The Michigan football team was beaten and broken Saturday, and 1,000 miles away, Fitzgerald Toussaint was a spectator.
From the house of assistant basketball coach Bacari Alexander, Toussaint watched as sophomore cornerback Blake Countess hopped off on crutches after the game. He watched redshirt junior tackle Taylor Lewan hobble away on one good leg, and he watched Michigan coach Brady Hoke address the media, his voice tired and hoarse.
In his mind, Toussaint was imagining what he could have done, what would have gone differently had he been on the field with the men he calls his brothers, he said Tuesday.
Toussaint said that Alexander had extended an invitation to Toussaint on behalf of the team, because “they wanted me to feel wanted.”
Toussaint had not been wanted in Texas, and it was no one’s fault but his. Hoke suspended the redshirt junior running back along with sophomore defensive end Frank Clark for the opener after separate legal issues.
No, Toussaint had not been wanted. But he was needed.
Without the former 1,000-yard rusher, Michigan’s ground game was suffocated by the Crimson Tide. His replacements, senior Vincent Smith and sophomore Thomas Rawls, combined for just 42 yards on 19 carries. As senior quarterback Denard Robinson struggled to find consistency through the air, Alabama crowded the box, and Michigan had no answer in the backfield, not without Toussaint.
Toussaint spoke with the media on Tuesday for the first time since his arrest.
For a few seconds after he strode into Schembechler Hall, finally free from the weight of the suspension and Hoke’s own rebuke — which both declined to discuss — a smile stretched across Toussaint’s face. When he approached reporters, the grin disappeared, and for four minutes, he earnestly answered questions about his own personal failings.
Had he learned?
“Guys my age, they feel they know everything up until they get in trouble,” Toussaint said. “That day really brought a lot of things to me and showed me about my character.”
Was he angered by the suspension?
“I kind of knew I messed up,” Toussaint said, “and I was ready to face any consequences.”
In jail that July night after he was arrested for driving a vehicle while intoxicated, Toussaint said the worst part was the feeling that he had let down his team. In the span of four minutes on Tuesday, Toussaint mentioned letting down his teammates a total of seven times.
Now that he’s back, the starting job remains up for grabs.
“We’re not going to want to put him in and say he’s the starter,” said offensive coordinator Al Borges. “I don’t think that’s fair to the other guys. So we’ll go this week and see how everything works out and make a decision.”
Toussaint, though, remains the No. 1 running back on the depth chart and is the likely leader to start. Though the Alabama defensive front blanketed the Michigan backfield on Saturday, Smith and Rawls didn’t create any seams for themselves in Toussaint’s absence. Rawls, heralded since spring as a bulldozer, was bulldozed. True, he rarely made it more than a yard without being contacted, but he also didn’t shed tackles as promised.
Smith was never supposed to be a feature back, and aside from one 22-yard scamper on a burst of speed to the outside near the end of the third quarter, he gained just 11 yards on 12 other carries. Still, with just 33 yards, Smith led Michigan in rushing.
Toussaint accepted that his old role isn’t his just yet.
“I’m going to go out there every day, day by day, and try to earn it back,” Toussaint said.
On Saturday, back in Alexander’s house, Toussaint said he analyzed the game. No one knows how Toussaint would have fared, but, of course, he wondered anyway.
Before the team left for Texas, Toussaint said his teammates visited or spoke with him individually to show him their support. He said Robinson had the biggest impact, and one day, Robinson showed up at Toussaint’s house with fellow captain Jordan Kovacs, the fifth-year senior. The visit, and Robinson’s phone calls, showed Toussaint the team still had his back.
Senior receiver Roy Roundtree said he didn’t speak with Toussaint individually, but he said he never lost faith in him. He supported him from the beginning.
“The whole team did,” Roundtree said. “That’s our brother. He just made a mistake, and you learn from it, watching us Saturday wishing he could be out there.”