July 10, 2016
Making adjustments is in Mason Zandi’s DNA. The fifth year senior offensive tackle for South Carolina has kept an open mind in adapting to position changes, coaching changes, and number changes. He appears ready for a change from his original career aspirations whenever his playing days are done. He credits his parents, Ali and Michelle, for giving him a strong work ethic and positive attitude.
“My mindset is that I was raised with everything, but I was brought up like I had nothing,” Zandi said. “That instilled morals, a work ethic and a fire in me. It’s just a blessing from God that I was given my two parents.
“I guess I’m not a true Millennial because I listen to my parents. Before I’ve made any big decisions in my life, I always went to my parents first. I always ask my parents opinion on everything. I’m not saying I always went with what they said, but I always asked because you just can’t beat experience.”
Zandi’s father, Ali, came to the United States in his early 20s during the Iranian Revolution of the 1970s.
“He didn’t speak any English, and he didn’t have a dollar to his name,” Zandi said. “He told me that he learned to speak English from watching American soap operas. He wound up in San Francisco, where he worked in a restaurant as a cook. He travelled around a lot and eventually became a manager and part-owner. He and his partners owned a couple of small restaurants.”
Ali later found his way to South Carolina and owned a restaurant in Five Points and has since made a successful living as an electrician. Ali and Michelle, a former Richland County Paramedic, met and married a short time later, raising Mason and two daughters in the Irmo/Chapin area. Michelle has done a lot of travelling with her father serving in the United States Air Force, causing the family to move to several states as well as England and the Philippines in the early part of her life.
“The biggest advantage I have of anyone my age is that I have two world travelers as parents,” Zandi said. “That’s a lot of experience. It really makes me look outside the box. I like to look at the grand scheme of everything. I majored in political science because I see everything as a big chess game.”
Zandi earned his degree in political science with a minor in psychology, and having his diploma in hand is very important to him.
“It means everything,” Zandi said. “That’s the foundation for my life. One day I’m going to have to hang up my cleats. That’s a fact of life. At the end of the day, I have something that nobody can take away from me, and that’s an education. People fight and claw and pay thousands of dollars to get that one certificate that tells people they are certified to get into whatever field they want to be in, and I got mine for free.”
I have a family of forty-plus people I’ve never seen. I’ve seen pictures, but I’ve never met them. That’s something I have always wanted to do.Mason Zandi
Zandi initially thought about getting into politics and perhaps becoming a lobbyist, but he may go back to school to get his master’s degree after a personal experience piqued his interest in hospital administration when an accident sent his father to the emergency room last December.
“He took a fall from about 17 feet, shattered both his arms, and he cracked his head open,” Zandi said. “He was in rough shape. We rushed over to the emergency room, and it was filled up with a lot of people. My dad was sitting there, and it took a while for him to get any treatment. He just sat there for more than an hour with his shattered arms and his wrists were in like eight pieces. His arm looked like a noodle. They hadn’t taken his vitals or anything. I just felt like he wasn’t getting the proper medical care.
“I know it’s not in the cards for me to be a doctor. I mean, what nine year old kid wants to see a guy who is six feet nine inches tall come give him a shot, right? And my hands are far too big to be a surgeon. So I can’t be a doctor, but I could probably manage doctors and a room like that to allocate resources appropriately.”
Ali recovered and went back to work in April, but Mason Zandi’s passion is still there in his thoughts for what he will do when football is over. After several decades away from Iran, Ali made his way back to his home country a few years ago to see family. Mason would like to make that trip someday as well.
“I have a family of forty-plus people I’ve never seen,” Zandi said. “I’ve seen pictures, but I’ve never met them. That’s something I have always wanted to do. My mom isn’t so sure because there is not a U.S. embassy there anymore, and I don’t exactly blend. I don’t speak Farsi either.”
As he looks forward to his final collegiate football season, Zandi is looking forward to getting back into the trenches where he started 10 games last year for the Gamecocks before missing the final two games with an injury. Prior to his injury, he changed his number mid-season season to honor his friend and teammate Cody Waldrop, who broke his ankle in practice. Playing on the offensive line isn’t always glamorous, but he enjoys every part of it.
“Absolutely it’s fun,” Zandi said. “You are forcing a man against his will to go somewhere he doesn’t want to go. That’s the ultimate power trip for me. Defensive ends in the SEC are some of the best athletes in the country. Playing offensive line is such a one-play game. You can be whipping one guy’s tail for 69 plays, but if he gets that one sack and fumble, then he is the one who had a great game.
“That’s one thing I try to stress to the guys now is that games can be won or lost on one play. You have to show the importance of every down.”
Zandi was a defensive end for most of his high school career before playing both ways and also served as the punter during his senior year at Chapin High School. He caught the eye of South Carolina offensive line coach Shawn Elliott before he even played his first offensive snap, and Zandi made the most of his opportunity.
“I knew I had to come in and work as a freshman because we had guys like Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor on the field across from me,” Zandi said. “I’m actually very thankful that we had those guys on the team because they made me grow up really fast. It was either that, or I’d be sitting on the sideline.
“We love Coach Elliott. What he preaches to us is consistency. What makes that so valid is that he brings consistency every single day. He brings his effort. He brings his energy. He brings his excitement for coaching and that translates into our excitement for playing.”
As much as he enjoys his primary job of blocking, the former punter and tight-end in him can’t resist dreaming about a chance to branch out if the opportunity presents itself on the field.
“I punt every day in pre-practice,” Zandi said. “I try to give our punters a run for their money. I think they’re threatened by me. Remember seeing Melvin Ingram run that fake punt against Georgia (2011)? I’m not saying that I’m as fast as Melvin, but I might be able to crank out ten yards.”
Zandi also laments a trick play opportunity against Tennessee in 2013 where he was lined up as an eligible receiver, but a Volunteer timeout spoiled his chance for glory.
“I have hands for days,” Zandi proclaimed. “If we would have gotten that play off against Tennessee, then that would have been a touchdown. I already told Coach Elliott, if we ever run that play and I score, you’re going to have to go ahead and take that fifteen yard penalty for excessive celebration. I’m doing a cartwheel or something.”
Whether or not Zandi gets his chance to do something acrobatic on the field, he knows his parents will be at the games.
“My dad has learned to love American football,” Zandi said. “He didn’t know anything about it when he first got here. He has come to every one of my games since I was in the sixth grade, and he loves it now. My mom isn’t a big football fan, but she is a big Mason Zandi fan.”
Zandi has made the most of his time at South Carolina, whether it was serving on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) for two years or getting the chance to play under two different high profile head coaches.
“Being around that atmosphere with the other student-athletes on SAAC was great,” Zandi said. “Since I was six years old, I dreamed about being a South Carolina football player. Seeing other people that have the same passion for the university as a whole, it was a really neat experience.
“Coach (Will) Muschamp and I have a pretty good relationship. We talk often. I love the way he conducts his business. He’s very to the point. He works us hard, but he rewards us and loves us. When a new coaching staff comes in, everyone wants to compare it with the old staff. Both have been great. I mean with Coach (Steve) Spurrier, I got to play for a hall of fame coach. That experience won’t be trumped by anything. It was a tremendous honor to be coached by Coach Spurrier.”
Whatever happens next after the 2016 football season, Mason Zandi doesn’t plan on slowing down.
“A lot of people are OK with average and can be complacent,” Zandi said. “That’s one thing that my dad instilled in me and my two older sisters. Never be OK with just OK. My dad is almost 60 years old and he still works 60 hours per week. He’s a machine, and so is my mom. They’re the American dream. When my dad came here, he had a drive and fire to obtain what he wanted, and that was to raise a family and provide for them, and then some. He worked hard. That’s how I want to be.”