By Childs Walker/The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
BALTIMORE — Talk to Mark Ingram II during the week and you would never guess that underneath the ready smile and soft-spoken reflections on family and team, he’s nurturing a monster who’ll burst forth Sunday morning.
The NFL is full of men who charm you Wednesday and flip a switch to become purveyors of violence for a few hours every weekend. But that contrast is as pronounced in Ingram as any player on the Ravens.
“I’m just kind of calm, down to earth, like to laugh,” the former University of Alabama Heisman winner said, chatting recently outside the Ravens’ locker room in a gray sweatshirt that read “Heisman” across the chest. “On Sunday, I’m a different person — angry and doing everything I can to help us win. I think that’s kind of an accurate description.”
In one guise, he’s a travel buff who delighted in showing off pictures of his honeymoon to the Maldives. In the other, he’s a human jackhammer who lowered his shoulder to flatten a Miami Dolphins defender as he rambled 49 yards on his first carry as a Raven.
“His personality off the field is completely different than his personality on the field,” Ravens right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “That’s how it should be, man.”
Ingram has given the Ravens everything they bargained for in both respects, averaging 5.0 yards per carry and scoring six touchdowns in five games while serving as the big brother to a running back room that also includes second-year bruiser Gus Edwards and rookie speed merchant Justice Hill. In New Orleans, where Ingram played eight seasons with the Saints, quarterback Drew Brees said there was no player he more looked forward to seeing every day. And Ingram has carried that familial vibe to Baltimore.
“That guy he is on the field, when he’s running angry, off the field, he’s just like a little kid,” said wide receiver Willie Snead IV, who has played with Ingram in both locales. “He’s always having fun, wants to be around the guys, wants to liven up the mood. He’s been that way since I first got to New Orleans. … If there’s a bad mood, he’s going to make it a lot better situation.”
That might mean taking the other running backs out to dinner every Thursday night or bringing in his wife’s breakfast casseroles every Saturday morning. He’s also trying to put down community roots; on Monday evening, for example, he’ll cohost a forum on policing in Baltimore with former Raven Anquan Boldin.
If you want to gauge a runner, talk to his blockers. They become connoisseurs of the art, even if they don’t practice it, and they reserve special appreciation for backs who don’t waste the holes and creases they bestow.
The 5-foot-9, 210-pound Ingram is an offensive lineman’s running back.
“Blocking for him is really special,” Brown said. “It’s just a different feel when he runs and breaks through the line of scrimmage. I feel him hitting the hole, and he’s always going to break the arm tackles. He’s always going to make the first guy miss. He’s going to run hard, and he’s so crafty at what he does.”
Ingram has averaged 4.6 yards per carry for his career, third best among active running backs, because he’s both cerebral and a Tasmanian devil once it’s time to take on would-be tacklers.
“I prefer to make them miss or run away from them,” he said, explaining his style. “That’s my priority. But sometimes, running in between the tackles, it’s inevitable to have contact and have to run through somebody. … If I have to juke somebody, that’s what it is. If I have to run away from somebody, that’s what it is. If I have to run through somebody, then that’s what it is.”
At first glance, Ingram’s biography appears seamless: son of an NFL standout turned Heisman Trophy winner turned first-round draft pick turned enduring professional success with a fitness model wife and three (soon to be four) children.
But dig into the crevices and you’ll find that Ingram’s rise from Flint, Mich., was sometimes as bruising as the runs on which he breaks two or three tackles.
Flint has occupied a difficult place in national headlines, as a target of massive General Motors layoffs and more recently as the site of a water crisis that led to criminal indictments and the declaration of a federal state of emergency.
To Ingram, however, it’s the tough and nurturing city that made him both harder and softer.
“It just means coming from a place where people have a lot of pride, in their city and themselves, a blue-collar city with hard-working people, tough people who don’t give up,” he said. “I love where I’m from. That’s where my mother and father grew up, where all my family’s at. It really built me.”
Ingram grew up as Flint football royalty. His maternal grandfather, Art Johnson, starred at Michigan State and the Canadian Football League. His father, Mark Sr., played quarterback on a Flint Northwestern High School team that also featured Andre Rison and grew into a first-round NFL pick out of Michigan State. He made one of the greatest plays in New York Giants history when he broke five tackles to convert on a crucial third down in Super Bowl XXV.
Despite those antecedents, Ingram said he did not feel self-conscious when he started toting the football in youth-league games around Flint. He loved almost every sport and, in fact, considered golf his best going into high school.
“The good thing about my father was that he always told me, ‘You don’t have to worry about living up to me, living up to my expectations,’ ” he recalled. “My dad was just dad to me.”
Ingram played at Grand Blanc High School for three years before transferring to Flint Southwestern for his senior season. There, he ran for 1,699 yards and 24 touchdowns while picking off eight passes on the other side of the ball.
Michigan State fans assumed he’d follow the family trail to East Lansing. But the Ingrams also felt a strong attachment to a famous coach who’d once spent his time nagging Mark Sr. to go to class. Nick Saban was an assistant on the Michigan State staff in those years, but by the time the younger Ingram emerged as a top recruit, he was at Alabama, trying to rebuild a once-proud dynasty.
“I committed to rebuilding and believing,” Ingram said. “I couldn’t get Alabama out of my mind. I was thinking about Iowa, thinking about Michigan State. But then my dad was like, ‘You need to go to Alabama and play for Saban.’ ”
The Crimson Tide had gone 7-6 in Saban’s first season, so he was asking star recruits to come in near the ground floor of an eventual skyscraper. He sat in the Ingrams’ living room and said that with the arriving talent, Alabama could be great in 2008 and win the national championship in 2009. Prophetic words.
But Ingram, who broke the single-season Alabama rushing record set by the father of current Ravens teammate Marlon Humphrey, also dealt with unwanted attention as Mark Sr. went to federal prison on a seven-year, eight-month sentence for fraud and money laundering. He invited a longer sentence when he failed to report for incarceration, in part so he could watch his son finish out his freshman season at Alabama. Authorities caught up with him in a Flint hotel room, a few hours before he could watch the 2009 Sugar Bowl.
“When I was young, it was tough, just knowing that your father is in trouble, seeing it on the news and stuff like that,” Ingram said.
But he never disavowed his father, whom he refers to as his best friend (and a proud, engaged grandfather) to this day. At the same time, he leaned on the strength of his mother, Shonda, and her parents.
“They took up a lot of that slack,” he said. “My dad did a great job, too. He’d call me and say, ‘Listen, don’t let what I’m going through affect you negatively. You’ve got to be there for your sisters, be there for your mom.’ I think his troubles, him being gone early, helped me grow up faster. … But my mom is a warrior. She’s so strong mentally, physically, emotionally. To have four kids and basically start from scratch working two jobs, people don’t know that side.”
Shonda Ingram earned her master’s degree in social work at the same time her son earned his high school diploma. Now, she has his Heisman Trophy on display in her home.
Not even Saban predicted the baby-faced bowling ball he recruited from Michigan would win college football’s most prestigious award as a sophomore. But that’s exactly what Ingram did, rushing for 1,678 yards to lead the Crimson Tide to a 14-0 record. He became the first Heisman winner in Alabama’s decorated history.
That glory did not carry into his early years as a pro. Ingram started just 12 games and carried just 356 times over his first three seasons in New Orleans. If he wasn’t exactly another Heisman bust, he was at least a frustrated young player.
“I just felt like people held me to a higher standard, which they should,” he said, reflecting on the pressures he faced. “Everything wasn’t always perfect, but my life never was always perfect. Just being resilient, being able to fight and always believe in myself, I think that helped me overcome the obstacles and those doubts people had about me.”
He got there in time, growing into one of the best all-around backs in the league and becoming that figure Brees described as the “heart and soul” of the Saints’ locker room.
Ingram now looks at those early New Orleans years as a “blessing in disguise” because of the tread he didn’t rub from his tires. He’ll turn 30 four days before Christmas, an age at which many star backs are already retired. But he feels and runs like a younger man.
The Ravens bet as much when they signed him to a three-year, $15 million contract in the offseason.
Ingram feels running backs are taken for granted in the modern game, that the physical and emotional spark they provide is overlooked as passes fill the air at ever greater rates.
He takes solace, however, when he hears his new teammates describe how much he means to them.
“I don’t aim for that,” he said. “But when people say things like that about me, that’s what matters the most, that my brothers and my peers think highly of me and know what they’re going to get from me. I don’t try to be a crazy leader. I just try to treat people how I want to be treated. I’m not trying to be anything other than myself.”