- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- After winning the closest Heisman Trophy race in the 75-year history of the award on Saturday night, Alabama running back Mark Ingram walked to the dais at Nokia Theatre in Times Square and was overcome with emotion.
Maybe it was the relief or sheer joy of becoming Alabama's first Heisman Trophy winner. Alabama has long been one of college football's most tradition-rich programs, but never before had one of its players won the sport's most coveted individual honor.
"When he started reading that letter, my heart started beating," said Ingram, who edged Stanford running back Toby Gerhart by 28 points and five first-place votes. "I could just feel it beating real fast. When they called my name out, I was excited and then I saw my mom crying, and it kind of made me break down, too. It was just a real special moment for me that I'll cherish for the rest of my life."
Across the East River, Ingram's father had to be overcome with pride and joy, too. Mark Ingram Sr., a former star wide receiver for Michigan State and the NFL's New York Giants, is being held at the Queens Private Correctional Facility on charges of failure to surrender, which will be added to the 92-month prison sentence he already faced for money laundering and bank fraud.
After regaining his composure Saturday night, Mark Ingram thanked his family for their support, including his troubled father.
"I'd like to thank my family, my mother and grandparents, who are sitting right there," Ingram said. "My father, who has been a great influence on my life, and I love him to death."
Several minutes after Ingram was named the Heisman Trophy winner, Mark Ingram Sr. called his wife from prison.
"He just called me and he's excited and proud, too," Shonda Ingram said. "He was asking, 'Where was Mark?'"
Mark Ingram said he last talked to his father two days ago. Shonda Ingram said she wasn't sure if Ingram would get to see his father before returning to Tuscaloosa, Ala., in a couple of days.
Nearly one year ago, U.S. marshals captured Ingram's father in a hotel room in Flint, Mich. Ingram had been on the run after failing to report to a federal prison in Ashland, Ky., on Dec. 5, 2008. Ingram had asked a judge to delay his sentence so he could watch his son play against Utah in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2008 season. Marshals captured Ingram on Jan. 2, just minutes before the Crimson Tide played the Utes in New Orleans.
"I can believe that he did it," Shonda Ingram said of her husband's flight from authorities. "He would do anything for his kids. If that was his last thing, if he could see that game, I understand why he did it."
Mark Ingram Sr. still calls his son two or three times a week. The elder Ingram is able to watch many of the Crimson Tide's games on TV in prison and calls his son to offer advice, according to Ingram's maternal grandfather, Arthur Johnson.
"Mark is a good person and is an outstanding individual," said Johnson, who also played football at Michigan State. "He doesn't belong where he's at. I can tell you that because I know him as a person. He's a beautiful person. He'll give you anything you want and if you ask him, he'll do it. He just made a wrong turn once and wrong turns can get you in trouble."
If nothing else, Mark Ingram Sr. made sure his son steered clear of the pitfalls that sent his life spiraling. Ingram has been reluctant to talk about his father this season. Mark Ingram Sr. has denied requests for interviews, not wanting to distract his son during No. 1 Alabama's run to the Jan. 7 Citi BCS National Championship Game.
"His dad has always been a part of his life since he was a baby," Shonda Ingram said. "He instilled all those things in him and worked on a lot of things. He is an important piece of him and that's a part of him -- his dad."
But as Ingram stood in front of reporters after winning the tightest Heisman Trophy vote in history, he openly talked about what his father means to him.
His dad has always been a part of his life since he was a baby. He instilled all those things in him and worked on a lot of things. He is an important piece of him and that's a part of him -- his dad.
-- Shonda Ingram
"Ever since I was little boy, I just remember playing basketball," Ingram said. "He'd knock me down or block a shot and wouldn't let me win. We'd go on a race, and I'd catch up to him and he'd take off and win. He'd be tough on me as far as my grades go or not letting me go out all the time and get in trouble. Everything he did for me helped me develop into the man I am today and the competitor I am on and off the field."
Ingram didn't start the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate. He wasn't even Alabama's featured running back last season, when the Crimson Tide rose to No. 1 in the country before losing to Florida in the SEC championship game.
The 2009 season started with the Heisman spotlight on three quarterbacks: Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, the reigning winner; Florida's Tim Tebow, who was the first sophomore to win the award in 2007; and Texas' Colt McCoy, who lost a narrow race to Bradford last year.
But then Bradford injured his shoulder in the Sooners' opening game of the season and was shelved for good after six games. With new receivers and a porous offensive line, Tebow never regained his form from last season, when he led the Gators to their second BCS national title in three seasons.
McCoy seemed to have the best chance at winning the Heisman Trophy, before he was sacked nine times and threw three interceptions in last week's 13-12 win over Nebraska in the Big 12 championship game.
Almost quietly, Ingram put together one of the best seasons by a running back in SEC history, setting an Alabama single-season record with 1,542 yards and 15 touchdowns. He ran for 113 yards with three touchdowns in last week's 32-13 victory over No. 1 Florida in the SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, a performance that undoubtedly helped him overcome a 30-yard effort in a 26-21 win over rival Auburn the week before.
It was enough for Ingram to do what legendary Alabama players like Bart Starr, Joe Namath and Kenny Stabler couldn't do -- win the Heisman Trophy.
"The legacy of Alabama football certainly has a void filled," Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said.
Now Ingram will try to do what several Heisman Trophy winners before him didn't do: lead their teams to national championships. Alabama plays No. 2 Texas in the BCS National Championship Game in 26 days. Ingram will become the eighth Heisman Trophy winner in the last decade to play for a national title. Of the previous seven, only former Southern California quarterback Matt Leinart, the 2004 winner, led his team to victory.
"It doesn't phase me at all," Ingram said. "Some people, when they have success, they let it get to their heads. But when I get back to practice on Friday, my main focus is going to be the national championship game. I'm going to help my team do whatever we can to get ready for this. My team is looking forward to it and I'm looking forward to it."
Nothing seems to faze Ingram much, not even losing his father to prison.
"It's been hard because he missed him," Shonda Ingram said. "But we just pretty much move forward because we're still here and we have to keep going every day. Even though he's not here, you still keep moving forward. I often hear Mark say, 'It is what it is and we're still here so we have to keep moving forward with our plans and our goals.'"
Ingram achieved college football's greatest individual honor Saturday, but an even bigger goal still awaits the Crimson Tide.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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