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Learning Process : UCLA's Littleton Gains Perspective on Life's Journey

September 14, 1993|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The words come out slowly, spoken softly by a man who has seen life at its base, where survival is first and everything else is extra.

From Lynwood to Carson to UCLA, where he is a senior linebacker, Nkosi Littleton has learned by watching a widespread family and close-knit group of friends.

Each has had a story to tell, and each story has helped shape Littleton's, one he tells reluctantly.

He learned from Frog, for instance.

"I had a friend at Verbum Dei," Littleton says. "We played basketball. We went home for Christmas (vacation), and when we came back, his picture was in a case at school. His nickname was Frog.

"Frog died. He got shot around the corner from my house. I said, 'Oh, my God. This is not what I want to do.' It scared me a lot. At that time, there seemed to be two or three shooting deaths a day. They all had guns, and they all would shoot. If you have a gun, it can shoot and people die--even in Westwood."

Lynwood was tough. So was Carson. Littleton moved there after his sophomore year at Verbum Dei to stay with an aunt and played well enough at Carson High to attract college recruiters' attention.

He has lived in a different world from that of Tim Hundley, who coaches UCLA linebackers. Like many, Hundley, a white man from Oregon and for 18 years a coach on various college campuses, was trying to make sense of the Los Angeles riots a year ago.

"I talked with Nkosi and came away thinking, 'This is a guy who really has a perspective on things,' " Hundley says. "He's a sharp guy, and people really ought to listen to him. I did, and I learned something about what it's like to be a young, black guy in L.A. It was exciting, listening to him."

The perspective comes, in part, from being a 6-foot-1 1/2, 242-pound black man who plays football for a university with a racially diverse campus in largely white Westwood and deals with all the stereotypes that involves. A motor-scooter incident taught him something about how others see him and helped him see others.

"It was in the dorm and I wanted to borrow a friend's scooter," Littleton says. "He gave me the key and said, 'It's the white scooter.' I went outside and there must have been 50,000 white scooters, but I didn't want to go back and bother him, so I started trying the key on them.

"A girl came up and said, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'Trying to find my scooter.' She said, 'That's my scooter,' and I said, 'I'm sorry.' She left, and in a little bit a policeman came up and said, 'What are you doing?' I told him, 'Looking for my friend's scooter. It's a white scooter, and you can see there are thousands of them.'

"The cop said, 'I understand,' and then I found it. The woman had been scared, the cop said. 'Look at you. You're big and you're dark. You're intimidating and you're black. She is white and she was upset.' "

It was the sort of lesson that helps in shaping a life.

"I guess you have to live with stereotypes, but it doesn't mean you have to like it," says Littleton. "Stereotypes bother me, but you deal with them and you don't make stereotypes out of other people. It helps you keep things in perspective."

Littleton became a starter at UCLA as a junior after struggling through two largely uneventful seasons. When the Bruins were ravaged by injury last season, he turned up his play, averaging 8.2 tackles over the last five games. He served notice that his senior season would be more of the same, leading everyone with 11 tackles in UCLA's opening 27-25 loss to California.

He has NFL size and achievement, but perhaps not enough speed to play NFL linebacker. There is desire, but it is tempered by what he calls a "reality check." It is an understanding that there are other things in life besides football.

"I think if you play this game, you have to have higher goals," he says. "Yet, I know my limitations. I can't think, 'It's the NFL or nothing,' because if I do that I lose."

A political science major, Littleton spent an eye-opening summer as an intern with the sheriff's department in East Los Angeles. He worked on budgeting and took an occasional ride in a squad car.

This fall, he continues with his football and his studies, his goals both near and far. He wants to beat Nebraska on Saturday at the Rose Bowl and talks of playing in a Rose Bowl, a game he has seen only on television. And he talks of life beyond school.

"I'm scared of the future," he says. "I don't want to be living at home when I'm 30. I want to be a man. You have so many football players and, what, only 2% of them make it in the NFL? And even if you do make it, what if you get hurt?

"I'm thinking I have to get on with my life, to get the credentials to find a job and live my life. This is only, what, one-tenth of my life? I have a lot of life to go.

"I can say I graduated from UCLA. I worked in the sheriff's department. I'm disciplined. If I have an opinion, I'll give it to you. I'll work hard. That's all I have to offer, and I hope it's enough."

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