Wearing a white shirt and tie with hints of green, Mark Ingram looked like any other high school senior on signing day.
There was a row of hats lined up on the table at Flint (Mich.) Southwestern High School, cameras and microphones recording his every move. The green cap with the Michigan State logo was third in the line of four.
Looking down at the hat representing the school where his father and grandfather played, Ingram looked back and smiled one last time at his family before reaching down.
But the hat he grabbed was crimson, and the name on the front was Alabama.
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Nearly three years after making the decision, video of that press conference still exists online. What came after that made history in Tuscaloosa.
A Heisman Trophy.
A national title.
Back in East Lansing, Mich., Mark Dantonio is left to wonder what could have been.
“I thought Mark Ingram was coming to Michigan State,” Dantonio said Sunday. “That’s what I remember from it.”
“He’s an outstanding football player. He runs with great power. He’s very explosive and can’t say enough about him as a person. I like him a lot as a person and we recruited him very, very hard. At the same time, I’m very happy for him that he was able to accomplish the goals that he’s set for himself. And he’s certainly deserving of those things. He’s an outstanding football player.”
Jan. 1, he will see Ingram in person again when the No. 7 Spartans (11-1) play Alabama in the Capital One Bowl.
Before he left that Michigan State cap on the table, the Spartans were thought to be a front-runner for Ingram’s services.
Alabama, in fact, was late to the party recruiting the bulky running back. Ingram previously said he didn’t even hear from the Crimson Tide until he completed his senior season. But, in the end, he went south. And when asked who his second choice was, Ingram told reporters that Iowa was his runner-up -- not Michigan State.
It was the bond he made with fellow recruits Robby Green and Damion Square and his recruiting host Luther Davis that helped sway his decision.
“(Nick Saban) wants players who want their education, want to win championships,” the high school senior said back in 2008. “We’re going to try to win some SEC championships and some national championships -- bring it home to Tuscaloosa. They have one of the best traditions in college football. They have 12 national championships and 21 SEC championships. That’s both NCAA records. So, you know, we’re trying to get No. 13 down there.”
When he signed, Ingram wasn’t even the jewel of Saban’s second recruiting class at Alabama. Scout.com gave him three stars out of a possible five and ranked him the 58th-best running back nationally, while Rivals.com gave him four stars. Julio Jones was the name that helped launch the Tide to the top of the recruiting rankings, but Ingram certainly stood out.
Tennessee was the farthest north any Alabama signee came from that February, so Ingram’s Michigan roots broke the mold.
Though he hasn’t been made available for interviews since the bowl pairings were made official Sunday, Ingram was quoted in the school’s news release announcing the game.
“It is going to be exciting for us to go to Orlando and play in a New Year’s Day bowl game,” Ingram said in the release. “I grew up a Michigan State fan, so it will be very exciting for me and my family just to go out, play in the game and for them to watch it. But they are the other team now.”
A lot has changed in Ingram’s life since making his college decision Feb. 5, 2008. Sitting behind him that day was his father, Mark, and grandfather, Art Johnson. Mark Ingram Sr. is in federal prison, where he will remain until 2014, for bank fraud, money laundering and skipping bail. Johnson died in August.
The video of his signing-day news conference remains. And that smile Ingram flashed more than once has yet to fade.
Dantonio just wishes he came to East Lansing instead of Tuscaloosa.