Ingram inspires from Flint to Tuscaloosa

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Mark Ingram plays for Alabama — and so much more.

He plays for a father who watches his games from jail.

He plays for a family that has stayed strong and close during hard times.

He plays for the people in his hometown of Flint, Mich., a city whose residents have received far more bad news than good in recent years.

For Alabama, Ingram has helped the top-ranked Crimson Tide reach the BCS championship game against No. 2 Texas on Thursday and delivered the storied program its first Heisman Trophy.

For those who helped Ingram get to where he is, those accomplishments have brought joy and pride unsurpassed by even the most grateful Tide fans.

The stocky sophomore tailback is a bit overwhelmed by it all, but is trying his best to remain the humble and hardworking guy who first arrived in Tuscaloosa.

“I know it comes with it, but at the same time I know that there’s lots of things I have still have to accomplish,” Ingram said Monday. “I’m not too bothered by it. But sometimes I just want to be able to focus on the game.”

It was the relationship between Ingram’s parents and Alabama coach Nick Saban that led Mark to choose to play for the Crimson Tide.

Mark Ingram Sr. was a star wide receiver for Michigan State when Saban was an assistant for the Spartans. The coach grew close to Ingram Sr. and his then-girlfriend, now wife, Shonda. Then when Saban became Alabama coach in 2007, he returned to Michigan to recruit their son.

The younger Mark Ingram had already made an impression on another member of Alabama’s staff.

“He was actually going into his freshman year of high school, I was at Michigan State and he came to camp with his team and here was this little guy who was the best player in camp,” Tide offensive coordinator Jim McElwain said. “Then I get here and coach Saban says, ‘Yeah, we got this kid out of Michigan coming.’ And I said, ‘Don’t tell me it’s Mark Ingram. That’s a good get.'”

Ingram’s first season at Alabama was a good one, at least on the field. As a freshman in 2008, he ran for 728 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Off the field, it was a troubling time for his family.

His father, who played in the NFL for the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins, was convicted of money laundering and bank fraud. He was sentenced to 92 months, but failed report to a federal prison in Kentucky in December 2008. His family believes Ingram Sr. did not want to miss his son playing in the Sugar Bowl.

He was captured on Jan. 2 in a Michigan motel room hours before the Tide kicked off against Utah, and now could face an even longer sentence.

“It just shows the type of relationship we have, the type of bond that we have as a father and son that he’d sacrifice that,” the younger Ingram said. “I think any son has to love that, appreciate that.”

Mark Ingram Sr. has been serving time in a holding facility in New York, awaiting a sentencing hearing. Eventually, he will be moved to a prison, but his attorney has tried to prolong his stay at the holding facility because it allows Ingram a better opportunity to little Mark on television.

In 2009, Ingram Sr. watched his son become a star.

Ingram ran for 1,542 yards, scored 18 touchdowns this season and on Dec. 12 in New York — just a few miles away from where his father is incarcerated — he won the Heisman Trophy.

“Just the fact that I can bring that joy to him when he’s in a hard time is just real important to me,” Ingram said about his father. “All my family, all we’ve been through, my mother and my sisters, that I can do that for them was really special to me.”

The father’s message to his son after winning the Heisman: “He said congratulations. He said we still got one more thing to do.”

In Flint, Ingram’s accomplishments have provided at least a small lift to a town that has endured skyrocketing unemployment rates during the economic downturn.

“Back at home it’s crazy,” Ingram said. “Everybody is just so proud. Some of them are more happy than me. They feel like when I won (the Heisman) the whole city won it.”

No one from Flint is prouder than Mateen Cleaves. The former Michigan State point guard has become a mentor to Ingram. Uncle Mateen, is what Ingram calls Cleaves.

“He’s a phenomenal football player, but he’s a great person first,” said Cleaves, who plans to be in the Rose Bowl on Thursday. “I think you have to credit both of his parents for that. They did a heck of job raising him.

“He’s very grateful for his God-given talent. He’s very humble. He’s somebody you root for, that you want to be successful.”

And a player who makes opposing defenses take notice.

“He’s a tough physical runner who knows how to get yards after contact,” Texas defensive tackle Lamarr Houston said. “He reminds me of Adrian Peterson.”

Right now, Ingram’s popularity rivals that of the Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowl running back.

He can’t walk through an airport without someone asking him for an autograph or flashing him a Heisman pose.

“I’ve seen girls do it, little kids do it, seen some grown men do it,” Ingram said. “Some people put up the wrong leg and the wrong arm. I try to help them out, though.”

The last three Heisman winners — and six of the last seven — to play for the national title have lost. Ingram shrugged off that stat.

“I know that I have a whole team that has my back,” he said. “They’re my support system.”

Or at least a part of it.

Ralph D. Russo/The Associated Press