Nico Sawtelle Brings All The Right Ingredients To The USF Football Program

The junior linebacker's influence is felt on and off the gridiron

TAMPA — Nico Sawtelle would like to become a physical education instructor. It would seem to be a solid career choice given he is well educated, enjoys helping people and loves sports.

Through lending his time with organizations such as Big Brothers & Big Sisters, the University of South Florida linebacker has already had a positive influence on youths. Chances are the youngsters experienced the many qualities Sawtelle abides by.

“Growing up I was taught to put others first, be a good person, make connections and be friends with people,” said the public health major. “You never know when you are going to have to call on somebody, and then one day you can return the favor.”

In addition to helping kids, maybe there is a city or town that could employ Sawtelle. After all, any municipality could only benefit from employing somebody with such a healthy mindset.

No matter what he does Sawtelle, born in Stuart and raised in nearby Jensen Beach, is sure to be the only person with the first name “Nico.”

Mike and Lisa Sawtelle are proud parents of four athletically gifted children. Nico is the oldest and therefore was the first in line when it came to receiving a Hawaiian name. Mike and Lisa have spent most of their careers teaching and wanted names for their children that differed from those they are surrounded by virtually every day.

“My mother was behind it and my dad was all for it,” said Sawtelle. “They didn’t want to give us the same names of kids in their class or people they knew. They wanted unique names and Hawaiian names are unique. I have met only two people that have my name.”

It is a name that translates to “warrior.” Then there is sister Kiana (rainbow), brother Makai (ocean) and youngest sister Naiya (dolphin).

Kiana played volleyball at Southeastern University and graduates in December. Makai is a junior defensive end and linebacker at Jensen Beach High, where all four siblings attended or currently attend. Naiya, a sophomore at JBHS, has been starring at volleyball and swimming.

“She is about six-feet tall and is the best athlete of all of us,” said Sawtelle, of Naiya.

Athletic prowess is in the bloodlines. Lisa played volleyball and ran cross country at Hillsdale (Mich.) College. Mike wrestled at West Virginia and has been coaching girls volleyball for two decades, including leading the JBHS program to multiple state titles.

Sawtelle, who at one time or another has also lent his time to Meal on Wheels and Paralympics, has benefited greatly from parents who were student-athletes.

“It is great having two athletic parents who knew how to balance sports, school and life,” said the junior, who is on target to receive his undergraduate degree in December. “That was big for me especially in high school. I didn’t want to do a lot of work. I wanted football, football, football. Mom and dad were hard on me telling me that I could not play football if I did not do well in school. That was the rule. Simple as that. Having two athletic parents who got good grades in college gave me something to lean on instead of going about things blindly in certain situations.”

Sawtelle has opened many eyes on the gridiron. He started all 12 of USF’s games at “Will” linebacker, or weak side, last season and placed fourth on the team with 54 tackles.

USF linebacker came up with two huge fourth-quarter turnovers against Georgia Tech on Sept. 8. (Credit: USF Athletics)

The graduation of four-year starter Auggie Sanchez allowed Sawtelle to slide into the “Mike” linebacker position, or the middle, this season. He heads into Saturday night’s game against ECU leading the Bulls in tackles for loss with 4.5, which matches his total from a year ago.

Sawtelle has demonstrated a knack for big plays at big times. His fourth-quarter fumble recovery and interception of a deflected ball against visiting Georgia Tech on Sept. 8 set up the decisive touchdown and the TD that sealed a 49-38 victory. A couple of key second-half stops contributed to a 13-tackle effort at Illinois last week.

“Being in the middle of it all, calling the plays and running the defense are responsibilities that I like,” said Sawtelle, who credits Sanchez for becoming a smarter player. “Moving to ‘Mike’ helped me and that’s where I wanted to play when I got here.”

The 6-foot-2 and 220-pounder, whose girlfriend is USF pole-vaulter Stephanie Lambeth, often relaxes by playing the piano. It is something he took up eight years ago and his favorite tune is the Peanuts theme song.

Unlike Charlie Brown, Sawtelle has not had many awkward moments on the gridiron. Rather, he has become a formidable force while manning the middle of the defense.

“He’s a guy that can run,” said coach Charlie Strong. “It is really deceiving because you look out there and don’t think he can, and then you’ll see him just run past guys and make plays. I just love the way he is playing right now. Like with all (the players), he can get better. But I like what he is doing.”

Sawtelle, a collector of foreign currency who received interest from FAU and Navy before deciding on USF, likes the makeup of this season’s squad. After coming oh-so-close to playing in last year’s American Athletic Conference championship game there are a couple of goals to be tackled.

“We have a good group of guys and a lot of people underestimate us,” he said. “We know what we can do and we know we are a very good team. Our main goal is to win the conference championship and then our second goal is to play in a New Year’s bowl.”

Should USF reach those goals “warrior” will likely live up to his name by being in the middle of the team’s success.

Tom Layberger has been a sports writer and editor since 1990. Among the companies he has worked for are Beckett Publishing, The Topps Company and Comcast. In addition to being a contributing writer for, Tom also writes for and Tampa Bay Business & Wealth Magazine. A native of the Philadelphia suburbs and a University of South Florida grad, Tom is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation. He resides in Tampa.