Rough Youngstown upbringing didn't bring Steelers RB Toussaint down
January 8, 2016 12:00 AM
Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint picks up yardage against the Browns Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.
Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint takes a handoff from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during practice at the team's South Side training facility on Thursday, January 7, 2016.
Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint warmups prior to practice at the team's South Side training facility on Thursday, January 7, 2016.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When he was a student at Youngstown Liberty High School, Fitzgerald Toussaint walked 2 miles from his home to practice every day. When his coach, Jeff Whittaker, found out about it he offered to pick him up and take him home, but Toussaint refused.
“He chose to walk because that’s how he got focused,” Whittaker said. “That’s how he mentally prepared himself for football. He’s always been focused with what he was doing in athletics. Even though he walked, he was always the first one at practice. We were a small school. The coaches had to set everything up for practice, the dummies, the cones, everything. Fitz was out there with us setting up before for practice.”
So, when Whittaker heard Steelers coach Mike Tomlin talking earlier this week about Toussaint being “low maintenance” and how he was a hard-working player his teammates embraced, it wasn’t a surprise.
“That’s who he is,” Whittaker said. “That’s his character.”
When Toussaint trekked those 2 miles from his North Youngstown home in the projects to Liberty, he was walking away from a troubled family life. His father, also named Fitzgerald Toussaint, was arrested at one of his high school football scrimmages after he stabbed the boyfriend of his ex-wife. Friends have lost their lives to street violence.
Toussaint overcame it all to make it to the NFL and is in line to make his first NFL start against the Cincinnati Bengals in an AFC wild-card game Saturday night at Paul Brown Stadium. With starter DeAngelo Williams likely to miss the game with a foot injury, it will be Toussaint who lives out Tomlin’s mantra of “next man up” under the bright spotlight of the postseason.
Not too big for him
At 5 feet 9 and 205 pounds, Toussaint won’t intimidate the Bengals when he walks off the team bus, but he doesn’t shy away from contact. When asked to describe his playing style, Toussaint said: “Just go out there, run hard, with low pads and deliver a blow before they do.”
Toussaint, 25, rushed for 2,290 yards in four seasons at the University of Michigan and spent his rookie season with the Baltimore Ravens after going undrafted. He was signed to the Steelers practice squad in September after the Ravens released him and was elevated to the active roster in November after Le’Veon Bell was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Toussaint dressed for the final five games and played the final three quarters against the Cleveland Browns last week after Williams was injured. He had 24 yards on 12 carries and finished the season with 42 yards on 18 carries.
“Seeing a lot more of him now, he’s a very coachable guy,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “He’s smart. He understands what we’re trying to coach him to do. He’s a tough, pretty gritty guy who played big-time college football at Michigan. He stepped in last week, and it didn’t appear to be too big for him or anything like that.”
Toussaint isn’t the first inexperienced player to play an important role in a postseason game for the Steelers. They have called upon backup running backs too many times to count in the playoffs, back to Reggie Harrison in 1976 after Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier were injured.
Injuries have been devastating for some teams chasing their Super Bowl dreams, but they’ve also set the stage for others to be playoff heroes.
If Toussaint needs inspiration, all he has to do is look to Super Bowl XLIX.
Undrafted rookie free agent Malcolm Butler became a Super Bowl hero when he intercepted Russell Wilson in the end zone in the waning seconds to give the New England Patriots their fourth Lombardi Trophy. The only reason Butler got a chance was due to some late-season injuries in New England’s defensive backfield. He played in just 184 snaps in the regular season and did not play at all in the Patriots’ divisional-round victory against the Ravens earlier in their playoff run.
If not for Butler, Chris Matthews might have been the Super Bowl MVP. His four receptions for 109 yards and a touchdown was the standout performance for the Seattle offense. His first catch in the game was the first of his NFL career. He was cut by the Cleveland Browns as a rookie in 2011 and had to spend the next few years in the CFL before the Seahawks signed him. He spent most of the 2014 on the practice squad and was not activated until early December. He had just 19 snaps in the regular season before his surprising Super Bowl performance.
Perhaps the most famous one-hit wonder in the NFL was a Washington Redskins backup running back. Timmy Smith was the MVP of Super Bowl XXII after rushing for a record 204 yards in a 42-10 victory against Denver. Smith played in just seven games as a rookie and was a surprise starter for coach Joe Gibbs in the Super Bowl, his only start of the season.
“That’s my message to the guys,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “It doesn’t matter. That’s why statistics don’t carry over into the postseason. It’s a new season. It doesn’t matter how great of a regular season you’ve had.
“Some of the players who had the best regular seasons haven’t done anything in the postseason. Some guys that haven’t done anything in the regular season have been awesome in the postseason. That’s kind of my message to everybody. It doesn’t matter what’s happened to date. It’s about what you do going forward.”
The Steelers aren’t looking for a Super Bowl hero. They’re just looking for Toussaint to pick up the slack in one playoff game until Williams can get back.
“I feel like every moment is a big opportunity for me to go out there and show what I got,” Toussaint said.
The Steelers are hoping the moment isn’t too big for him Saturday night. Whittaker is betting it isn’t.
“There’s an experience factor that’s always going to be there,” Whittaker said. “It’s going to be new to him, but Fitz has always been able to rise to the occasion. With me knowing him and knowing his character, I think there’s a good chance he rises to the occasion.”
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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