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'Bama's Backbone
November 30, 2009
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
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November 30, 2009

'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

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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.

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