Ain't that a kick?

Tatu has been a Dallas Sidekick for 15 years -- in case you hadn't noticed

It occurs almost as though on cue; a cynical man might even say it's the stuff of cliche. But not more than 10 minutes ago, the man known as Tatu was talking about his place on the food chain of local sports fame. The Dallas Sidekicks' player-coach was saying how, not too long ago, his name used to be uttered alongside those of this city's better-known sports figures. Sure, maybe he wasn't as well known as Troy Aikman or Mark Aguirre--"but I was always 20 yards behind them," he says, smiling. "Whenever there was a celebrity golf tournament, they used to call me. But I usually told them no. I don't like golf anyway."

Tatu is not boasting; he is not a man given to conceit. He even had a flavor named for him at Baskin-Robbins: Tatu Toffee. Michael Irvin can't make such a claim, unless you count Rocky Road.

"But now, I can sit here, and I know there are a few people here who recognize me, but they leave me alone," he says, looking around a packed Addison restaurant on a Sunday morning. "Nobody bothers me for autographs, and if they did, hey, I wouldn't mind at all."

And that's when it happens. A man who looks as though he's in his late 30s sheepishly walks up to the table and says, "Gee, I'm sorry, but you're Tatu, right?" He carries a folded-up envelope and a pen, and he apologizes profusely for interrupting Tatu's meal, but explains he's a huge fan--has been ever since Tatu played in Tampa Bay during the early 1980s. And, well, could he get an autograph? Make it out to Bert. With an e. Tatu obliges--he always has. Bert, with an e, retrieves the signature and backs off with a wide, embarrassed grin and a sincere thanks.

"Now I owe him 20 bucks," Tatu says, sipping from what must be his 10th cup of coffee.

Not too long ago, the man born Antonio Carlos Pecorari 37 years ago in Brazil had seriously, painfully considered retiring from the game he has played since he was a child. The 1997 Continental Indoor Soccer League season was winding down, and the Dallas Sidekicks--once indoor soccer's finest team, champions twice during the past decade--were about to be eliminated from the playoffs by the Monterrey La Raza. The Sidekicks had limped into the playoffs with a 13-15 record, and no one hobbled more than Tatu. His body was a mountain trapped in quicksand; he had been slowed by hamstring trouble, muscle pulls, and a viral infection that would ruin him during the playoffs. Worse, his old friend Gordon Jago--the man who discovered Tatu during a scouting trip to Brazil in 1981--was about to call it quits as head coach and move to the CISL's head office.

It seemed time to move on. He had hit the wall that shatters most pro athletes.

Yet he sits here on this Sunday morning talking about the beginning of another season as a Dallas Sidekick. When the Premier Soccer Alliance's second season begins next month, Tatu will quietly celebrate his 15th year as a professional soccer player--and his second as the team's coach--in a city where his sport receives less coverage than girls' high school baseball. It's almost as unfathomable as the fact that the Sidekicks still exist at all.

Fifteen years as a pro athlete in Dallas. Only ex-Dallas Cowboys Ed "Too Tall" Jones and Bill Bates can make the same claim. (So could Mark Tuinei, until last month.) Yet where they were celebrated for their longevity, Tatu is simply ignored--given perhaps a few paragraphs in the back of the sports section. Like his team, he's too often the thought after an afterthought.

Fifteen years--so much has happened since then, and sometimes, it seems, so little. In 1987, the Dallas Sidekicks were Major Indoor Soccer League champs, taking the title from the Tacoma Stars and then-indoor-soccer scoring champ Steve Zungal in front of more than 13,000 at Reunion Arena. There was even a parade for the Sidekicks through the streets of downtown, the likes of which wouldn't occur again until the Dallas Cowboys won the Super Bowl in January 1993.

Those were glorious days for Tatu and the Sidekicks: the Sports Illustrated stories ("Big D Stands for Destiny"), the calendars, the posters, the ice-cream flavors, the hundreds of jerseys flung into the stands each time he scored. Tatu, seen even by his opponents as the sole reason indoor soccer existed in the United States, pocketed half a million dollars a year back then--the sort of money he might have made had he stayed in Brazil, where he was on the verge of becoming a star before coming to the United States.

But all of that would slowly disappear during the next 12 years. The MISL would eventually collapse and be replaced by the Continental Indoor Soccer League; by the beginning of the 1998 season, the Sidekicks played in something called the Premier Soccer Alliance, which counted Dallas among its four teams.

And the PSA is barely even a league: There were times last season when Tatu would wear another team's jersey, having been loaned out to the Arizona Thunder to play against some international squad. Imagine Ed Belfour in goal for the Chicago Blackhawks. Worse, the PSA barely provides a living wage for its players--about $2,000 per player, per month. That's about how much Rafael Palmeiro makes every time he swings his bat. To call this professional sports would be to stretch the definition until it breaks. That's why Tatu spends his off days coaching high school soccer in Irving or running camps for children. Imagine Deion Sanders calling the plays for the Princeton High School Panthers on Friday nights.

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