TUSCALOOSA — Fill in the blank: Mark Ingram is the greatest Alabama football player since __________.
The conversation could start with a player as recent as middle linebacker Rolando McClain (2009). It could go back as far as wide receiver Don Hutson (1934), or maybe even Johnny Mack Brown (1925).
The names Cornelius Bennett (1986), Derrick Thomas (1988) and Lee Roy Jordan (1962) belong in the conversation, but comparing defensive stars to an offensive player is an apples-to-oranges problem.
Running backs Shaun Alexander (1999) and Johnny Musso (1971) and offensive lineman John Hannah (1972) are worthy names to consider.
And then there’s Harry Gilmer.
He was the Crimson Tide’s star left halfback from 1944-47. After all these years, after all these great players, his name still appears in Alabama’s record book, in rushing, passing and kicking categories.
“He was the greatest player of my era,” said Clem Gryska, who played in the same backfield with Gilmer.
How does Gilmer compare to Ingram, or rather, Ingram to Gilmer?
“Defenses could never tackle Harry,” Gryska said. “He had that extra little jump at the last minute.”
And breaking tackles is what Ingram does best.
“When Ingram does it, it looks routine,” Gryska said. “That’s the way it looked with Harry, too. He had the ability and the agility. He didn’t have Ingram’s speed.”
Gilmer, 84, lives on a small spread outside Wentzville, Mo., which is on the outskirts of St. Louis. The Birmingham native settled there after working twice for the St. Louis Cardinals before they moved to Arizona. He watches his alma mater occasionally on television. He saw Ingram run for 157 yards Saturday in a 24-20 come-from-behind victory at Arkansas.
The old star is impressed with the new star.
“He shows he works at it, thinks about it and plays very physical,” Gilmer said. “He’s a tough, strong runner. The harder they come, the harder they hit. He’s right there with them.”
Gilmer says his running style differed from Ingram’s. The 2009 Heisman Trophy winner specializes in yards after contact. Gilmer tried to elude tacklers.
“I didn’t want to be tackled, and I worked at it, but I couldn’t do it as well as Ingram does,” Gilmer said.
What’s the secret to not being tackled?
“Attitude,” Gilmer said. “Run as tough as you can.”
Gilmer took direct snaps in a Notre Dame Box offense. Ingram often takes direct snaps in the Wildcat formation.
Both players had sensational sophomore seasons. In 1945, Gilmer had 1,457 yards of total offense, which ranked second in the nation. Ingram ran for 1,658 yards. Gilmer led the nation with 13 touchdown passes and ran for nine TDs. Ingram scored 20 touchdowns. Gilmer averaged 7.0 yards per carry. Ingram averaged 6.1.