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Mason embracing return to Ravens

AP Photo/Rob Carr

WESTMINSTER, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason is doing what most players should be doing as their careers come to an end. He's savoring time with his teammates even more. Instead of complaining about the drudgery of training camp, he's embracing the opportunity to hone his game. Mason knows he easily could've stayed in retirement after abruptly quitting last month. Now he's making the most of whatever time he has left in the NFL.

That appreciation was the theme that kept running through a recent interview Mason gave during Ravens training camp. He was serious when he decided to retire, and he's just as focused about his return for a 13th season.

"This is the place that I needed to be, and now I can have fun and relax," Mason said. "I can see the energy in the other guys, and I also know things will be different because this probably is my last year. So I'm going to go out and enjoy it."

Mason understands all the controversy and confusion he created just a few weeks back. When he announced his retirement -- just days after attending the funeral of his good friend, quarterback Steve McNair -- it shocked everybody from his Ravens teammates to relatives who already had decided which home games they would attend. Mason had been the Ravens' top receiver since arriving in 2005 and had led the team with 80 receptions last season. The Ravens' hopes of fielding a viable passing game vanished as quickly as he closed the door on his career.

That's why the Ravens were beaming when Mason changed his mind. But what's also apparent is that Mason didn't just make a rash decision. Other factors had been weighing on him before McNair's death -- including an unsuccessful bid for a new contract and offseason shoulder surgery -- and the loss of a dear friend only made matters worse.

"The injury had a lot to do with things," Mason said. "I've never gone through an offseason when I couldn't do anything. I usually start working out in early February, but this year I couldn't get going until May. And then I went to [McNair's] funeral, and I started thinking about life. I had to decide if I really wanted to play or if I wanted to see what else was out there."

It was a nice plan for a little while. Mason focused on retirement and relished the idea of not being burdened by football responsibilities. He arranged to move his family from Baltimore back to Nashville, where he had spent eight seasons with the Titans/Oilers. Mason also pondered how he'd like to spend his days during the fall. But it didn't take long for reality to hit him.

The hardest thing for pro athletes to accept -- especially those who've had long, productive careers -- is that quitting is never easy. It's certainly much harder for a player like Mason, who still offers considerable value to his team. NFL stars usually aren't hardwired to assess their vulnerabilities and leave while they're still in demand. They're far more likely to go once their bodies break down or their performance declines to a point where management has to dump them.

Although Mason would never admit it, you know it also had to be hard for him to walk away from a base salary of $3 million this season. Even if he didn't win his contract demands, that's a huge chunk of cash to be thinking about when you're sitting on the sofa in mid-November. What also surely moved him was the way his teammates reached out to him after he'd made his decision to leave. Mason expected to hear from general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh, but it was the talks he had with other team members that really made Mason reconsider his choice.

It was the phone call from left tackle Jared Gaither that caught Mason's attention, mainly because offensive linemen usually keep to themselves. It was the way offensive coordinator Cam Cameron postponed a Saturday morning fishing trip with his children to meet with Mason at his home. Starting quarterback Joe Flacco and backup Troy Smith also called. Like owner Steve Bisciotti, they offered their support whether Mason remained retired or returned.

Everybody essentially told Mason the same thing: Don't leave unless you're completely sure this is what you want.

"As camp started to get closer, I started to have more conversations about it with my family," Mason said. "People wanted to know if I was certain I was making the right decision. I said I'd give myself two weeks to think about it because it wasn't just a decision that affected me. You also start realizing that you need to find work doing something else. That wasn't a huge consideration, but after thinking about all that, it just felt right coming back."

That one decision saved the Ravens from taking a huge step backward after winning 11 games and nearly reaching the Super Bowl last season. Without Mason, Baltimore likely would've had to pluck another receiver from an underwhelming free-agent market. (They had signed free agent Drew Bennett after Mason's retirement until knee problems led Bennett back into retirement.) With him, they now have a viable No. 1 target for Flacco to use in his second season under center. Mason's presence also alleviates the pressure on a receiving corps that is largely unproven aside from Mark Clayton, who's nursing a torn hamstring.

What Mason recognizes is that the Ravens still have a shot at making another deep playoff run. Even with the loss of key people -- namely defensive coordinator Rex Ryan and outside linebacker Bart Scott -- Baltimore still has one of the AFC's most talented teams. "I've said it from the beginning, and I've told Derrick this: We're a better football team with Derrick Mason," Harbaugh said. "We thought we'd be a good team no matter what, but we're better with Derrick."

One thing that also has been apparent about Mason is that he has to be fully committed to what he's doing. As he said, "Some guys can be 50 percent into the game and still produce, but I'm not made that way."

The Ravens should be happy that Mason has that kind of approach to the game. It means he's ready to have no regrets about how his final year in Baltimore ultimately ends.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.