NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Mark Ingram insists his march into Saints history was never fueled by criticism that he was a bust during his underwhelming first few NFL seasons.
That doesn’t mean the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner with Alabama, and 2011 first-round draft choice by New Orleans, was able to tune out such slights entirely.
“I know people wanted me out, calling me a bust, this and that. I heard all that stuff my first few years, but I never really paid attention to the naysayers,” Ingram said Monday after tying Deuce McAlister for the most rushing touchdowns in Saints history with 49.
“I always do it for the people who love me, for the people who care about me, for the people who believe in me,” added Ingram, whose father, Mark Sr., was an NFL receiver. “I have a great support system. I have a good mind, good head on my shoulders and I’ve always had that belief in myself that I could be a great player in this league.”
Ingram’s record-tying touchdown embodied the determination that carried him beyond the lean early years. He dragged Buccaneers safety Andrew Adams several yards before bowling into the end zone, giving New Orleans a more comfortable 11-point, fourth-quarter lead in its NFC South-clinching, 28-14 comeback victory in Tampa Bay on Sunday.
“I was hungry to make the play,” Ingram said, crediting leading receiver Michael Thomas for a key block. “It was a big play in the game, and it was just a lot of emotions in that game having to come back, very gritty. So, very passionate and I was happy to be able to make that play for the team.”
Ingram said he also was pleased to join McAllister — whom he admires and considers a mentor — in the record books with a memorable run.
“That was a good run to be able to tie Deuce,” Ingram said. “He had such a great career here and set the standard for running backs coming through New Orleans. He’s always been supportive of me and I appreciate him, so just to be able to have a run in that fashion to tie such a great record in this franchise, it’s good.”
McAllister retired after the 2008 season, but remained in the New Orleans area and close to the Saints, working as a team ambassador and eventually becoming a radio analyst.
Ingram said McAllister always has been “encouraging” and “supportive,” describing how McAllister sometimes attends running back video sessions and shares his thoughts. “Or if he sees something in a game, he might send me a message.”
“It has just been a good relationship over the years and I appreciate him,” Ingram continued. “I’m thankful for his mentorship and he’s been a good asset to my career.”
While Ingram showed promise as a rookie, he missed six games with injuries and was a bit of an afterthought on a record-setting offense that featured quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham, receiver Marcus Colston, and running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.
Ingram rushed for 602 yards and five TDs in 16 games in 2012, then managed just 386 yards and one TD in 11 games for what was a playoff team in 2013.
The overwhelming majority of his pro production has come since 2014, when he rushed for 964 yards and nine TDs in 13 games and was named to his first of two Pro Bowls. He has surpassed 1,000 yards each of the previous two seasons and had a career-high 12 TDs last season, despite splitting carries with Alvin Kamara.
A four-game suspension, tied to a positive test for a banned substance, likely will prevent him from hitting 1,000 yards this season — his final campaign under contract. But he has averaged 4.7 yards per carry and has rushed for 519 yards and five TDs in nine games.
“He’s run with confidence,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “His health has been outstanding really the last year and a half, two years. I thought the (touchdown) run (Sunday) was impressive and he’s been real consistent. That’s pretty good company when you look at what Deuce accomplished.”
Meanwhile, Ingram has established himself as a team-first, locker-room leader, most notably for how he’s gone out of his way to hasten Kamara’s development and celebrate his success, becoming close friends with the young running back in the process.
“If I’m bringing younger players along, making them better, teaching them and helping them and encouraging them, it makes the team better, and it makes the competition stronger, which makes me better,” Ingram said.
Ingram said if any younger players approach him for help, “I’m going to tell them what I think, what I see, what I would do. And try and encourage them and help them anyway I can just because that’s just like what a good person would do in my eyes. I would never shun somebody just because I feel threatened. I’m going to compete. I’m going to work my butt off. I have confidence in my abilities no matter what.”