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December 12, 2009

Heisman!!!

NEW YORK _ It was more than a moment of a lifetime and one many thought they'd never see.

By University of Alabama football standards it was 117 years in the making, since the first team was organized in 1892. For the Heisman Trophy it was a long overdue addition with a Crimson Tide player having never been honored in the 74-year history of the award.

That is until Saturday night, when sophomore running back Mark Ingram heard his name called and then couldn't contain the emotions after seeing the tears flood out of his mother's eyes.

"I'm a little overwhelmed right now," he finally said after reaching the stage of the Nokia Theater, where other members of the Heisman fraternity awaited the newest member. "I'm just so excited to bring Alabama their first Heisman winner."

While the roars were heard throughout theater, and back in both Alabama and his hometown of Flint, Mich., Ingram proceeded to thank everyone he could think of, from his coaches and teammates down to the support staff and teachers. The seemingly impossible had happened and he wasn't going to miss anyone.

"I'm very excited," he said.

Adding to the drama was that the vote turned out to be the closest in Heisman history, with Ingram topping Stanford running back Toby Gerhart by just 28 points.

Previously, the narrowest margin was 1985, when only 45 points separated Auburn running back Bo Jackson from the runner-up Chuck Long of Iowa, which was also the last time a Southeastern Conference running back won.

With the Heisman using a 3-2-1 point system, with a first-place vote worth three votes, second two and third one, Ingram finished with 1,304 points, which just edged Gerhart's 1,276, Texas quarterback Colt McCoy's 1,145, and Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh's 815 (the most points ever for a fourth-place finisher).

Ingram had the most first-place votes, 227 compared to Gerhart's 222, and won every region except the West (Gerhart) and Southwest (Suh), where he was third in both. He topped the South with 254 points compared to McCoy's 176 and Gerhart's 165.

With all ballots submitted solely online for the first time and the race obviously close, nearly all voters waited until the last minute to cast their ballots. Of the 904 tabulated (out of a possible 926) 89 percent weren't submitted until the final few days, after Ingram had 189 total yards and three touchdowns against Florida in the SEC Championship Game.

"I realized that game he's a real dude," said Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, the 2007 winner who finished a distant fifth with just 390 points.

"I was pretty sure I wasn't going to win it, I'm a realist."

That sentiment appeared to be felt by the other finalists as well, with Gerhart going so far as to have his photo taken of his reaching for the trophy and it just out of his grasp.

"It's just an honor to be here," he said. "No disappointment, no hard feelings."

Ingram tallied 1,542 rushing yards to set the Alabama single-season record, and 1,864 all-purpose yards while scoring 18 touchdowns. He had eight 100-yard games, including a season-high and Bryant-Denny Stadium record 246 yards against No. 22 South Carolina on Oct. 17.

That game, when he handled the ball on every play during the Tide's game-clinching drive, and Florida proved to be his signature moments. Also standing out to voters were his one career lost fumble, 1,002 yards after contact (53.7 percent), and 825 rushing yards and six touchdowns in Alabama's five games against Top 25 teams, averaging 165 yards per game against Virginia Tech, Mississippi, South Carolina, LSU and Florida. In those same games, he averaged 201.1 all-purpose yards.

Previously, David Palmer had the Tide's best Heisman finish, third in 1993. The following year Jay Barker placed fifth, the last time Alabama had a finalist invited to New York. Like every year, the school didn't have to worry about where it would display the trophy.

"I haven't even thought about that," Director of Athletics Mal Moore said. "I'm just so proud."

Overall, 16 Tide players had placed in the top 10 since the award's inception in 1935, with Lee Roy Jordan (1962) and Johnny Musso (1971) both finishing fourth, and Joe Kilgrow (1937), Harry Gilmer (1945 and 1947), Pat Trammell (1961), Terry Davis (1971) and Barker (1994) all fifth.
Until now it had been a point of pride that Alabama had won 12 national titles without a Heisman.

"You know I really wasn't aware until Mark was in the thick of all this that that was really the case," said Coach Nick Saban, who never had a Heisman finalist before. "You don't really think about things like that. It made this an ever greater opportunity from a big-picture standpoint."

"He had everything to do with it," Ingram said about Saban.

Although Ingram was named the 2009 SEC Offensive Player of the Year and an All-American last week, he had otherwise been shut out of postseason honors. He was a finalist for the Maxwell Trophy and the Walter Camp player of the year awards, and the Doak Walker Award for running back of the year.

But at the Marriott Marquis where he met the media after the announcement, a pennant had been hung to represent each winner ranging from Chicago to Oklahoma. He hung Alabama's first and following Monday's formal ceremony will bring the trophy back to Tuscaloosa.

"It's going to be crazy," he said.


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