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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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1945 Harry Gilmer RB 5th Army RB Doc Blanchard
1947 Harry Gilmer RB 5th Notre Dame QB John Lujack
1961 Pat Trammel QB 5th Syracuse RB Ernie Davis
1962 Lee Roy Jordan LB 4th Oregon State QB Terry Baker
1971 Johnny Musso RB 4th Auburn QB Pat Sullivan
1972 Terry Davis QB 5th Nebraska WB Johnny Rodgers
1993 David Palmer RB 3rd Florida State QB Charlie Ward
1994 Jay Barker QB 5th Colorado RB Rashaan Salaam

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."

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