What's in a name?
In the case of Carson High linebacker Nkosi Littleton, more than you might think.
"It means leader in Swahili," he said. "My mom got it out of a book."
Pronounced Na-KO-see, Littleton's moniker fits him well. As the only returning All-L.A. City player from last year's 4-A Division championship team, he figures to provide a foundation of leadership for the Colts this season.
But the translation doesn't sum up all of Littleton's attributes. One look at the 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior, and it's obvious why Coach Gene Vollnogle also expects Littleton to provide an intimidating presence.
"I will be disappointed if he doesn't tear somebody's head off," joked the veteran coach, starting his 27th season at Carson.
By the end of last season, Vollnogle said, opponents had a tendency to run away from Littleton's side of the field. But, he added: "As far as physically abusing somebody, he has never done that."
Littleton's game is strictly by the book. No taunting. No cheap shots. When you're big, fast and strong, a clean hit serves as your calling card.
And Littleton loves to hit. He fondly remembers a play last season when he unloaded on a Gardena running back just as the ball arrived. He missed those bruising collisions this summer in touch-format passing league games.
"A guy would catch the ball in front of him, and I could see the gleam in his eye," Vollnogle said. "He had that look, 'Gee, I wish I could hit you.' But he never would. He's under control."
With that in mind, is Littleton is ready to resume his punishing ways when Carson opens the season Sept. 15 at Bishop Amat?
His response: "Oh, I'm ready."
Littleton is anxious to gain experience in hopes of attracting a major-college scholarship. Strange as it seems, considering he has been selected to virtually every preseason All-America team, Littleton has been playing organized football only since the 10th grade.
Yet, with only one year of football under his belt, Littleton was able to earn a starting spot at defensive end for Carson last year after transferring from Verbum Dei High School in South-Central Los Angeles.
"If you're an athlete," he said, "you can just look and learn."
Littleton learned enough to earn a spot on several all-star teams. He was one of only two underclassmen chosen to the All-City 4-A defensive unit, and he was the only underclassman named to The Times South Bay All-Star team.
Those credentials boosted Littleton to consensus All-American entering his senior year. Super Prep magazine rates him the No. 18 linebacker prospect in the country, despite the fact he has never played the position on the varsity level.
Dick Lascola, director of the Fallbrook-based Scouting Evaluation Assn., isn't surprised by Littleton's quick rise to stardom.
"I don't think you have to play Pop Warner and all that other stuff," he said. "I think he has the skills that football requires. He's an aggressive kid, he runs well and he gets to the ball.
"The nature of football is different than other sports. For example, if you play tennis at an earlier age, the better you're going to be. But you don't have to go out there and hit somebody all your life to be a better football player."
When Littleton entered high school, he considered basketball his best sport. That changed last year after the attention he received in football.
"It is surprising," he said. "I played basketball for years and didn't get any attention. In football, if you play hard and hit hard, you get attention. I'd like to play in college."
Littleton filled out a questionnaire for Super Prep in which he listed UCLA, Colorado, Arizona, Washington, USC and UC Berkeley as his top college choices. But he says he is a long way from making a final decision.
He already has an NCAA-qualifying score of 810 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test and plans to take it again in hopes of raising his score. That way, he reasons, he will be able to qualify academically for more universities.
Vollnogle says that type of determination sets Littleton apart from many other high school football players.
"He's very intelligent," he said. "He listens to everything, then he remembers it. He's an ideal player to coach. He doesn't say a whole lot; he just plays. I never have to worry about him losing his head and getting overly excited."
Proving Vollnogle's point, Littleton enters the season with caution as well as confidence. He says making the switch from defensive end to linebacker will test his lack of experience.
"It's easy on the defensive line; you just go," he said. "Linebacker is harder. There's more thinking involved. You have to watch for the pass and the run. There are more responsibilities."
Vollnogle said Littleton will most likely play outside linebacker, with senior Harry Fuamatu manning the middle of Carson's 4-3 scheme.
Littleton, who played linebacker for Verbum Dei's sophomore team, said he didn't think he'd get a chance to play much for Carson last year.
"I thought everybody would be bigger and stronger than me," he said. "But when I went out there, I saw that everybody had a fair chance. I said, 'I'm just going to try my best.' That was it."
Littleton had gone to Verbum Dei with the intention of furthering his budding basketball career. But Littleton's parents and then-Verbum Dei basketball Coach Gilbert Baker didn't see eye to eye, Nkosi said, and the family moved to Carson.
Littleton has continued to play basketball at Carson and was a starting forward for the Colts last season after recovering from a minor knee injury suffered near the end of football. He plans to play basketball again.
However, his powerful build and explosive quickness make him more suited for the gridiron. Vollnogle spotted the young player's potential right away.
It was Littleton's name that got the coach in trouble. Not his first name, his last.
It seems when Littleton first signed up for football at Carson, Vollnogle mistakenly read his name as Littlejon. He called him Littlejon, and that's the way the player's name wound up in the program for the season opener.
It wasn't until Littleton's stepfather approached Vollnogle after practice one day that the matter was cleared up.
Said Vollnogle: "I asked his stepfather, 'How come Nkosi never corrected me?' And he said it was because he was afraid. Here's this big ol' stud, and he's afraid of me ? But that's the type of kid he is."
Polite to the coach, maybe. Opposing players will see a different side of Littleton this fall.