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Persistence serves Ingram on and off the field

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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NEW YORK

Times Square is a chaotic mess in December. Amidst old standbys like the tree at Rockefeller Center and a glistening Empire State Building, there are hordes of strangers, unknowns, and the feeling that at any given moment, something truly magical could happen. At Saturday night's 75th Heisman presentation in Times Square's Nokia Theater, that very feeling — the wonder of the unknown — was in the air.

And in the most wide open, perhaps most peculiar Heisman race in recent memory — Alabama sophomore Mark Ingram, the first Alabama Heisman winner in the award's 75-year history, took home college football's most prestigious piece of hardware.

Amidst the two old Heisman standbys — senior quarterbacks Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy — it was Alabama's Ingram, the first sophomore running back to win the award and a preseason longshot candidate, hoisting the trophy. Ingram edged out Stanford running back Toby Gerhart for first place by just 28 points in what ended up being the closest Heisman race ever.

R.J. Bell of Vegas Web site Pregame.com listed 23 Division I players as Heisman candidates on Sept. 1. Ingram was not one of them. Gerhart, with +6500 odds, was the 22nd player on the board.

Once upon a time, a guy couldn't win this award had he not been on the cover of a magazine or donned a "Heisman hopeful" label in the summer months. My, how times have changed. With the advent of Twitter, Facebook and around-the-clock sports news shows and bottom-line tickers, the Heisman has evolved from a secretive, restricted race of big-program seniors into a wide-open, always changing, fluid beast. A player like Ingram or Stanford's Gerhart — two relative unknowns outside of their fan bases a few months ago — can now finish 1-2 in the voting, regardless of how many magazine covers they posed for in early July or how many games they played on ABC in prime time on Saturday nights.

'"This was the first Heisman race where online information networks played a huge role," said HeismanPundit.com publisher Chris Huston. "Voters have never had better access to information and stats about players and it resulted in a very tight race as a result. Every play or miscue was dissected and spread around, influencing the outcome. A lot of the old Heisman rules probably won't apply much longer."

You used to need a big junior season, a massive summer of preseason hype and a spectacular senior campaign to win a Heisman Trophy. Ingram started a grand total of zero games in '08, wasn't the surefire starting running back heading into spring practices in '09, and slid under a giant shadow cast by the massive spotlight on sophomore receiver Julio Jones this past summer.

But it was Ingram, a player who didn't crack 800 yards a year ago, who carried top-ranked Alabama's offense on his back in '09.

The sophomore ran for 1,542 yards — an Alabama single-season rushing record — and picked up an unheard of 1,002 of those yards after contact. Ingram saved his best performances for when it mattered most. The Flint, Mich., native averaged 165 yards per game against Alabama's five top-25 ranked opponents in '09 and averaged 201.1 total yards in those games.

With an entire nation watching and a BCS title game berth on the line versus Florida in the SEC championship game last weekend, Ingram rushed for 113 yards, caught two passes for a career-best 76 yards, and scored a career-high three touchdowns against the nation's No. 1-ranked defense.

Naturally, he racked up 94 yards after contact.

For those familiar with Ingram's story, it's no surprise that he's at his best after initially being knocked down. His personal path to Saturday night's Heisman ceremony has been marked by overcoming adversity and turning potential devastating setbacks into positive gains.

A few miles away from Times Square's Nokia Theater is the Queens Private Correctional facility, where Mark's father, Mark Ingram Sr., has been held for almost a year. Ingram Sr. shares a TV remote with fellow inmates on Saturdays — watching his son when he can — as he waits to serve a sentence in a federal prison after being charged with bank fraud, money laundering and jumping bail.

A former Super Bowl champion with the New York Giants, the elder Ingram has remained silent for much of his son's Heisman campaign, refusing to grant interviews. He gave his first one last Friday.

"He has to be his own person, his own man," the elder Ingram told CBS. "Take and learn from the mistakes I made."

Ingram Jr., known as "Little Mark" to those in his inner circle, speaks to his father a few times a week. He is a Dean's List student and will be graduating Alabama early next spring. He credits his father for making him tough enough — physically, mentally, and emotionally — to overcome any and all obstacles. "Ever since I was a little boy, he'd block my shot when we'd play basketball one on one in the driveway. He'd beat me when we raced. He'd never let me win. Never. He'd keep me in at night instead of going out and getting in trouble. All of that has contributed to me being the man I am today."

"My father has been a great influence on my life and I love him to death," Ingram said Saturday night.

"I'm sure he's excited. He's proud of me. But like I've said, we've got to move on and we've got to improve and we've got to get better. We're not done. Our goal is the national championship."

Classic Ingram. Address one issue, conquer it and move on to the next. Yards after contact.

Only one other running back, USC's Reggie Bush in 2005, has won the Heisman Trophy this decade. The closest an Alabama player had finished in Heisman voting prior to Ingram was third. That's where receiver David Palmer finished in 1993. No Alabama player had been a finalist for the award since quarterback Jay Barker finished fourth in 1994.

Perhaps making Ingram's Heisman win even more unique, though, is the fact that he's the only Northerner on the entire 'Bama roster. When asked about that earlier this week, Taylor Watson, a longtime Crimson Tide historian and curator of the Paul "Bear" Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa, told the Birmingham News, "It's going to be a Yankee," he said. "That's kind of funny. But God bless him. He's a good kid."

Along with Texas's Colt McCoy and Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow started 2009 as one of three preseason favorites for the award. Tebow's Gators opened the season ranked No.1 overall and he graced the covers of both Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine in July. There was also a three-page feature on him in GQ.

Having won the Heisman in 2007 as a sophomore and finishing in third place a year ago, Tebow became the first player in the event's televised history to be invited to New York City three times. The well-decorated senior saw Ingram's ability first-hand in that fateful SEC championship game a week ago.

"He's a real dude. He's a player," Tebow said of Ingram on Saturday night.

"That SEC championship game," Tebow added, "I think it capped it off for a lot of people who were in doubt because he had a great game. He managed the offense and he managed the clock. And not just the yards, but the way he gets them — those slow first downs that just irritate the other team 'cause you can't get back on the field."

Everybody's All-American then let his guard down a bit and let out a laugh. "A freakin' nine-minute drive at the end of the game when we couldn't get back on the field? Those things are the most frustrating for the other team."

Slide under the radar without much fanfare, grind it out, and pick up big gains after initially being knocked down.

It's been Mark Ingram's style all season.

It's been Mark Ingram's style his entire life.

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