Seeing Niu Sale out of his football attire can be deceiving. The 19-year old sophomore from Carson appears relaxed, carefree and cool. Very cool.
Earlier this week El Camino's All-American defensive back strutted across campus in a white tank top, black shorts, thongs and a large straw hat. A goatee, dark glasses and a black hoop earring complimented the outfit.
"I'm a mellow guy," Sale said smiling. "I'm just relaxed all the time."
Well, not all the time. He laughs often and has a silly pre-game ritual--he eats a big hamburger with cheese and chicken nuggets before every game--but when it comes to football, he's a very intense individual.
"He's a winner," said El Camino co-defensive coordinator Steve Schmitz. "That's the bottom line. No matter where you put him, he'll do everything in his power to beat you."
On the field the sturdy athlete seldom speaks. Actions do that for him whether he's returning a punt, holding the ball for a field goal or jumping on a ball carrier.
"In football you don't talk with your mouth," Sale said. "You talk with your helmet. We wear Bike (brand) helmets so I tell the guys on the other team 'come ride a bike,' and when I get a good play I say 'you just rode a bike.' They hate it and they curse all the time."
Negative words from bitter opponents don't bother Sale, whose large photo appears on the front of the Warriors' media guide. His performance is always top-notch. Aggression and quickness are his main trademarks.
"When we need to put out the fire or make a big play," said Head Coach John Featherstone, "he always comes through."
Featherstone says there aren't many football players with Sale's ability and dedication. The Warriors' fifth-year coach believes Sale is one of a kind.
"I've been coaching junior college football for 14 years," he said, "and I really don't think I've seen a finer athlete than Niu. He's just a gifted, natural athlete."
At 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds, Sale is not dominating, but speed and strength make up for his lack of size. He had 93 tackles and four interceptions last year as an All-American and all-Mission Conference free safety.
This season he leads the Warriors in tackles with 47, despite playing behind a tough front line that includes all-conference defensive end Jeff Cummins and tackles Eric Marrero and Elgin Loften.
"He's an outstanding player," said Golden West Coach Ray Shackleford. "I'm sure he's one of their best guys and they have a great team. He's very quick and he's always around the football."
In El Camino's 31-24 victory over Fullerton, Sale had 11 tackles although he was moved to strong safety because Anthony Anetema, who starts at that position, cracked a wrist.
Sale also had an outstanding performance (14 tackles) in the Warriors' 38-14 win over Golden West and last week, when El Camino whipped Southwestern, he returned a punt 47 yards for a touchdown.
Opportunities for big plays aren't always easy to come by considering Sale is up against Anetema, a childhood friend, who was an all-conference strong safety last season with 96 tackles. Ed Togia (78 tackles last year), an all-conference linebacker, also makes his share of tackles before Sale even sees the man.
Warrior co-defensive coordinator Walt Justice calls it El Camino's best defense in his six years at the school. It's played a tremendous role in the Warriors' success, even though they possess the state's second-best offense. El Camino is 5-0 (4-0 in conference) and ranked No. 1 in the state by the JC Athletic Bureau and No.2 in the nation by USA Today.
"Our other great defense," Justice said, "was in 1987 (when El Camino won the national championship). This year we even have more depth in our starters. We have seven or eight stars instead of just one or two."
Justice says Sale is the best defensive back he's seen at El Camino. The other top back in recent history was all-American Bill Hughley, who went on to Oregon State.
"Niu is more disciplined than Bill," Justice said. "He's always in control. He has something you just don't teach. He has great instinct for the game and great knowledge of it."
Maybe it's because he's been playing for 10 years, starting with flag football at age 9. Sale and his older brother Ken, 21, competed in Carson leagues and both played at Bishop Montgomery High.
Ken, a linebacker, played at El Camino in 1986 and 1987 and now leads the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP), in tackles (99 for the season). The brothers played together for one season at Bishop Montgomery and both were stars.
Sale was an all-around man for the Knights and a three-time all-Angelus League selection. He was successful as a defensive back, quarterback, tailback and linebacker.
In his first game at quarterback, as a junior, Sale led Bishop Montgomery to a 27-0 win over Mary Star by rushing for all of the Knights' touchdowns. As a senior tailback he gained 240 yards in a game against Servite High.
Andy Szabatura, the coach at Bishop Montgomery when Sale played there, says he's never seen a more versatile football player.
"We used him everywhere," said Szabatura who's an offensive coordinator at St. John Bosco in Bellflower. "He was one of the best option quarterbacks I've ever had. He's the best athlete I've been associated with in my 10-year coaching career."
Sale was good enough to play in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. as a freshman, but didn't qualify academically. Several schools recruited him as a defensive back, including UTEP, Tennessee and the University of Arizona.
Under Proposition 48 he would have been forced to sit out one season. The NCAA rule stipulates that incoming freshmen must score at least 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (higher or lower depending on grade-point average) and Sale didn't meet that requirement.
"I came here (El Camino)," he said, "because I wanted to stay in shape. I didn't want to just sit around for a year. I could never do that."
The colleges that wanted him out of high school still want him. In addition Sale has received letters from UC Berkeley, Syracuse, Washington State and Nebraska.
He hasn't decided where he'll go, but he wants to leave the state to "see what's out there." For now though, he's preoccupied with his performance at El Camino. He wants to leave as a two-time all-American.
Szabatura says anyone who knows Sale knows he can do it. His exceptional drive and ability make it possible, the coach says.
"There isn't a better hitter out there," Szabatura said. "This is the type of kid that delivers pops, big pops."
You'd never think that if you saw him out of his pads and helmet, though.