ST. LOUIS — Tre Mason couldn’t help but break down in tears.
You can’t blame him. These last six-plus months have been a whirlwind for the Auburn-turned-St. Louis Rams running back.
There were the improbable back-to-back comeback wins against Georgia and rival Alabama that propelled the Tigers into the Southeastern Conference Championship Game. Then Mason’s 46-carry, 304-yard, four-touchdown performance against Missouri to win the SEC crown and earn him a trip to New York as a Heisman finalist.
There was the BCS Championship Game in January, where Mason broke Bo Jackson’s single-season rushing record but the Tigers lost to Florida State, 34-31. Then, after declaring early for the NFL Draft, the running back slipped to the third round before the Rams, who had earlier selected his friend and teammate Greg Robinson, took him.
"I just broke down in tears when Coach called," he said.
Mason didn’t know the Rams were interested in him, so the call from Jeff Fisher came as a welcome surprise. Then the running back called his new, and former, teammate Robinson.
"When I first called him, he couldn’t believe it," Mason said. "He told me, ‘Stop lying.’ But I told him, just wait a couple minutes and you’ll see that I’m not lying. I had called him right away."
Mason and Robinson had talked about this moment for years.
They arrived at Auburn together as freshmen and talked about playing for the Tigers for three seasons before leaving early for the NFL. It would be a dream come true, Mason explained, to continue playing together at the highest level of the sport.
"Before they drafted him I had just texted him, ‘Good luck,’ and everything," Robinson said. "I kind of stopped paying attention to the draft, but then he called me and he was like, ‘Bro, I’m a Ram.’ I just broke out because I could just hear in his voice he was getting emotional. I could hear him crying over the phone. I was like, man, that’s crazy. I would’ve never thought that. It was a great feeling and just to have someone as close as him along with me, that would be a positive also."
Robinson and Mason both have plenty to prove with the Rams — Robinson as a top pick who will be expected to make an immediate impact on the offensive line, and Mason as a third-rounder who will get a chance to share some of the workload at running back.
Mason is coming off a remarkable junior season in which he rushed for 1,816 yards and also set school records with 25 total touchdowns and 23 rushing touchdowns.
Besides his huge game against Missouri, the 5-foot-8, 207-pounder rushed for 178 yards against Texas A&M, 168 vs. Arkansas, 164 against Alabama and 132 vs. LSU.
"They’re getting one of the tougher individuals in all of college football," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn told reporters at the press conference when Mason declared for the draft. "He can run between the tackles, he’s got great courage, he plays his best games in his biggest games, and he’s a good receiver out of the backfield also."
The Rams were well aware of Mason’s remarkable junior season. General manager Les Snead played at Auburn and Fisher’s son, Trent, was Mason’s teammate as a defensive back with the Tigers.
"Tre is a change-of-pace back," Fisher said. "Obviously, for us, very productive runner, good zone runner. Obviously, the numbers speak for themselves. He was a guy we just couldn’t pass up at that point."
Mason, who is originally from Palm Beach, Fla., was rated by NFL.com as the second-best running back prospect in the draft, behind only Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde. But he was the fifth running back selected — after Washington’s Bishop Sankey (Titans), LSU’s Jeremy Hill (Bengals) and Hyde (49ers) were taken in the second round and West Virginia’s Charles Sims (Buccaneers) went earlier in the third round.
Mason had hoped to be picked in the first or second round.
"Yeah, I had hopes and dreams of going there and people (were) telling me that it’s possible for me to slip into the first round," he said. "But God has a plan and God works in his ways, and everything happens for a reason."
St. Louis has made it clear it wants to run the football and has backed that up by spending big money on linemen Jake Long and Rodger Saffold and investing its first draft pick on the 6-5, 332-pound run-blocking Robinson. Last year’s rookie revelation, Zac Stacy, rushed for 973 yards and scored eight touchdowns in 14 games last season, but Mason will be given an opportunity to show what he can do.
"We’re going to become a great duo together," Mason said of Stacy, who was also a standout in the SEC at Vanderbilt. "I played against Zac my sophomore year, and he’s a great player. I’m willing to put in work with him."
Last week the Rams released Daryl Richardson, who started three games in 2013 but struggled with injuries and finished with just 215 yards on 69 carries. That leaves Mason competing with Benny Cunningham and former second-round pick Isaiah Pead for carries.
"It’s time to go back to work," Mason said. "I’m ready to prove a lot of people wrong."
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at email@example.com.