, in October, earned an invite to the U.S. men’s national U18 team training camp in California.
For all they knew, he just skipped class for about a month.
“I missed a lot of school on that national team trip,” he said. “That was kind of tough.”
Mason earned valuable experience on the training grounds, but learned that his hard work paid off when he received a call a week before the 2015 Copa Chivas Tournament in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Before he had a chance to play for his hometown franchise, he had a chance to play for his country.
“They called me and said they needed me to come play in Mexico and I had to get my passport situation figured out, get it renewed, and I just left,” Mason said. “I got a couple trainings in, met the guys, and got to use the Nike GPS tracking systems for the first time.”
Mason appeared twice in four games. In their final match against Japan, Mason scored his first international goal, launching a left-footed chip over the keeper in the 42nd minute.
“I still have those cleats,” Mason said.
Bradford’s clout within the RailHawks organization led to Mason recently being signed to the RailHawks professional team, making him the fifth academy player to ever do so.
He signed an amateur contract, which means he cannot accept compensation that would render him ineligible by NCAA rules, but he can appear in games and take part in practice.
The demands of playing for the senior team while also leading the academy’s U18 team into the playoffs were a lot for Mason, but he loved it. The U18 RailHawks entered the USSDA playoffs as the third-ranked team after finishing the regular season with a 24-4-6 record, but were eliminated by goal differential.
“I (was training) with the (senior team) every morning at 9 a.m., and the U18s at 4 p.m.,” Mason said. “I usually (had) to take an ice bath after the morning session.”
Brendan O’Dowd, 18, a classmate of Mason’s at Panther Creek and teammate at the academy, raved about how Mason’s attributes both on and off the field were behind the U18 team’s success this year.
“Playing with (Mason) this year has been a privilege,” O’Dowd said. “His skill and leadership drives the whole team towards success.”
Despite not earning playing time with the RailHawks team that is at the top of the NASL standings, Mason is cherishing the time he has gotten to train with the savvy veteran players on the squad.
Mason is aiming even higher now.
Despite committing to North Carolina during his sophomore year, Mason is looking to play on a top-tier club in England or Spain in the fall.
Mason will leave on July 18 for a tryout with Huracán Valencia CF, a club in the Segunda División B league, the third division of soccer in Spain.
He said he would consider playing for North Carolina after deferring a semester if the right opportunity isn’t presented in Spain. But he’s hoping this is where his pro career blossoms.
“At some point you have to decide that you want to make your dreams a reality and with that comes excitement and fear,” Mason said. “But to be able to have the chance to make your dream a reality is something you should never hesitate to take.”
Getting to know D.J. Mason
Position: Right back
Ht: 5’8” Wt: 160 lbs
Favorite place to visit: Brazil
Favorite Team: FC Barcelona
Favorite Player: Lionel Messi. “He goes and makes the moves that nobody expects.”
Hobbies: Dancing, racing, hanging out with his 3-year-old brother
Favorite pregame track: “Lose Yourself” by Eminem
Capital Area RailHawks U18 stats:
Games/games started: 29/29
USMNT U18 stats:
Games/games started: 2/1