An unheralded big kid from Chapin got to play for his favorite team, and should start at left tackle when that team, South Carolina, opens its season on Thursday. After only one season of offensive line in high school, Mason Zandi landed at USC and worked his way from surprise tight end to special teams to starting right tackle, then to the ultra-important role of protecting his quarterback’s blind side.
He already has his degree. He gets another football season and at least one free semester of graduate school. Who knows? With a little luck, the hulking Zandi could be playing professionally next year.
Local boy makes good/afterthought recruit becomes crucial player … it’s America. Zandi knows and embodies it – the Gamecock outline tattooed on his right shoulder is filled with stars and stripes instead of garnet and feathers.
It’s also a tribute to how success in America can be obtained by anyone. Zandi was taught that by his father, Ali, who like his son, is living it.
“You go to school and they tell you about this American dream. That’s what made America great,” Zandi said. “They come to America, have unlimited opportunity to make whatever they want of the world, and that’s what my dad did.”
Ali Zandi is a native of Iran. He fled his home country during its 1970s revolution, arriving in the U.S. with no money or understanding of English.
Yet Ali learned the language, went from restaurant cook to restaurant owner and then became a successful electrician in South Carolina. He married Michelle and had three children.
Mason, the youngest, learned of his genealogy just as sisters Mona and Angela did. As much as the Zandis are thankful for America, Ali’s heritage is part of their lives. He has a large family in Iran, the majority of them strangers to his wife and kids.
They want to change that.
“I’ve only met a cousin and his two kids. It’s a part of me that may be missing a little bit,” Mason said. “It’s strange to think that someone thousands of miles away in a totally different culture shares the same blood as you do.
“I never thought about it as a kid … I didn’t understand it. Now, it’s a goal of mine, to see my family.”
That sense of doing what’s right and familial duty isn’t unusual; at least, not in the Zandi house. Ali and Michelle always implemented pieces of Ali’s culture into their children’s lives, and with it came a sense of responsibility.
“We kind of raised all three of our kids to do what you want to do,” Michelle said. “When they picked a sport or an activity, we always made sure to tell them that when they chose one, they had to devote their time and energy to it. They were going to stay with it for a year because they decided that’s what they wanted to do. After a year, if they didn’t like it, they could try something else.”
Mason took to all outdoor activities, and seemed destined to be a football player. A baby so big he elbowed each side of his first bassinette, he grew to be the kind of child that other parents demanded to see his birth certificate when he dwarfed their kids at Little League.
“I’m eight years older than him, but he was taller than me, I would probably say when he was 11 or 12,” sister Angela Zandi Charles said. “I’m 5-7, he’s 6-9 now, so he was probably 6-2 then.”
A versatile football career at Chapin High followed, Mason playing defensive end and – believe it – punter. Coach Justin Gentry needed offensive linemen and asked Mason to come over. Despite never playing offense in his life, Mason enthusiastically said yes and never came off the field as a senior two-way player.
“That’s when I was most concerned, when he played offense, defense and punted,” Michelle said. “I’d come down to the rails and want to give him a Snickers bar or something.”
That led to a scholarship offer from USC and 36 games over four years, with a fifth to play. Zandi will have one part of his family cheering him on from the stands, with a much larger part never far from his mind.
“We have a real close-knit family,” Angela said. “He sometimes gets a break on a Sunday and we always try to get together for family dinners. Mason knows where his roots are, how much family is important, and it would be nice to meet the rest of our family and see where our roots came from.”
“We do talk to them – Facebook, the phone, FaceTime, but they want to see them physically,” Michelle said. “He would like to, we all would like to. Maybe when they get older, and, hopefully, things change.”
Mason’s degree is in political science with a minor in psychology, and he figures he’s covered if football doesn’t work out. The other goal, of introducing himself to his faraway family, is always on his mind.
“You have aunts and uncles, you have grandma and grandpa, you just can’t see them right now. I’ve never met some of my family members, never seen their faces, but I love them,” Mason said. “If you want something in this world, just go accomplish it. No one’s stopping you but you.”
College football announces its all-Americans in December. It would be a terrific end to Zandi’s USC career if he saw his name on that list.
Although he never needed a certificate to be an all-American.
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