By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Tatu could have packed it in a long time ago: He invested well during his big-money days, paid off his homes in Dallas and Brazil, and saved enough to take care of his wife and three children. He doesn't stay with the Sidekicks to pay the rent, nor does he remain so he can be a martyr. Fact is, he hates the politics of indoor soccer, hates traveling, and most of all hates telling veteran players how little he can pay them.
"It depresses me," he says of the league's salary cap, set so low in order to lure more owners into the PSA. "It hurts me. It's sad, because I know how much these guys put into the game, how much love they have for the game, and it hurts me to tell a guy older than me--a guy who's been my roommate--'This is the way it is.' And every year, there's always the worry of are we going to be around or not. That's the kind of thing that kills you, especially when you're young. At my age now, I've been through this so many times, you basically sit tight, and what happens, happens."
Tatu remains only because he loves his sport and can't imagine a life without it; to take away the ball would be like removing a limb. It's really that simple. That--and there is no more loyal employee in the world than Tatu.
Last year, he stayed on as Sidekicks coach as a favor to Jago and Sidekicks co-owners Sonny Williams and Don Carter--the latter of whom founded the Sidekicks in 1984 as a way to keep Reunion Arena filled when his Dallas Mavericks weren't playing. Jago knew Tatu wouldn't play another season under a rookie coach--and he knew the franchise might be sunk without its sole star player back for another season. Getting him to coach meant getting him to stay, and keeping the team alive for at least one more year.
But Tatu will leave eventually. He says he still doesn't like to be referred to as coach and isn't sure this is the career path he'd like to take.
"I still think of myself as a player," he says. "Definitely. That's the first thing. When you're a player, you're always a player. I'm not a coach. I'm a teacher."
It is Tatu's dream to end his career as he began it--playing outdoor soccer. But he knows, at 37 years old, that is one goal slipping further and further from his grasp. His are not the legs of a young man anymore; there are things his body cannot do. Even now, he must explain that to the rookies on the Sidekicks who wonder why the coach does not always practice what he preaches. They don't know of the blown knees, of the torn ligaments, of the stress endured during a lifetime spent playing a game. All they see is the forever-young Tatu, who looks his age only when he stands on a parking lot beneath the sweltering sun, squinting his eyes against the concrete glare.
Yet three years ago, Tatu had his chance to retire on the grass. The Dallas Burn was looking for a name-brand player to put on its inaugural roster, and who better than local hero Tatu--the man who had once been featured in Sports Illustrated ("The Shirtless Wonder"), the man whose glistening fresh-from-the-pool body had been prominently featured in a Sidekicks calendar? Tatu, the leading scorer in the history of indoor soccer, should have been a perfect fit for the Burn. Even now he's better known than anyone on that team, which features the likes of...of...hmmm.
But Tatu says now the money wasn't worth it. He offers the figure, but only off the record--something he often does when the conversation turns to the subject of salaries. Suffice it to say, the Burn offered him far beneath the $200,000 regularly offered to European players in the league--though it wasn't far off from the average salaries of $35,000-$50,000 being given to U.S. soccer players in the MLS.
Yet the low-ball number wasn't the only reason he declined the invitation: There was, among other things, the issue of loyalty. He didn't want to betray Don and Linda Carter, who had rescued the Sidekicks from certain death countless times. He didn't want to abandon Jago, who had brought Tatu with him from Tampa Bay in 1984, when that team's outdoor North American Soccer League team folded.
And perhaps, deep down, Tatu knew that without him, the Sidekicks would be nothing--the nighttime sky without a single star. He's far too modest to say so. Maybe even to think so.
"I hope you're wrong," he says when it is suggested to him that the Sidekicks might not be able to survive his inevitable departure. To that end, he talks about proposing to Don Carter an indoor-soccer facility that could be run by the Sidekicks, sort of like the StarCenter in Valley Ranch. That way, players could work for the team year-round, instead of having to take day jobs. And, he suggests, maybe Tom Hicks might one day like to buy the Sidekicks from Carter; after all, his new sports TV network could use the programming.