NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Derrick Mason feels at home again, and on Monday night, he assisted an organization that helps international refugees and students adjust to their new homes in Tennessee.
Mason, the All-Pro receiver who spent eight seasons (1997-2004) with the Tennessee Oilers and Tennessee Titans, has returned to Nashville. He retired from football this summer after spending six seasons in Baltimore and splitting 2011 with the New York Jets and Houston Texans.
Mason hosted former teammates and current Titans at Derrick Mason & Friends Homecoming 2012 at MAFIAoZA's Pizzeria and Neighborhood Pub. The event brought together the players and fans to raise money for the restaurant's "Godfather Fund" with the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee and InterFACE Ministries, a faith-based organization that links internationals with Americans to build cross-cultural relationships.
"It's a good thing whenever you can bring together a group of guys that played in two different eras, so to speak, for a good cause," Mason said. "These guys came out to help and have fun and interact with fans, so I think it's a win-win for everybody."
Former Titans/Oilers stars Eddie George, Chris Sanders, Brad Hopkins, Craig Hentrich, Joey Kent, Lemanski Hall, Shad Meier and John Thornton joined current Titans players Jake Locker, Matt Hasselbeck Rusty Smith, Nate Washington, Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright, Lavelle Hawkins, Marc Mariani, Damian Williams, Will Witherspoon, Michael Griffin, Alterraun Verner, Rob Bironas and Brett Kern in the effort.
The event included photo and autograph opportunities, meet-and-greet sessions, a silent auction, and a buffet line of pizza, pastas and salad.
Mike Dolan, a co-owner of MAFIAoZA'S, said Mason and the players were great to work with and the second-year event exceeded expectations.
"One of our big things is we want to give back to the community," Dolan said. "I know the Titans are a model for that. It's extremely important. We're very successful and we like to pass that success on back to the community. We focus on a lot of children's charities and doing a lot with schools because that's our future, so we're real excited about helping out."
Dolan said the Godfather Fund started with seed money that MAFIAoZA'S has continued to increase with fundraisers. As the fund increases, a percentage is distributed to qualifying charities or organizations through the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.
Rob and Helene Vaughn, a married couple who are missionaries with InterFACE, said the fundraiser will help the organization's increasing effort of connecting local Christians with local internationals.
"We help the church fall in love with internationals in our city," Rob Vaughn said. "We get to work with about 10 local churches and help them find out that Nashville has a really big international community. We're one of the fastest growing percentages of internationals for our population."
One such way of bridging the cultural gap is through the Nashville International Cup, which is a soccer league that was founded in 2009 by Nashville InterFACE. Partner churches sponsor the different teams and build relationships.
Claude Gatebuke was 15 years old when he came to Nashville in 1995 to escape the Rwandan Civil War and genocide in his native country. Gatebuke's brother had already been helped by InterFACE, and he said the organization helped his transition and extended opportunities like soccer camps, Sunday night fellowships and the first pair of shin guards he ever owned.
"It made it a lot easier because when I came to the U.S., I didn't speak English," Gatebuke said. "I could speak soccer, but I couldn't speak English, and it got me to meet people. As I met people, I got to interact and was able to pick up English and was able to make friends, and when you're that young, one of my biggest worries was, 'How do I communicate and how do I make friends?,' so it helped me get integrated in society and gave me the opportunity to contribute and do something positive here."
Griffin, who is one of the more experienced Titans players on the roster, said he and his teammates enjoyed the opportunity to interact with the former players.
"It's real special to learn the Titans tradition," Griffin said. "Some of these players also played with the Oilers so we just learned a lot about tradition and what happened in the past."
Mason, George, Sanders, Hopkins, Hentrich, Hall and Kent experienced different parts of the franchise's move from Houston to Tennessee.
"When we came here, we all grew up together, and it was a good thing," Mason said. "We went through some hardships and then we went through some great times, and Nashville truly grew as a family, and that's what we are."