It’s homecoming for Locust Grove High School on Friday night, but the small town in Oklahoma is more concerned about the return of Mason and Jason.
UNT quarterback Mason Fine and tight end Jason Pirtle grew up in the Locust Grove area. Fine is technically from Peggs, Oklahoma, an even smaller town connected to Locust Grove that has only a kindergarten-eighth grade school. When Fine moved to Locust Grove High School as a freshman, the duo immediately clicked and became superstars in the town during the next four years. Saturday, Fine and Pirtle will play the closest to Locust Grove they ever will in their college careers when the Mean Green take on Arkansas at 3 p.m. Saturday.
“I think (the town) is more excited about the North Texas-Arkansas game,” Locust Grove football coach David Blevins said. “We have homecoming this week, and I don’t think half the people know it’s even homecoming.”
Blevins, known as “Pookie” around town and by his players, re-scheduled Saturday morning’s film session from 9 a.m. to 8 a.m. to give his players, coaching staff and their families an extra hour to get on the road for Fayetteville, Arkansas. He said he expects at least 45 of his 64 players to attend Saturday’s game between the Mean Green and Razorbacks, as well as a handful of coaches. Pookie, who was Fine and Pirtle’s offensive coordinator, hasn’t decided yet if he’ll go watch his former players; it all depends on how the Pirates play Friday night.
“Districts is coming up, and we need to make the playoffs,” Pookie said.
Locust Grove is 2-0 this season but hasn’t made the playoffs since its superstars were playing in 2015, when the Pirates lost in the quarterfinals after making the semis the season before. In fact, Locust Grove hasn’t even really made the news since then. Other than a Girl Scout murder in 1977, the small town of 1,404, according to the United States Census Bureau in 2016, rarely makes state news, let alone national coverage for something positive.
But it was a different time when Fine was throwing the ball to Pirtle at Leonard Yarborough Stadium. The two paired as the most prolific pass duo in Oklahoma history before heading to UNT. It was like a spectacle for Locust Grove, as the school added temporary bleachers behind the end zone to accommodate the abundance of fans. For those that didn’t witness the players in-person, state media made sure they still followed along, with Tulsa World even chronicling Fine and Pirtle’s senior season as they sought Division-I offers while also pursuing the school’s first state title.
“First of all, Locust Grove is a great support system,” Pookie said. “Not just for Mason and Jason, but any kind of thing you need help with Locust Grove is there. Mason and Jason’s story, I think it reflects more of what Locust Grove is.”
Ultimately, despite the publicity and accolades, UNT ended up being Fine and Pirtle’s lone Division-I offer. Fine was too short; Pirtle too slow. Because of that, Arkansas, only 68 miles from Locust Grove, never gave either a chance. Nor did in-state schools Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Tulsa.
“When he wasn’t getting recruited, it was kind of a shot, not just to Mason, but at our town,” said Josh Nunley, Fine’s uncle.
Today, Pirtle is listed the No. 2 tight end on UNT’s depth chart and went from a walk-on to earning a scholarship this past offseason as a redshirt-sophomore. He started in UNT’s first game of the season against rival SMU. Last week in the Mean Green’s second game of the season, Fine, a junior, connected with Pirtle for the first time this season: a 22-yard gain for a first down in the second quarter.
Fine ended the game with 418 passing yards, becoming the first quarterback in UNT history to throw for more than 400 yards in back-to-back games. He tallied a career-high 444 yards the week before in a win against SMU, upping his season total to 862 passing yards, which is third in the nation. Fine’s 431 average leads the country.
With what he’s already done early this season and being a starter since the second game of his freshman year, Fine’s name is everywhere in UNT’s record book.
“It’s a little crazy, I’d say,” Nunley said. “I’m proud of him. A lot of people that knew him kinda expected him to do something great. But when I look back, did I really expect him to do what he’s doing now? Being realistic, no. I always say he’s a different breed. His work ethic is different.”
Nunley has watched Fine since the beginning. He’s tailgated before every one of Fine’s games since his sophomore year of high school, a tradition Nunley continued in Denton. Nunley said there’s about 30 friends and relatives at his tailgates before every Mean Green game, but Saturday, the family is planning for up to 200.
“We’re trying to get a big area where everyone can get together and enjoy what North Texas is doing and what Mason is doing,” Nunley said.
Said Jared Wilkinson: “He’s bringing the whole town, him and Jason.”
Wilkinson has been friends with Nunley since the two played T-ball together; a common occurrence in a town such as Locust Grove. Being by Nunley’s side as the two witnessed Fine progress in his career, Wilkinson, along with most of the Fine and Nunley family, is helping Nunley prepare for Saturday’s tailgate, for which they reserved 22 parking spots about a half mile from Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
The two and their families rented a house through Airbnb, which has an extra room just in case someone else needs a place to stay. They decided to make a weekend out of it-- taking off work Friday and Monday—and are including Wilkinson’s wife’s, Amanda, birthday celebration in the mix, who also happens to cut Fine’s hair when he comes home.
“We’ve been looking forward to it since (Fine’s) freshman year, the first time he stepped on the field,” Nunley said. “We circled that Arkansas date because we knew it was the closest.”
The tailgate was originally planned for about 80 people Wednesday night, but by Thursday, that number pretty much doubled. The tailgate was mentioned on Facebook, which could have influenced the tally to grow, plus more family is coming from Arkansas and Kansas City, Missouri. The new total could even increase again considering the plan is to post the location on Facebook once everything is situated Saturday.
The area has also added an RV. A friend who smokes meat on the side is bringing 10 pounds of pulled pork to help feed everyone. Wilkinson said he’s in charge of making sure there’s a TV with football on. Nunley said he’ll be flying a Mean Green and Cherokee Nation flag high, as Fine, Pirtle and most of Locust Grove is of Cherokee descent.
“We definitely get to enjoy it more (than Fine and Pirtle),” Nunley said. “We get to tailgate, have a good time, then go watch the game. It’s even better when they’re out there tearing it up. Then we get to enjoy it all week and talk about it. We’re talking about this week and last week; they’re just preparing, getting ready.”
But why is this game such a big deal? Nunley is a lifelong OU fan, but his tickets for Saturday—two rows behind UNT’s bench—are closer than any Sooner game he’s attended or any contest at Apogee Stadium. Fayetteville is close for those traveling from Locust Grove and haven’t watched Fine or Pirtle since they graduated high school, but even though Nunley has missed only one game in Denton since 2016, he’s seemed to put the most emphasis on his nephew’s chance at an SEC foe.
“For most people, it’s proximity,” Nunley said. “For me, it’s (Fine) gets that shot to prove that, ‘Hey, I can play at this level, on this field, with these four- and five-star players.”
“It’s proving something to us. We want to see him prove that, yeah, he belongs on that OSU field or on that OU field or that TU field. But what happened, going down to Denton, has worked out the best.”
This weekend will be Fine’s family’s shortest trip of his career, an hour-and-20-minute drive to Fayetteville, which most of Locust Grove will also travel, influencing Nunley’s predicting of up to 200 at their tailgate. Pookie is still projecting about 45 of his players and their families go, and also said most students he has talked to this week also plan on making the trip. A Pirate sixth grade football team will also be in attendance with their families. Others say they’re coming in large groups, varying from eight to 15. A Facebook poll among the Locust Grove community Wednesday night showed another 70 people planning to attend with others.
Fine said he’s been getting texts and DMs on social media since his last game ended from people letting him know they’ll be in Fayetteville to support. He said this game has been one of the first topics people have brought up when he was home.
“We’re gonna have a pretty big crowd from Northeast Oklahoma, and probably across the state of Oklahoma, being there, supporting Mean Green football,” Fine said. “Hopefully we can go there and put on a show.”
The 76,000 fans that Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium holds is a big part of why the SEC environment was one of the main topics at UNT’s media availability Tuesday. The first question Fine was asked was about the team’s mindset going into such an environment, and after quickly mentioning the venue and atmosphere, Fine emphasized the game’s proximity to home in his first sentence.
“Mason won’t forget Peggs or Locust Grove,” Nunley said. “He’s always got that in the back of his mind.”