Can Ingram avoid Heisman jinx?
'Bama's Mark Ingram will try to avoid the title-game struggles of Heisman winners
Heisman winners are 1-6 in the title game, with only Matt Leinart (2005) winning
Part of the reason is players' routines being shaken up by the awards season
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Mark Ingram barely had time to adjust his seat and take a drink of water at the start of his press conference last Sunday before the first of several reporters asked him the inevitable question.
"Mark, are you worried about the so-called 'Heisman jinx?'"
The 2009 winner didn't flinch. "It doesn't faze me at all," he said.
I can't tell you how many times I've witnessed this exact scene before this game. Jason White, Troy Smith, Sam Bradford -- all of them got asked the same question prior to their teams' BCS Championship Game appearances. All of them provided similar answers to Ingram's.
And all of them promptly laid an egg on the field.
I used to laugh off the Heisman curse like I do the SI cover jinx. It seemed more a coincidence than anything. Over the past few years, however, I've changed my opinion.
For one thing, it's hard to argue with the numbers. Heisman winners have gone 1-6 in their ensuing BCS championship appearances. With the exception of 2004 winner Matt Leinart, who turned in a dominant performance in USC's Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma, guys like Chris Weinke, Eric Crouch, White and Smith have performed far below their season-long production level in the big game (see below).
Part of that is obviously due to the fact that those players were facing their toughest opponents of the season. But that's probably not the only explanation.
After 13 to 14 weeks of basically living in a bubble and carrying on a familiar routine (going to class, attending meetings, watching film and practicing), the nation's top players are suddenly whisked away on a whirlwind banquet tour the second week of December -- first to Orlando for ESPN's awards show; then to New York for the Heisman presentation. The Heisman winner stays two extra days for a dinner in his honor.
The whole experience has got to be incredibly overwhelming for a 20-year-old like Ingram, who, just three months earlier, was largely anonymous outside of Tuscaloosa and his hometown of Flint, Mich.
It's also got to be incredibly disruptive.
"You get out of your comfort zone of being a Monday to Sunday college football player, where you're eating right, working out right," said ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who covers both the Orlando and Heisman shows. "Then you go on that tour, and you're eating different things, there's all those distractions, and it really takes you out of your element."
Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, the 2007 winner and a finalist the past two seasons, said recently he could tell he'd lost a step in his conditioning when he returned to practice that first year. He became more diligent about working out on the road.
Others may not have known what they were getting into.
"When I watched Troy Smith [against Florida], he looked heavy to me, like he was maybe moving just a little bit slower," said Herbstreit. "I'm interested to see how [Ingram] has maintained his body, his quickness, his acceleration. When you go on that tour, it's important to show what kind of discipline you have."
Ingram, by all indications, is an extremely grounded individual, and there's no reason to think he would lose focus on Texas. But how can anyone predict how a college sophomore will handle such a life-changing event as winning the Heisman?
In the three-plus weeks since winning the award, the Alabama star has found out exactly what Tebow meant when he said Ingram's life would "become more of a petting zoo."
"Everywhere you go, people know who you are. It's like you're in a glass house," said Ingram. "When I'm walking around an airport in major cities like Atlanta and Chicago, you see peoples' heads turning. They're pointing and whispering to each other. People are running up to you, asking for pictures and autographs. Security will take me a back way so I get a little peace.
"That's how you know [your life] is different."
In the event Ingram needed any help staying on track, an important figure made sure of it the day after he won the trophy. In an interview with USA Today, Inrgam's father, former NFL receiver Mark Sr. -- who's currently being held at the Queens Private Correctional Facility awaiting sentencing for fraud and money laundering charges -- said he asked his son, "You're not getting fat on all that food, are you?"
"No, dad, I'm working out," he said.
"You know you have another game," Ingram Sr. reportedly said.
"Dad, I'm ready to go," replied his Heisman-winning son. "I'm not going to get distracted."
That's been another aftershock of Ingram's victory -- he's spent a lot more time recently answering questions about a topic that used to be extremely private. (One reporter this week wanted to know whether his father's calls to him were collect.)
"It was hard at first," he said. "I wasn't familiar with the media, I wasn't familiar with speaking [about his father] with anyone other than my family. Some questions are harder than others."
Taken together, is it any wonder why so many Heisman winners have struggled on the big stage? Perhaps it's not something as mythical as a jinx or a curse. Perhaps it's just the collective weight of a thousand little distractions. "I'm not too bothered by it," said Ingram, "but sometimes I just want to be able to focus on the game."
We'll find out Thursday night whether he fares better than his BCS championship predecessors. He doesn't necessarily have to run for 150 yards. So long as Alabama wins, he'll avoid the fate that befell all but Leinart.
How Previous Heisman Winners Have Fared In BCS Title Games
2000: Chris Weinke, Florida State (lost 13-2 to Oklahoma).
2001: Eric Crouch, Nebraska (lost 37-14 to Miami)
2003: Jason White, Oklahoma (lost 21-14 to LSU)
2004: Matt Leinart, USC (beat Oklahoma, 55-19)
2005: Reggie Bush, USC (lost to Texas, 41-38)
2006: Troy Smith, Ohio State (lost to Florida, 41-14)
2008: Sam Bradford, Oklahoma (lost to Florids, 24-14)
2009: Mark Ingram, Alabama (Thursday vs. Texas)
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