THE PRECIOUS CONNECTION BETWEEN FATHER and son is a TV cable that runs into 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 in New York City is unmarked, blending into an industrial district near Kennedy Airport. Jumbo jets thunder over the prison at an altitude so low you can count the passenger windows in 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 on which are posted the hours of visitation (2 p.m.-4 p.m.), the dress code (no attire that reveals cleavage or bare backs) and a list of contraband (no weapons or games of chance, no cellphones or aluminum foil). A glance inside the lobby suggests a grim existence beyond the metal detector.
Ingram doesn't want to leave this. He doesn't seek transport to a permanent institution with 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, the 44-year-old 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 Alabama Crimson Tide toward the national championship, powering down the field, able to quickly turn one way and then another, spinning through tacklers. He was 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 1,658 rushing yards this season, surpassing Bobby Humphrey's 1986 school record of 1,471. 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," says Taylor Watson, Tide historian and curator of the Bear Bryant museum in Tuscaloosa.
The Heisman. 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," said Watson in mid-November, "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 Ingram 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 on Nov. 20, the day his client was scheduled to be sentenced for jumping bail 11 months before. Neville got the sentencing pushed to January. "Not that I think judges are easily moved," he said, "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: On Dec. 5, 2008, 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. 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—which could add about two years to his sentence—was an intrusion on the son's Sugar Bowl moment. The elder Ingram doesn't want to be a diversion again. He 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. 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.
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 on Nov. 21 to preserve his body for bigger games. Ingram also sat out most of the game against Auburn the following week, then in Alabama's Dec. 5 SEC title blowout of Florida, he rushed for 113 yards and three touchdowns, to upstage another Heisman contender, Gators quarterback Tim Tebow.
The elder Ingram was more than part of the television audience for this drama. He remains an active adviser to his son. On Nov. 13, the day before Alabama played Mississippi State, he called Shonda 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."