- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The script lettering down the front of Thomas Rawls' right bicep explains a lot of it, really. Explains why Rawls is the way he is, runs the way he runs and why even reaching Michigan is a big deal for him.
Tenacity which stuck with Rawls as he overcame academic issues to attend Michigan, through an ankle injury which took away part of his senior season at Flint (Mich.) Northern and kept him out of trouble in one of the most dangerous cities in the nation.
So when Rawls makes noise -- grunts, really -- when he runs, when he screams after finishing a carry by barreling into a defender to make contact, all of it makes sense.
In football, though, players are rarely heard on the field above the crashing together of shoulder pads, helmets and body parts. Not so with Rawls, whose audible anger matches the running style he possesses. Opponents not only feel him when he makes contact but they hear him, too.
"I don't really realize I'm doing it or things like that," Rawls said. "It just comes from running hard. I know I do it sometimes, but sometimes our defensive players are like why do you run and then you scream, grunt, things like that."
Rawls has always run with that type of energy, did it for his high school coach at Flint Northern, Fred Jackson Jr., and for his college position coach now, Fred Jackson Sr. He loves making contact, too, as his eyes lit up when he described the first time he plowed into a player in both high school and college.
As Michigan transitions to pro-style offense, which it will once quarterback Denard Robinson departs following this season, Rawls' style of running will fit Michigan even more.
"Running like an angry guy. Having an ability to make extra yards, to run through you or around you. Very, very good vision for a guy his height," Jackson Sr. said. "Usually a guy with good vision is a little bit taller. Thomas is probably, maybe 5-8. He tells me he's 5-11 and I'm 6-2, I think, and I look down on him and eat soup off his head. No idea how tall he is.
"But he's shorter than Fitz and Fitz has got to be 5-9. You can't usually see a guy like that, with that kind of vision, with that kind of feet, and he has good enough feet to do what we need him to do. He's got like Mike Hart kind of feet but a lot faster than Mike."
When Rawls runs, there is pain behind it -- both to the defenders he plows into and also within himself. His anger has a purpose. It is a displacement of everything he saw growing up in Flint, everything he witnessed as he tried to keep focused on himself and being the one who left Flint, who was able to go on to college.
When Rawls runs, it is for them, for his parents and siblings and the Jacksons, all of whom pushed him to stay focused in school so he could go to Michigan.
"Growing up back home, I had a lot of friends shot and killed, guys I even played football with, family shot and killed," Rawls said. "Guys I grew up with in high school, family, getting locked up and going to jail.
"But one thing about all that, even though it is horrible and it is sad, it also gave me motivation to keep driving and going a different route, a positive route."
Few on Michigan's roster could understand what he went through, what he saw growing up. One who can, though, is Fitzgerald Toussaint, the man he's replacing as the Wolverines' back as long as Toussaint remains suspended.
Growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, Toussaint saw many of the same things as Rawls. Toussaint had friends and former teammates killed and family members in jail. Their experiences were similar enough it helped forge a bond between them, two guys who were able to meander through the drugs and violence to end up in college.
It helps one understand the other, push the other.
"That's one thing about me and Fitz, that's why we click and we've got a cool connection," Rawls said. "We understand each other. We talk about it a little bit but we don't get too much into it, because we're here on another mission and that's getting a Michigan degree and also going out, playing football and having fun."
Soon enough, they both might be in the Michigan backfield -- two runners who describe their style as "angry," two runners who have many reasons beyond enjoying playing football to succeed.
Stretched out over Rawls' other bicep is an explanation of where he hopes to go, of words he says means to him "accomplishing wishes and dreams." He received the tattoo a few days after he signed with Michigan in February 2011.
"I've been through so much just to get here to Michigan," Rawls said. "To finish up through high school coming from a hard place, that's one thing I wanted to get."
To him, it serves as one other reminder. As long as he runs with tenacity, he has the potential to reach what he has always wanted.
Will Campbell came to Michigan with all kinds of hype, but three years later he has little to show for it. He'll be a starter in his final season, and Michigan needs him to stand and deliver.