North Carolina's native son, Melvin Ingram returns home

SAN DIEGO -- What does the state of North Carolina mean to Melvin Ingram?

“It means a lot,” said Ingram, who has North Carolina tattooed on his body. “That’s what made me who I am. I have so many memories of being in North Carolina. I’m a North Carolinian to the day I die. That’s where I was raised, so it defines and informs the person I am now.

“You venture out, mature and become a better person. But North Carolina made my identity. It took me places I could never imagine.”

Like San Diego.

A first-round selection taken No. 18 overall by the San Diego Chargers in the 2012 draft after starring at South Carolina, Ingram will play in his home state for the first time when the Chargers face the Carolina Panthers this weekend.

Ingram grew up about 80 miles east of Charlotte in the small town of Hamlet, with a population of about 6,500 people.

Ingram said he expects as many as 100 family and friends at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, where he’ll try to corral good friend Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

“He’s a great athlete and a great person,” Ingram said of Newton. “So it’s always a pleasure to line up against someone you know and a player of that caliber.”

The 27-year-old edge rusher matured in his time away from home. He has a son now, 1-year-old Prince Melvin Ingram. And Ingram is finally starting to play up to the vast potential he flashed in high school and college.

“I feel like I’ve grown as a player and a person,” Ingram said. “When you come in, you’re still fresh out of college and it hasn’t really clicked for you that it’s a job yet. And when that happens, it changes your whole mentality and how you approach the game. You get smarter about the game and what you need outside of the game.”

Ingram leads the Chargers in sacks with six, and along with rookie Joey Bosa gives San Diego a pass-rushing duo that matches AFC West division rivals the Denver Broncos (Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware), the Kansas City Chiefs (Justin Houston, Dee Ford) and the Oakland Raiders (Khalil Mack, Bruce Irvin).

After suffering through injury-riddled seasons in 2013 and 2014 due to a torn ACL in his left knee and a hip injury, Ingram finally had an epiphany during the offseason last year.

He committed to a new diet and conditioning regimen, shedding 20 pounds and reporting to training camp at 245 pounds.

The result was Ingram’s best season as a pro, as he finished with a career-high 10.5 sacks in 16 games. Since Week 13 of last season, Ingram has 12.5 sacks, which is No. 6 in the NFL.

This season, Ingram is fifth on the team with 43 tackles and has two forced fumbles.

“He basically said I’m going to be healthy and be accountable for 16 games,” Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano said.

According to Pagano, Ingram, a defensive co-captain, also has become more of a student of the game. “The most important thing in the National Football League is being there day in and day out.”

Now Ingram has an even tougher task -- maintaining that production.

“I’m excited to see him really turn it loose,” said Ingram’s mentor, tight end Antonio Gates. “He’s still feeling his way out, even though he has five or six sacks. This is still like his second season of being fully healthy. And when it’s all said and done, if he continues to work and he stays here in San Diego, he could be one of the all-time great at the outside linebacker position.

“He could have had like three sacks last game (against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). But if you look at the stat sheet, he had a couple hurries and it doesn’t look like he impacted the game as much as he did. He has to learn how to finish out plays. And he knows. We talk about it, and he wants to do it. He wants to be great. And he actually puts in the work to do those things, which is the most impressive thing.”

The Chargers exercised Ingram’s fifth-year option last year, which pays him $7.75 million this year. At the end of this season Ingram will become a free agent, and Chargers brass has to decide if they will commit to him long-term.

Ingram recently switched agency to Roc Nation Sports, owned by music mogul Jay Z. He doesn’t rule out a return to San Diego.

“I feel like if you do what you need to do, stuff like that will take care of itself,” Ingram said about his contract status. “If you sit and think about it, it’s going to affect what you really need to be doing. So I just go out and do what I need to do, and it will take care of itself.

“I started my career here. When you start somewhere, they show loyalty, and you’ve been here for so long, so why wouldn’t you?”

Ingram also dabbles in music. In 2015, he released a full-length mixtape entitled “From Nothing to Something”, which includes a song called “Pops” dedicated to his father George Melvin Ingram Jr., who died from a massive heart attack in 1998.

Ingram’s father passed when he was nine years old, so he and his two older sisters were raised by his mother Nancy. It’s one of the reasons Ingram started his foundation, Mission Impossible, which focuses on raising money to help single parents in need.

“I know how it was when I grew up,” Ingram said. “And I know my mama did everything in her power for me as a single parent. And I know if my dad was here he would always help people. That’s just what he did.

“So I started my foundation in memory of him, and just helping as many people as possible.”