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In his breakthrough season with the Saints, Mark Ingram II is trying to help some of the many kids dealing with an incarcerated parent—and reconciling himself to his own father's impending release from prison

THEY HAD to spend a full day at school. That was one of the conditions for going on this pre-Christmas shopping spree. But once the bell tolled, 30 kids from the New Orleans area converged on Academy Sports + Outdoors, a suburban palace of all things athletic. The kids were greeted at the store by Mark Ingram, a compactly built running back for the Saints. A half-dozen of Ingram's teammates lined up behind him, like groomsmen at a wedding.

Smiles swelling their cheeks, the kids all put black-and-gold Ingram jerseys over their school clothes, the fronts emblazoned with the message NEVER GIVE UP, EVER. They wolfed down pizza. And then they were off, bounding through the aisles, filling blue shopping carts with bikes and shoes and balls and fishing rods. The Mark Ingram Foundation covered the costs.

The charitable foundations of athletes cover a wide gamut. Some are tax shields or empty shells or simply a means of employing family members. Others are admirably philanthropic. Ingram's is deeply personal. The kids who converged on Academy came in all sizes and shapes, boys and girls, ages five to 15. For all their diversity, they had this in common: Each has a parent—in at least one case, both parents—in prison. And all were girding for the holiday season knowing that the incompleteness of their families would feel especially pronounced at this time of year.

Their benefactor knew this feeling all too well. Ingram understands about the presence of absence. About going months without seeing a parent in person. About letters that disappear in the mail, wardens who cut off calls. On that very afternoon his own father, Mark Ingram Sr., was confined to a low-security federal facility 3½ hours due north, in Yazoo City, Miss.

And—without discussing particulars or asking the kinds of questions that could dampen the mood—Ingram made it clear that he and these kids are kindred spirits. He made silly faces at one girl and encouraged another to grab a pair of shoes for her brother. He broke up a cluster of boys to demonstrate the proper technique for catching a football. He joked with another boy about the firmness of his handshake.

Ingram is 25 now, squarely in the prime of a high-profile career—in the same line of work as his father, a former NFL wide receiver. After three frustrating, injury-heavy NFL seasons, Ingram has emerged as a valuable player. Practicing the lower art of rushing (remember rushing?), he is receiving plenty of carries—"getting my feeds," he says contentedly—and seizing opportunities. Taking some of the offensive burden off quarterback Drew Brees, Ingram is closing in on 1,000 yards rushing, having turned in multiple 100-yard games. There's nothing particularly artistic about his style, but there's an undeniable efficiency and effectiveness. At 5'9" and 215 pounds, he absorbs contact like a bumper car at the state fair. Then he does what he always does and barrels ahead.

Even so, this breakthrough season is shrouded in complexity. Just as Mark Sr. inhabits a cell, he also inhabits the son's thoughts. All the more so because Dad's release from prison is coming any day now.

LIKE SO many sagas, this one starts with a knock at the door. Mark Ingram II was 10 years old, living in south Florida, when the FBI agents began banging. They were there because of his dad, once a Super Bowl hero for the Giants and then a receiver for the Dolphins. Big Mark, as everyone called him, wasn't home, but the agents rummaged through drawers and cabinets and under beds. Little Mark and his mother, Shonda, were told not to move, not to turn around and watch. "You O.K.?" Shonda asked in a whisper. Little Mark's response was measured: "I'm O.K. if you're O.K."

A few days later Big Mark was charged with two counts of automobile theft and federal counterfeiting. On the day of his conviction seven months later, the media picked up on the story of the disgraced former football star, now headed to jail. Shonda was worried about the shame and embarrassment it might visit on her son. She gave Little Mark a choice to stay home from school. The kid grabbed his backpack and headed off to fifth grade.

That would represent his next 15 years in miniature. On and off—and with little clarity or predictability—Big Mark would spend time in jail for a series of nonviolent crimes, including bank fraud, credit-card theft and money laundering. Shonda says there were four separate sentences; Little Mark puts the number at three. Big Mark has been in prison for most of the lives of his four children. And whenever he was incarcerated (simply "in" or "away" in the Ingram family shorthand), Little Mark soldiered on. "My dad always asked me to not let it all affect me and to be the man of the house," he says. "I wasn't going to let him down."

With a father in prison, Little Mark and his three younger sisters—Maya, now 21; Mia, 16; and Maliah, 14—were in startlingly vast company. As the rate of incarceration in the U.S. reaches an alltime high, so does the number of kids with an imprisoned parent. More than half of the 2.3 million inmates in the U.S. are parents of children under age 18. According to a 2010 study by the Pew Charitable Trust, more than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent, and approximately 10 million American children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives.

The effects of this are, not surprisingly, grim. Parental incarceration can cause a potent mix of trauma and stigma in children, triggering all sorts of collateral damage, from substance abuse to obesity. Says Martha L. Raimon, a senior associate at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, "For one thing, a family's source of income can be disrupted, and that can bring on a whole host of cascading consequences."

Ingram, like his sisters, defied the dispiriting numbers. As a kid, Little Mark seemed to have an allergy to trouble. "Totally baggage-free" is how his college coach, Nick Saban, once described him. Today Ingram cuts a solemn, dignified figure, cautious with his money and still more cautious with the company he keeps. Even a simple night out in the French Quarter doesn't get past his internal risk/reward assessor. It doesn't require a trained psychologist to suggest that this is a consequence of seeing his father interact with the justice system. "My dad always says he made enough mistakes for the both of us," Ingram says. "I knew the statistics, but I also knew I wasn't going to be one of them."

Still, he knows the disruption and pain of having a parent go to prison. Before he started middle school, the family abruptly moved from Florida to his parents' hometown, Flint, Mich. There Shonda could raise four kids with the help of their grandparents. The Ingrams had once had four cars; suddenly they had none. The family had once had money; suddenly Little Mark was receiving free lunches at school. The dad who had taken him to play golf, taught him to swim and brought him to NFL functions was suddenly absent. "Even for a kid like Mark, who always had a good head on his shoulders, so much changes when a parent goes to prison," says Shonda. "You're talking about the whole structure."

Little Mark also learned about the vagaries of the criminal justice system: the ill-explained transfers to solitary confinement, aka the hole; the seemingly arbitrary moves to federal facilities all over the country; the various opaque rules and regulations. Once he went to visit his dad at a facility in Beaumont, Texas. One problem: He arrived wearing shorts, contravening the prison requirement that all visitors wear long pants. He drew strange looks when he roamed the parking lot asking other visitors (including two large women) if he could buy their pants. The guards finally relented and let him in.

Yet you could hardly find a more vivid illustration of the strength of the bonds between a son and his father. When his dad went away, Little Mark was partial to golf; his friends and an uncle say it's no accident that he promptly switched his preference to football, the sport that had made Big Mark famous. For the last 15 years, Little Mark has been unwaveringly loyal, writing letters to his dad, calling him, firing off emails. Asked recently if he can recall ever being upset at his dad, he strokes his bearded chin and says, "No. Upset for him. But not at him. He's my dad, you know?"

Early on, Little Mark mastered the art of talking vaguely about his dad's whereabouts. Shonda helped camouflage the absence too, making sure to attend all of Mark's games, a ritual she continues to this day. But, inclined as Little Mark was to conceal his backstory, it pierced the public consciousness when he was at the University of Alabama.

During Ingram's freshman year, his father was sentenced in New York to more than seven years in prison for money laundering and fraud. He skipped bail to watch his son play in the 2009 Sugar Bowl on television. Two hours before kickoff, marshals found him in a Flint motel room, poised in front of the TV set. It added 27 months to his sentence.

It was also at college that Ingram noticed he wasn't alone. Multiple teammates had a parent in prison. Over the years he heard secondhand about players like himself from other schools—Adrian Peterson, Demaryius Thomas, Tyrann Mathieu, 2014 Heisman runner-up Melvin Gordon. "It's not the kind of thing you talk about," Ingram says, "but a lot us went through this." He just happened to have an imprisoned father who had been in the NFL. And had the same name.

When Ingram was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy in 2009, the divergent paths of father and son became a dominant story line. (That the ceremony is held in New York City, the market where his dad played for six years, added to the attention.) A few minutes before the announcement, Ingram prayed with Tim Tebow. Not to win the award; just to find the strength to get through his acceptance speech. When his name was announced, he began leaking emotion before he reached the podium. Disregarding the talking points that an Alabama representative had jotted down for him, Little Mark delivered a memorably eloquent address that included this line: "My father has been a great influence on my life, and I love him to death."

ILLUSION AND INTRIGUE are central themes of Mardi Gras. Those ubiquitous masks stress that reality is seldom what it seems. Most residents of New Orleans won't don their masks until February, but the Saints get a jump on the festivities: The most inscrutable team in the NFL takes on a new identity each week. Some Sundays it looks like a Super Bowl contender, beating Green Bay or picking up a methodical road win against Pittsburgh. Other Sundays the Saints look dysfunctional, not least on Dec. 7 when they were blasted at home by the Panthers, who were 3-8-1 at the time. Thanks mostly to the softness of the NFC South, the Saints were in the playoff hunt until Sunday. Yet their coach, Sean Payton, sniffs, "We're not that good. That's obvious."

Ingram has been one of their few reliable players this season, but he too comes with a full complement of masks. He's happy and relieved and outgoing and excited and anxious. He's always been adept at compartmentalizing his struggles. This current internal storm, however, is intense. "Lots of crazy stuff going on," he says. "Lots of stuff."

First the good stuff: The timing of his breakthrough could scarcely have been better. In the binary world of the NFL, players are too often cast as expendable busts or potential stars. Ingram has played himself into the latter category. He's redefined himself just as his contract is about to come due, putting him in position for a big off-season payday. Which is good because he and his girlfriend are expecting their first child, a daughter, on the day after Christmas.

Ingram's joy has been both intensified and tempered by news that his father's prison term is ending soon. According to the Federal Bureau of Corrections, his release date isn't until November 2015, but Big Mark has told his children that he'll be out in late February. (Mark Sr. could not be reached for comment. According to Yazoo City correctional officers, he had exhausted his monthly allotment of phone minutes, and applying to be on his approved list of contacts "could take months.")

Little Mark wants to be clear on this point: Like his father, he is counting the days until the release. "When you have parents that are gone," he says, "you want them back more than anything."

He points out that his dad has yet to see him play in the NFL. Big Mark has never visited the home his son rents in the New Orleans suburbs, nor the spread he is buying in South Florida. When Big Mark received his current sentence, his son was a teenager; he's now a fully formed adult. As often as they speak by phone, a lot of catching up awaits.

But this can also be a source of anxiety. There's a saying that in prison, time stands still. On the outside, there's new technology and slang and fashion. Kids have new sets of friends and new significant others and have entered new phases. "There's this readjustment period where it's like getting to know the person all over again," says Shonda. "To be honest, yeah, I think [my son] Mark is apprehensive about that."

Then there were the logistical questions. What will be the conditions of Big Mark's parole? Will he have to go to a halfway house? Where will he live after that? What will he do for work? For money?

Little Mark has assured everyone in his orbit, starting with his three sisters, that it will work out. Dad is getting out. "That's all that really matters," he says.

AT ACADEMY SPORTS + OUTDOORS, the kids were having a great time. Ingram escorted a boy and his younger sister, Kentrell and Kendrell, through the store. Kendrell, clad in a plaid skirt and red tights, was outgoing, at one point joking about the Saints' lousy year. ("Y'all been getting whupped this season!") Her brother was more measured. Ingram saw more than a little of himself in their dynamic.

If there was irony to the whole event, it was this: Ingram relates to these kids all too well and has so much to share. But the afternoon was supposed to be one of escapism, a time for buying bikes and balls, not dwelling on absent parents. Still, Ingram did have some lines prepared, and later, over a dinner of catfish in the Warehouse District, he offered a sample of what might as well be his mission statement. Ingram speaks as he runs, low on flourish but with effective, rumbling bursts. He inhaled and then said, "Even if you have a parent that's incarcerated, you don't have to be a statistic. You don't have to go down the wrong path. People might think that will be you one day. But no! It doesn't have to be you one day. Use it as a positive. Let it motivate you to accomplish."

Ingram has always fashioned himself a lead-by-example type, however, and at the store that afternoon he remained true to form. There would be no pep talk or sobering speeches to the kids that afternoon. Just an example of a genial, well-adjusted guy with a foundation who made this day possible. He's been in this predicament, and he's barreled ahead.

"My dad always asked me to not let it all affect me and to be the man of the house," Ingram says. "I wasn't going to let him down."


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Photograph by Kevin C. Cox Getty Images

PUSHING THROUGH After struggling with injuries, Mark Ingram is now racking up 100-yard games for the Saints even while dealing with a complex family life.



His Own PaTH Ingram (left, 22) is determined to avoid the mistakes of his father (above, in Super Bowl XXV and with Little Mark) — and to help other kids do the same.



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ROCK SOLID The Saints have been inconsistent this season, but Ingram (far left, with Brees) has been a source of stability.