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.

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.

Tatu talks about the future of this franchise--one that often looks as though it doesn't have a future--like a man who is in it for the longest haul. "I like to make long-term plans, but staying here 15 years was never in my mind," he says, grinning. "But that's the way it works for me." Maybe someday 15 years will seem like nothing at all.

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