Sophomore back runs angry

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Fitzgerald Toussaint runs angry. Give the Michigan redshirt sophomore running back the ball, and he's as apt to seek out contact as he is to run away from it.

This is the way it has to be. With every step he takes on the football field, including in Tuesday night's Allstate Sugar Bowl, pressure surrounds him. The pressure of a family that looks to him as a beacon of stability and support. The pressure of a city, Youngstown, Ohio, he got out of while so many people he knew -- friends, family and teammates -- could not.

Pressure from a difficult life growing up.

"It is the way to release anger," Toussaint said. "That's why I like being an aggressive player and I like to run through things. It's just how I live. Just ... I'm not violent outside of football, because I can be a nice guy until it gets to that point.

"But I just always play with a lot of anger. Just release a lot of anger. I'm going to put my hands on something, that's how it is."

Football got him to Michigan. Michigan, he hopes, will lead him on a path of success for the rest of his life. If he needs a reminder, he just needs to look on the inside of his right forearm, where the buildings of the project he grew up in, Brier Hill on the north side of Youngstown, is permanently etched in black ink.

And on the back of his neck, he has a tattoo in script lettering: "Blessed."

"Guys I played with, guys I was close to that were tragically murdered," Toussaint said. "That could be me if I chose to take a different route other than sports-related things or academic things. It hurt me. It was a lot of guys.

"I can't even count. It's still happening. All the time. Every time I talk to somebody at home, talk to my mother, it's always somebody new. Always. I can't shed no more tears, that's how many people are gone."

It's part of the pressure. It's part of why, when Fitzgerald Toussaint runs, he isn't running only for himself.

If there is an event that changed Toussaint's life, it came five years ago.

Toussaint, then age 16, became a father.

Initially, Toussaint said he and the mother of his child, Jacquetta Kinard, tried to hide the pregnancy from their parents. Eventually, at a Shoney's in Virginia, Jacquetta told her brother, former Michigan recruit and one of Toussaint's closest friends, Antonio Kinard.

"She looked at me and said, 'TK, I'm pregnant,' " Antonio Kinard said. "I said, 'Oh my gosh.' Fitz, I called him and was like, 'Did you know?' He said, 'Yeah.' I'm like, 'Can you believe you're a dad now?'

"He was like, 'Yeah, man, I've got to start stepping up. I've got to put away childish things and start being a man.' "

They soon told the rest of their families, who offered support, and Martia Lenora Kinard came into this world on Dec. 10, 2006.

It changed his view of the world and eliminated his last vestiges of childhood, although in reality that was gone long ago.

Innocence disappeared fast for Toussaint, who was raised by a single mother and had two older brothers in prison by the time he was 10.

Then, during his senior year at Liberty High School, his father, also named Fitzgerald Toussaint, stabbed his mother's boyfriend during an argument at one of his football scrimmages. The entire situation left the younger Toussaint "embarrassed."

This was life for Toussaint, who used to walk a mile from his home to Liberty practices every day in part because he had to and in part because it helped him focus.

By then, college football was a goal, although when he was growing up, it was merely something he saw on television. He never thought he'd get there, never thought he'd be playing college football or be a college student in general.

He dreamed of money growing up, but had no tangible way to get there. Now with a child to care for, he needed to find a way out as he learned to raise a child and grow up himself.

"When Fitz's daughter was born, the first thing I said to him is the greatest gift you can ever give your daughter is get your education and be successful, so you can provide for her for the rest of her life," said Jeff Whittaker, his coach at Liberty. "That's one of the things that's probably in Fitz's mind. He understands this is an opportunity for the rest of his life, and he's going to make the most of that."

He already had the talent on the field. Whittaker saw that when Toussaint was a freshman. By the time Toussaint became a father, the player believed it, too. But getting to college meant a commitment to school.

His family made sure of that -- and still does.

Elaine Edwards comes up from Youngstown on game days to watch her youngest son play football. At least that's the guise. Whenever she comes to Ann Arbor, she is really checking on everything else.

For her, it is all about academics. It is why Edwards moved to the edge of the Youngstown-Liberty school district border midway through Toussaint's eighth grade year. She wanted him in a better school.

She wanted him to have a chance to have a better life.

"That was the biggest change," Toussaint said. "There were guys at the school I was going to before who were good players, maybe even better than me, who didn't get a chance."

Now Toussaint had it. And it landed him at Michigan, which is why Edwards is more concerned about how he is doing in classes than between the hashes.

"They never ask me about sports," Toussaint said. "It's always about school. Always about the books. Don't even talk about the games. My mom asks me about school. On a game day, after the game, win or lose, she'll ask me about school."

There's a reason. Fitzgerald Toussaint is the first person in his family to go to college. And if all goes well, he'll be the first person in his family to graduate, as well.

So when he talks about pressure, it continues there. It's more than just football. It's about creating a better life for him and for his family.

Sitting in the museum of Schembechler Hall last month, Toussaint explained his frustration. He rarely opens up, doesn't talk often about his daughter or his family back home. More than anything else, Toussaint wants to be a good father.

And it isn't easy. Martia lives with her mother's family in Winnsboro, S.C., and he hasn't seen her since Memorial Day weekend.

"It's tough," Toussaint said. "Mentally, it messes with me, because you have a little girl, and you always want to know her whereabouts and what is going on. Talking on the phone, it's something, but it's not enough. I want to play that part, be a father figure in person."

This was a message imparted by one of his father figures in high school, Liberty running backs coach Jerron Jenkins. When Martia was born, Toussaint went to Jenkins.

Toussaint didn't have a good relationship with his father and didn't want to repeat that. He wanted to be involved in everything.

"We talked about it, and when he became a father I said, even if you can't give material things, make sure you always give some type of love and attention," Jenkins said. "He was always there for her and for all times.

"I always told him, whatever happened to you, don't let it happen to your child."

He has. Every other day, father and daughter talk on the phone or by Skype for hours. Hours. This isn't how he wants it. He wants his daughter to know him as more than the guy who buys her presents and plays football at Michigan.

He wants to be more involved. Pictures of Martia are all over his room in Ann Arbor. Antonio Kinard said Martia, as of now, is supposed to spend the summer with Toussaint and the rest of his family.

"Fitz has decided to be like, 'I'm happy to just hear my daughter's voice. That makes my day,' " Antonio Kinard said. "They talk on the phone for hours. He says, 'As long as I can get that, I'm fine. It makes me smile. Makes my day.' "

For now, this is the communication they have to have. Because Fitzgerald Toussaint is in college for more than just himself. For more than the mother who raised him or the coaching staff that pushed him or the family that, when they realized he could be the one to get out, did everything they could to make sure he stayed on a straight path.

He's in college for Martia. And while it kills him to be away from her, he understands why it has to be this way. This is his pressure. If he needs a reminder, he can look down to his right forearm.

Next to the projects is another tattoo. 'TIA,' for his daughter. So she is with him every day.

"It's different," Toussaint said. "Because I'm trying to get better for her."

Remember that when Toussaint runs. He might run angry, but he runs with a purpose. He runs to push past his past and to ensure his family's future.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.