Not once did young Antwain Littleton panic. He looked at his new Christmas present—a shiny, big-boy bicycle—and knew he'd be riding it soon.
It took a few tries, but with the help of his father, young Antwain was pedaling. And he was balancing himself. Next thing you know, he was actually riding the bike.
It was then when his mother, Rickeeta Lockard, knew her son could be special. There are some who learn how to ride a bicycle in elementary school. There are others who never learn how to ride at all.
Young Antwain was three years old when he conquered bike riding. Three.
"We knew he was going to be very athletic," Lockard said. "He learned how to ride without training wheels. Antwain was out in the neighborhood as if he'd been doing it forever. The people in the neighborhood couldn't believe it."
To this day, that image still makes Lockard shake her head in disbelief. It's a similar disbelief that Littleton's father, who has the same name, had when his son would climb out of his walker as a baby. Nine-month-olds aren't supposed to do that. Nor are young children supposed to learn how to ride 50cc mini dirt bikes at age five.
But all his life, Antwain has done things he wasn't supposed to. On the football field, one look at him would lead to the assumption he's clogging holes as a defensive lineman for St. John's College High School in Washington, D.C. After all, the now-17-year-old junior is 6'1" and 270 pounds.
But then St. John's quarterback Sol-Jay Maiava hands Littleton the ball. Then gives it to him again. Then Littleton scores a touchdown. And then another.
"Baby Bus" Littleton scored 13 touchdowns this past season over 12 games and has become one of the most intriguing 2021 running back recruits in college football.
Nicknamed because he reminds some high school football followers of a young Jerome Bettis, Littleton is a super-burly back who has a noticeable explosiveness when he carries the ball.
He cuts a unique profile at his position and, because of that, he's fun to watch. And he still has a year of high school left to go.
"He's put the work in," the elder Littleton said. "He didn't come this far to be a lineman. Everyone always says he can't do this or he can't do that—and then he goes out and proves them wrong, and I love him for that."
Like Bettis, Littleton kills stereotypes. He's not the diminutive speedster who can hide behind much larger offensive linemen. He's also not the big ball-carrier who measures up to linebacker status at the college ranks.
"I'm rare," reads the first words you notice on Littleton's Twitter page.
He's also in demand, with scholarship offers from a dozen schools, including Maryland, Louisville, South Carolina, Indiana, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Tennessee, among other programs. He added that he speaks often with Penn State.
"I know in my heart I can play running back at the next level," Littleton said.
He knows it has happened before for players of his profile, since he's been researching some of the greatest to ever carry the football. Bettis is one of them.
"Knowing he was one of those big, bruising backs who lasted a long time in the NFL, back when people didn't think big backs could last a long time," Littleton said of Bettis, "he was one of the best to ever do it."
Despite the understandable comparison to the former Steelers great, it's another Hall of Famer Littleton hopes to emulate.
"Earl Campbell is my favorite of all time," he said. "He was just a different breed.
"He used to wear big thigh pads back in the day, and my mom used to show me film on him. She always said I have the same running style where I run through people. He always got extra yards after contact.
"And most people didn't know how he was able to score long touchdowns."
Littleton's highlight reel is loaded with Campbell-like runs—a burst out of the backfield, a truckstick or two over unsuspecting defenders and, eventually, into the end zone. Playing against California power Mater Dei High School, one of the elite high school teams in the country, Littleton produced runs that actually caught the attention of rapper Wale.
Along with teammate Colby McDonald in the St. John's College backfield, the two made up their own version of Thunder and Lightning, combining to run for more than 1,400 yards last season. McDonald is a stout 5'11", 200 pounds; he's just smaller standing beside Baby Bus.
"I wasn't always this big and solid," Littleton said. "At one point in time, I was smaller. I just started lifting and saw my body grow."
Despite getting bigger, he did so without losing his speed, agility or explosiveness. Few guys his size run the 40-yard dash in 4.71 seconds. Add in his 325-pound bench press, and he meshes brute strength with uncanny quickness and acceleration.
It makes for a daunting challenge for any team lining up against St. John's College. And it could be a disadvantage for the team that doesn't land him when he signs his national letter of intent around this time next year.
"I love watching him," Lockard said, "because he's an all-out gladiator when he plays."
As a baby, Littleton wasn't oversized. He was born weighing seven pounds, 11 ounces. His mother stands 5'5". His father is right at six feet.
Sometimes, you are simply blessed with physical traits that are unexplainable. Littleton's size isn't supposed to accompany the speed and agility he possesses.
"People are just used to smaller backs," Lockard said. "Even now, people aren't used to seeing him move the way he does at 270, 275. To us ... this is him all of his life."
Rewind to almost eight years ago. Littleton was a 10-year-old playing up in age for a Maryland youth team called the West Laurel Stallions. He was asked to be a part of the Stallions' special teams on kickoff returns. He was on the second line, and the opposing team kicked to him.
He didn't score, but a 50-yard run to set up a score had everybody at the playing facility looking at his family. His father told them what he believes others see now.
"Listen," his father said, "when you put Antwain in the backfield, he changes the dynamic in so many ways. And I'm not just saying that because I'm his dad. His talent speaks for itself if you give him a chance."
The next practice after the game, Littleton—who had played defense all season—was learning read-option plays and seeing time at quarterback. It wasn't long before he was made part of the offense.
"Coach called me to the sidelines after halftime and told me, 'You're going in at quarterback,'" Littleton said. "He said, 'We're going to run a read option to the right.'"
The result of the play: an 82-yard touchdown run. Littleton had never been a skill-position player, so scoring touchdowns was something he only celebrated with teammates. Once he found that opening, though, the dynamic changed. Now, Littleton can say he's no stranger to the end zone. He celebrated with teammates more than a dozen times this past season. For a kid who never scored before, not scoring has become something of an anomaly.
"I expect to get in," he said. "Every time."
Earl Campbell wore No. 34 in the NFL. Jerome Bettis wore No. 36. Littleton doesn't wear either. Instead, he wears something more personal, the No. 7, to honor a cousin who was much more than a football embodiment.
Reginald "Reggie" Lockard was a true role model to Antwain Littleton. An older cousin who helped take care of him when his parents had to work, Reggie also made sure Antwain made it to school. He picked him up from practices, played with him, kept him out of trouble, mentored him...the things many older cousins do with their younger family members.
Littleton remembers waking up from one particular car ride home in 2008. He was greeted by Reggie, and he hugged his older cousin, who told him he'd see him the next day.
Early that following morning, Reggie was killed. He was a homicide victim, shot while hanging with friends. He was only 27.
"To this day, I think about him," Littleton said. "I wear No. 7 for him. I was seven when he passed away."
Antwain's parents know full well the hole in his life Reggie's death created. "He was my first cousin, but he was like my brother," Rickeeta Lockard said. "We grew up together, and he would take Antwain out to play. He always said Antwain was going to be special. He always said you just don't see him doing what other kids are doing."
With every score, Antwain thinks of what Reggie would have thought of the way he bulldozed over a defender or the way he made a jump-cut to find the end zone.
Littleton even managed to talk his parents into letting him get a tattoo in remembrance. Covering half his arm, the image rises from a rose at its base into a clock above that points to 9:21—symbolic of Reggie's birthday, Sept. 21.
"He's always with me," Littleton said. "Even when I'm in practice, I give it my all, because he always told me how I practiced would be how I played in a game."
The season is over, so Littleton, once the gladiator his mother dubbed him, has reverted back to a mild-mannered, fun-loving guy. He's somewhat shy and kind of a loner until you really get to know him. He honors all of his role models by being the same for his younger siblings. Adrian Littleton is a freshman tight end for St. John's College, and he receives tutelage from his older brother all the time.
Antwain had a good junior season. St. John's started 2-4 as it navigated a brutal regular-season schedule that included national powers from Florida, Texas, California and Pennsylvania before finishing with a regular-season sweep of the WCAC, one of the top conferences in the country top to bottom.
In the eyes of some, however, "good" isn't enough to convince them that Littleton can be a lead back at the next level.
Some recruiting analysts project him to play defensive tackle or linebacker, and 247Sports has him rated as a 3-star prospect projected to play...inside linebacker.
Others, however, do see his value in the backfield. Rivals has him as a 3-star talent at running back, and the majority of the schools to offer extended scholarships want him to run the football.
"He wants to be a running back, hands down, and I can't do nothing but support that," Antwain's father said. "You've got your critics and everybody telling him he'll be a lineman. I just tell him to go out, have fun and do what you love to do.
"Running back, that's where his heart is. There's politics in everything, but when you put Antwain in the backfield, no one makes an impact like he does."
It's what Baby Bus has done all his life: defy the odds, shock the system, silence the critics. Not playing running back in college, he said, would be a slight slap in the face—even though he's open to doing whatever to make his future team better.
But no one can blame him for wanting to do what others who fit his profile have done before and done well enough to reach the Hall of Fame.
"My mom always said I'm one of a kind," he said. "I might as well show that I'm one of a kind."
Damon Sayles is a contributor for Bleacher Report. He's written for a variety of media outlets, including ESPN and the Dallas Morning News. Follow him on Twitter, @DamonSayles