'Bama's Backbone

As his troubled father watches from prison, Mark Ingram is carrying the Crimson Tide on a national title run and trying to deliver the first Heisman in the program's proud history
November 30, 2009

The precious connection between father and son is a TV cable inside a windowless warehouse turned prison. You wouldn't know that former NFL wideout Mark Ingram lives here—or that any federal inmate does, for that matter. The Queens Private Correctional Facility is unmarked, blending into an industrial district used by dozens of express shipping companies that fly cargo in and out of nearby Kennedy Airport. Jumbo jets thunder over the prison at an altitude so low, you can count the passenger windows on the fuselages. There is no razor wire or guard tower to define the 200-bed detention center for inmates awaiting trial or sentencing, only a brown steel door with a bulletin board next to it stating visitation hours (2 p.m.--4 p.m.), rules for the dress code (no attire that reveals cleavage or bare backs) and a list of banned contraband (no weapons or games of chance, no cellphones or aluminum foil). A glance inside the lobby reveals a grim existence beyond a metal detector.

Ingram doesn't want to leave this. He doesn't seek transport to a permanent institution with roomy outdoor space. He doesn't itch for a facility with a stocked library. Because what would he do if he lost the remote?

In the common room at Queens, Ingram has game-day TV privileges he might not have somewhere else. He has been able to watch Little Mark, as the family calls running back Mark Ingram Jr., carry the second-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide into the national-title conversation, powering down the field as if on casters, able to quickly turn one way and then another, spinning through tacklers who end up swiping at his ankle tape. He has been the main cat in the Wildcat and the unshakable go-to player for an undefeated Tide team with a jumpy quarterback in first-year starter Greg McElroy. "It's humbling to have the team believe in me," says Ingram Jr.

He has rewarded coach Nick Saban's trust in him with 1,399 rushing yards this season, just 72 yards shy of Bobby Humphrey's 1986 school record. Suddenly Mark Jr. has given 'Bama a splash of star power reminiscent of the Joe Namath and Kenny Stabler days. "And neither of them won a Heisman," reminds Taylor Watson, Tide historian and curator of the Bear Bryant museum in Tuscaloosa. "Alabama has a long list of great players, but no one has ever won it. People here walk a fine line. We like to say how we're only about winning and not Heisman trophies, but that talk might be different if Alabama had one."

It's a delicious topic to chew on for the patrons at Tuscaloosa's Dreamland Bar-B-Que. They might not trade one of Alabama's 12 national titles for a stiff-arming statue, but deep in their houndstooth souls, they crave the validation for historic significance. "If Mark won it," says Watson, "it would be huge."

The elder Ingram soaks in the euphoria in prison-issued clothing in front of a television. To lose this portal to his son's sophomore-season success would mean losing a piece of himself. So last week Ingram, 44, made a move as agile as the ones he flashed during a 10-year NFL career in which he caught 265 passes. His lawyer, Jim Neville, received an adjournment last Friday, the day his client was scheduled to be sentenced for jumping bail 11 months ago. "It's postponing the inevitable," says Neville, who got the sentencing pushed back to early January. "To be honest, not that I think judges are easily moved, but if by some great occurrence Mark Jr. should win the Heisman, I'd like to be able to say, 'Look, this is why the father didn't surrender.'"

This is how Mark Ingram ended up in Queens: Last Dec. 5 he failed to report to a federal prison in Ashland, Ky., after being sentenced to 92 months on bank-fraud and money-laundering charges. A monthlong manhunt triggered media attention as Little Mark prepared to play in the Sugar Bowl. About two hours before kickoff U.S. marshals arrested Ingram in a Flint, Mich., hotel. Authorities reportedly found him sitting on a bed in his underwear, the TV on. It was a head-spinning development for Little Mark, but as a freshman backup, he rushed for 26 yards on eight carries that night to end a tumultuous period that underscored the mental strength inside his rugged 5'10", 215-pound frame. It was difficult, but Mark Jr. persevered, Saban says, adding, "I talked to him when everything was going on. I said, 'That's your dad. And you are proud of your dad. There may be some public scrutiny he has to take, but make sure you're focused on the right stuff.'"

He tunneled in. But his father's fugitive stunt—a mistake that could add about two years to his original sentence—was an intrusion on his son's Sugar Bowl moment. He doesn't want to be a diversion again. The elder Ingram has declined all interview requests, ceding the spotlight to Little Mark. "He said to me, 'I don't want to be a burden to my son or put any negativity around him,'" Neville explains. "He just wants to have the focus on Mark Jr." Father and son are, in some ways, as close as ever. The son understands his father's flaws—"and I've learned from them," he says—but he also realizes other players have grown up never even knowing their dads. Strange as it may sound, he feels lucky. "Mark Sr. is a good guy as far as giving parental advice and loving his son," says Saban. "He has done a wonderful job of keeping him grounded and trying to make him aware of any piranhas out there."

Little Mark's dad falls into a category of confounding contradictions: good man, bad decisions. Saban has known him for years, going back to Saban's days as an assistant coach at Michigan State in the mid-1980s, when Big Mark played for the Spartans. On occasion, Saban's duties included checking up on players' class attendance. "I'd get the call," laughs Shonda Ingram, who was Big Mark's high school and college girlfriend before marrying him after graduation. "I'd be asked, 'Why isn't Mark in class?' So, yes, I remember Coach Saban. When he recruited my son, there was trust, a lot of comfort." Saban has guided him with care—even sitting him in the second half of the Tide's 45--0 victory over Chattanooga last Saturday to preserve his body for bigger games. (Making the most of his short work day, Ingram ran for 102 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries.) Rival Auburn is next, with a blockbuster to follow: the SEC title game on Dec. 5 against Florida, which in all likelihood will determine one of the participants in the BCS championship game. The showdown with the Gators also pits Tim Tebow against Ingram in a Heisman Trophy parlor game. "Mark knows that [matchup] will be part of the headline," says Tide safety Robby Green, Ingram's closest friend on the team. "I say if Tebow can win the Heisman as a sophomore [in 2007], why not Mark?"

The elder Ingram is more than part of the television audience for this drama. He remains an active adviser to his son. Two weeks ago he called his wife before Alabama played Mississippi State and urged her to text Little Mark with a tip. "He said, 'You gotta tell Mark that when he catches a screen pass, he has to pull the ball in and hold it so he won't get stripped from behind,'" says Shonda. "He's still coaching him. My husband has always been there for him."

Big Mark would wear a ball cap twisted backward in a trendy, if strained, effort to keep up with youth when he helped coach the high school track team at Southwestern Academy in Flint in the spring of 2008. Some days, as he crouched into the starters' blocks, he would shake his legs in the donkey-kick action sprinters use to loosen up their limbs. "I'm an old man, but I can still beat you," he would tell Little Mark, then a senior. Ingram's face had become rounder and his body softer since his NFL days ended in 1996, but he maintained that quick first step of a poked cat. Little Mark was a low-slung version of his dad, with a toy soldier's defined muscle and the status of a blue-chip back. "They'd go at it all the time, challenging each other," says Shonda. "They'd run the 40."

Next to the track, someone would shout "Go!" and the father and the son would bolt, neck and neck at first, before Little Mark would pull away, out on his own, the present overtaking the past. "He is better than I ever was," says Shonda's father, Art Johnson, a Michigan State and CFL star in the 1950s and '60s. "And Little Mark is better than Big Mark ever was, though his dad may not admit it." Mark Sr. was a gifted player with pronged hands who secured every catch and also earned bragging rights with an alltime highlight: He skirted five Buffalo Bills on a third-down play that kept alive a New York Giants TD drive in Super Bowl XXV.

His son grew up seeing his father play and, at times, hearing just how high expectations can be. "We'd be in a stadium and the fans would say things, and not always nice things," says Shonda. "I think growing up with that helped Mark mature." Saban sees on a daily basis the evidence of Little Mark's background as the son of a former professional athlete. "He doesn't take coaching as criticism," says Saban. "That's how a professional handles it too."

Mark Jr. could have played any sport—even golf, which was his father's preference—but his love was football. "I run with a purpose," he says. "I love that feeling." The more he played as a high school star, the more his father's pro legacy hung over him. He was always referred to with one title: son of the former NFL player. "I'm proud of my dad," Mark Jr. says. "But now I'm becoming known for what I do, for being myself, and I'm not living in his shadow anymore. I'm carving out my own identity."

He is all at once trying to separate himself from his father the pro while maintaining a tether to his dad's love. Whatever emotional and financial burdens have been freighted on the family due to Big Mark's choices—he has been in legal trouble since 2001, when he was caught with counterfeit cash—those issues remain within the family circle. The Ingrams do not indulge in the Oprah-style public catharses that are so common in a tell-all society. This is how they cope: by trying to live normally. "Mark has had to endure a lot on his way to 20," says Johnson. "It has taken a lot of maturity to get through it, and that's important, but he's also had a lot of help and support. He's a momma's boy. She delivers for him. She's got his head on straight."

Shonda is a social worker in depressed Flint. Her compassion and drive make her son proud. She took classes through Michigan State and received her master's in social work in May 2008. "When Mark graduated from high school, I graduated with my M.S.W.," says Shonda. "There's a picture of us in our caps and gowns."

The Ingram crew is inseparable. On the day before the Tide plays, eight family members load into two cars for the 13-hour drive from Flint to Tuscaloosa. "We know all the stops along the way," says Johnson. "We're pretty well-behaved. My mother-in-law is 91, so we can't get too out of control." By kickoff the next day Shonda is seated in the stands with a radio earpiece so she can hear the commentary. She is an information junkie. She keeps track of her son's Facebook page, reads all the news clips and surfs the fan websites. She takes it all in—including the Heisman buzz that seems to have swept up everyone except her son. "He's the same," says Green. "He's still just easygoing Mark."

You can still catch the campus celebrity around midnight at a Wendy's, where he reveals a quirk of taste: He always dips his fries in a chocolate Frosty. You can still catch him cruising around Tuscaloosa with a bag of sunflower seeds at hand and Lil' Wayne on the stereo. "That's about all he needs to be happy," says Green.

Little Mark is smiling at the end of a YouTube clip from 2007—a piece about his father, titled Mark Ingram: In His Own Words. During the six-minute video the elder Ingram says, "When you come into a situation where you think you have a way of being slick, beating the system, it'll always come back to bite you in the butt." At the end the camera pans to the backdrop. Little Mark is working out on the track. He walks over to his father, who rubs his son's head and says, "That's my dude. He's going to be all right."

He is doing just fine—as his father can see.

Stiff-armed

The Heisman Trophy is awarded to the "outstanding college football player in the United States," though the results suggest that the award is largely about winning. Yet while Alabama has collected 12 national championships, the Crimson Tide has never produced a Heisman winner. In fact, in the 74 years the trophy has been handed out, 'Bama has had only one more top five finish (eight) than Notre Dame, Ohio State and USC have had winners.

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