Upon beginning his Heisman acceptance speech, Mark Ingram finally broke down after uttering the following words: "I'm just so excited to bring Alabama their first Heisman winner."
The good people of that state waited a long, long time for this night. Few place more importance on college football history, and no fan base lionizes its gridiron heroes more than those of the Crimson Tide's. They'll be the first to let you know they take a backseat to nobody -- 12 national championships, 22 SEC titles, 57 bowl berths.
Yet, for 74 years, one trophy had mysteriously eluded Tuscaloosa. Every December since 1935, 'Bama fans have had to watch from a distance as stars from places like USC, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Miami -- heck, from Stanford, BYU, Houston and, egads! Auburn -- basked in the glory of college football's highest honor.
On Saturday night at the Times Square Nokia Theatre, Ingram -- the pride of Flint, Mich., and now, suddenly, the most decorated player in Alabama's lustrous history -- claimed the 75th Heisman Memorial Trophy.
"The legacy of Alabama football certainly has a void filled," said Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban. "It made this an even greater opportunity [for Ingram] from a bigger picture standpoint."
As Ingram was escorted through the main floor of the Marriott Marquis for his post-ceremony press conference Saturday night, a school staffer informed him, "They're blowing up back in Tuscaloosa. I'm getting texts like crazy." Ingram, whose sober expression rarely seems to change (except, of course, when he's doing Gator chomps on the sideline), looked down at this own phone. "I've got 260 [texts]," he said.
If he doesn't fully appreciate it yet, he soon will. With the opening of an envelope Saturday night, Ingram, whose 1,864 total yards and 18 touchdowns helped lift No. 1 Alabama to a 13-0 regular season, assured himself a lifetime of adulation in a state whose residents adorn their walls with framed prints of famous moments in Crimson Tide history.
Ingram's fellow finalist, Tim Tebow, the 2007 Heisman winner, knows well how his new friend's life is about to change.
"He'll always be known as the 75th Heisman Trophy winner," Tebow said Saturday. "He'll become more and more popular. More and more of a petting zoo."
Ingram didn't run away from the other contenders quite as strikingly as he did Florida's defense last week. In fact, his victory was the closest in Heisman history. Another tailback, Stanford's TobyGerhart, finished a mere 28 points behind. (For comparison's sake, ReggieBush beat VinceYoung by 933 points in 2005.) Texas quarterback ColtMcCoy finished just 159 points behind Ingram.
It was a fitting ending to an unusual season in which the Heisman pecking order seemed to change by the week. After netting a season-low 30 rushing yards against Auburn on Nov. 27, Ingram was thought to be on the outs. Prior to notching a staggering 4½ sacks against Texas in the Dec. 5 Big 12 title game, Nebraska defensive tackle NdamukongSuh -- who wound up finishing a historic fourth (highest of any player at his position since 1994) -- was thought to have almost no shot of coming to New York.
Just as Suh assured his spot with a huge performance the last night of the season, Ingram made his case with a 189-yard, three-touchdown masterpiece in the SEC championship game. (Ironically, he also benefitted greatly from Suh's defensive dominance of presumed front-runner McCoy.)
Over the past decade, Heisman voters have increasingly intertwined the award with the BCS title chase. That might not seem fair to some (like Gerhart's supporters, knowing he may have run away with the thing had his team not lost four games), but for Alabama fans, it probably seems appropriate. During BearBryant's heyday, the Heisman drought became something of a source of pride. Other programs produced stars. Alabama produced champions.
But it's been 17 years since the Tide last played for a national title, and there have been many, many lows in the interim. Having endured 3-8 seasons, NCAA sanctions and coaching turmoil, Alabama finally finds itself back in the limelight. Last year, Saban led the Tide to a 12-0 regular season. This year, he's got them playing for a national championship.
Ingram's Heisman, therefore, is the best of both worlds. Tide fans can finally celebrate the sport's highest individual honor knowing full well Ingram's achievement came in the context of an old-fashioned, power-running, championship-caliber team.
"It was an unbelievable team concept this year," said longtime Alabama AD MalMoore, once a member of Bryant's coaching staff. "The offense [Saban] runs was set for Mark. He handled it very well. [Freshman] TrentRichardson shared time and contributed. [The Heisman] just happened.
"This is as good as it gets."
By the time he reached the Marquis podium about 40 minutes after the presentation ended, Ingram, who stopped and openly wept during a brief but gripping acceptance speech, had collected his composure. He reiterated how honored he was to be his school's first Heisman winner, how excited he was to be able to serve as inspiration to youngsters in his downtrodden hometown and how happy he was to bring pride to his family, noting "it hasn't always been easy for us."
(Ingram's father, Mark Sr., a former star receiver for the New York Giants, was convicted on bank fraud and money laundering charges last year and is currently being detained at the Queens Correctional Center, one borough over from where Saturday night's festivities were held.)
Ingram, the only Northerner on Alabama's entire roster, admittedly knew few details of the program's rich history upon signing there two years ago. He was brought up to speed soon enough. Like many, he was stunned to learn of the Tide's 74-year Heisman shutout. (Saban himself said he wasn't aware of it until Ingram became a candidate.)
But he's spent plenty of time walking past the many trophy cases that litter the walls of Alabama's football facilities.
"I'm not sure where [the Heisman] is going to go," said Ingram. "I'm sure it's going to be in the trophy case with all those national championships and all those other awards people have won."
Ingram's honor doesn't lessen the accomplishment of all the greats that came before him. But this one's going to merit a celebration 75 years in the making.