12/12/2009 11:35 PM ET By Jay Mariotti
Jay Mariotti is a national columnist for FanHouse
NEW YORK -- He ignored the question, the one about whether he'd take his new 25-pound companion and hand it to his father. It wasn't the easiest task for Mark Ingram, a 19-year-old who just had won the most prestigious award in college sports, to discuss a dad who soon will start a lengthy prison sentence for bank fraud and money laundering. Most kids who win the Heisman Trophy are asked about parents who are sitting near them in the Nokia Theater, hard by Broadway's blinding neon.
But Ingram's dad, Mark Sr., couldn't make the ceremony Saturday night. He is a federal inmate locked up at the Queens Private Correctional Facility, about 15 miles away out by Kennedy Airport, waiting to begin a 92-month sentence that likely will include two extra years after he attempted to flee authorities last winter -- as his boy was preparing to play for Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The son runs hard as a rugged running back on the football field, but the old man literally tried to run away from his problems, not the kind of thing a kid wants to dwell on after millions have watched his tear-filled, voice-cracking acceptance speech.
"I'm sure he's excited and proud of me," the younger Ingram said in his hour of glory. "But I've got to keep moving ahead to other things -- the national championship game coming up, our season next year. I've always got to get better."
Has he talked to his father, the former Super Bowl hero for the New York Giants, during this week of honors and celebrations? "Two nights ago," he said. "He told me to enjoy it, have fun, live in the moment."
Finally, after thanking everyone imaginable in his family and at Alabama, Ingram got around to what his father meant to him -- when he was around, that is. "Ever since I was a little boy, playing basketball, he would knock me down. He'd block my shot and wouldn't let me win," he said. "We'd race, and he'd let me catch up to him, and he'd take off. He never let me win. He was tough on me as far as grades go, and he wouldn't ever let me get into trouble. Everything I've done, it's a credit to him."
That said, Mark Jr. isn't bringing the Heisman to him, even if they were only a 30-minute ride apart. "We have a beautiful facility at Alabama," he said. "I'm sure it'll be on the trophy case along with all those national championships."
In the closest and most captivating Heisman vote ever, the right player won. Ingram is the most integral figure on what decidedly is the best team in America, at least at the moment. The success of a team must be a major part of the Heisman formula, and while Stanford's Toby Gerhart had better numbers than Ingram, his team finished 8-4 and is playing in the Sun Bowl. Alabama is 13-0 and playing Texas for the national championship. Plus, Ingram was at his best in big games, including Alabama's victory over Florida in the SEC championship game, when he ignored a hip pointer to score three touchdowns and control the clock with his running, receiving and game-changing plays. You could have made a good case for Ingram, Gerhart or Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, but the best case was for a player who could be most responsible for a national title.
And whose selflessness was a revelation.
"This is a special moment, but we still have a national championship to play for. Some people, when they have success, they let it get to their head. Not me."
-- Mark Ingram "This is a special moment, but we still have a national championship to play for. Some people, when they have success, they let it get to their head. Not me," said Ingram, who beat Gerhart by only 28 points. "My main focus is to prepare for a national championship game. If we go out [to Pasadena] and have a great game and win, that will mean a lot more to me. This is a team award, anyway. My teammates and coaches have as much to do with it as I do. My goal is to win the national championship. It will mean a lot more to accomplish that."
Tim Tebow knows that feeling. His statistics, coupled with Florida's loss to Alabama, knocked him out of the Heisman race, but he contributed to Ingram's victory by settling him down before the one-hour TV program. "I had a hunch he might win, so I talked to him about it," Tebow said. "I had the opportunity to offer him words of encouragement. He was nervous, shaking back and forth, and that's OK. We prayed beforehand. I'm proud of him. He's a great kid who's gonna have a great career."
And to think Ingram wasn't even sure four months ago if he would be the featured back for the Crimson Tide. It's some breakthrough for a product of Flint, Mich., a bedraggled town of high unemployment and low hopes. "I'm surprised by all of this, I really am. This is a dream come true," Ingram said. "Words can't express it until you experience it. I hope this shows all the kids -- set your goals high, and there's no limit to what you can achieve. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it. Don't let anyone get in the way."