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December 11, 2009

Column: Heisman Times They Are A-Changin

NEW YORK _ The collection of writers and critics surrounding him was nearly as surreal as the spacious suite itself. Located on the 44th floor of the Marriott Marquis in the heart of Times Square, University of Alabama sophomore running back Mark Ingram was a little wide-eyed but otherwise at ease as the various parts of his life were all represented on the eve of the Heisman Trophy announcement.

There was the television reporter from his hometown of Flint, Mich., who interviewed Ingram the day he signed with the Crimson Tide and recalled the prospect predicting he could someday win the Heisman Trophy at Alabama.

"I don't remember that," Ingram said.

There were others from Austin, Texas, who will get to know him better at next month's BCS Championship Game in Pasadena, asking what Ingram thought of Texas quarterback Colt McCoy.

"Down to earth," he said.

Among the New York and national correspondents, more than one inquired about Ingram's father, who is waiting to be sentenced for bank fraud and money laundering charges at the nearby Queens Private Correctional Facility, where the son probably won't get a chance to visit on this trip.

"He's proud of me, he's excited," Ingram said. "He told me to enjoy the moment. Enjoy the time.

"He's sharing it with me, he's there in spirit. I love him to death and he loves me too. He's there in my heart and that's all that matters."

It's been a whirlwind couple of days for Ingram, who along with the other four Heisman finalists woke up in Orlando after participating in Thursday's Home Depot ESPNU College Football Awards Show and reconvened in the Big Apple. They signed autographs, got to know each other a little while being shuttled around and occasionally heard someone yell "Hey look, that's Tim Tebow!" regarding the well-known Florida quarterback in their ranks.

It would have been fitting if they had also run into a Bob Dylan impersonator singing: "The Times They Are A-Changin.'

This wasn't supposed to happen. Not for Ingram, not for Alabama which has never had anyone finish better than third in 74 years of Heisman voting. Yet here he was in elite company Friday, with most of those along for the ride believing the Tide's epic shutout is about to end.

"I think it's a coin toss and some people think I'm going to win, some people think ... it's going to be real close race all five are deserving," Ingram said. "I'm going to support whoever wins.

"Whatever happens, happens."

Although Ingram is considered the favorite, this year's Heisman vote will be remembered for one other thing in particular, timing, and how one day forever changed the way the award will be decided.

That day, of course, was last Saturday, Dec. 5, when Alabama squashed Tebow's bid while simultaneously reestablishing Ingram's thanks to his 189-yard, three-touchdown performance in the SEC Championship Game.

Something similar occurred in the Big 12 title game, where McCoy's frontrunner status sank like stone under nine sacks and Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh suddenly became the hot candidate.

In years past, those performances probably wouldn't have heavily influenced the Heisman voting, which traditionally begins in mid-November with many ballots submitted early. However, this season marked the first time the entire process was done exclusively online and with the race so close the vast majority waited until the last day to make a decision.

That's why when asked who he thought would win Stanford running back Toby Gerhart paused and then respectively said, "Probably Ingram. He has a lot of momentum from the SEC Championship Game."

Gerhart's own Heisman bid was greatly aided by timing too. He didn't emerge as a serious contender until the last month, with the whispers first being heard after his 178 rushing yards and three touchdowns at Southern California on Nov. 14.

The senior believed he was out of the running after the subsequent 34-28 loss to Cal, but made a lasting impression, 29 carries for 205 yards and three more touchdowns against Notre Dame in Charlie Weis' finale.

"If I had a vote? Toby's great last game was incredible," Suh said. "To watch him run through people, especially on that winning drive, that's crazy.

"I would have loved to have played against him."

Suh's game against McCoy last week was also on his mind Friday, especially the final play when he was pressuring and the quarterback nearly threw away Texas' shot at the national title. Suh has to live with the unbelievable thought that had he been a little slower McCoy might not have discarded the ball in time.

"I'm not necessarily beating myself up, I just wish it would have happened in a different way," Suh said. "He was watching the clock and that's what we were talking about on the bus, he had to throw it away and get it out of his hands in fast-enough time and that's what he did and had a chance to kick a field goal to win."

When Ingram was asked about Suh, he gave him the Crimson Tide's uber compliment for an outstanding defensive player this season, "beast."

Then the questions continued, covering everything from what he'll wear (he's going all out to dress up) and if he wrote a speech (no), to which Heisman Trophy winners he wants to meet.

"All of them," he said.

Saturday, Ingram may incredibly become one of them.


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