Tatu converts a `mistake' into unparalleled career

Legend of indoor game brings Sidekicks here

Soccer

January 10, 2003|By Glenn P. Graham | Glenn P. Graham,SUN STAFF

He was about to turn 20 and it was the best time to be in his native Brazil: Christmas was coming, then New Year's with Carnival, and his birthday after that.

The year was 1981 and if you had told Tatu - the diminutive, goal-scoring machine who retains an infectious, boyish smile - that he would still be in the United States now, with nearly 20 illustrious professional indoor soccer seasons behind him, he would say you were either joking or just plain crazy.

"The decision to come to the United States was very difficult for me," said the 40-year-old player/coach of the Dallas Sidekicks, who will visit the Blast tonight at 1st Mariner Arena.

"I didn't speak the language. I felt I was downgrading my career coming to play here instead of staying in Brazil. It also was a fun time of year for me and there I was having to go to the U.S. ... But looking back, it was the best decision I made in my life."

After two years, starting in 1982, with the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the old North American Soccer League (which then played both indoor and outdoor seasons), with whom he began his jersey-tossing tradition after a goal, Tatu signed a two-year contract with the expansion Sidekicks of the former Major Indoor Soccer League that has turned into nearly 18 seasons.

He has led the Sidekicks to four championships, won 11 scoring titles, been named the league MVP six times and been on 10 all-star teams.

More importantly, Dallas - the city from the state that likes everything big - has taken in the 5-foot-6 legend as one of its own. No professional athlete has ever had a longer continuous tenure in Dallas than Tatu, who surpassed Bill Bates and Randy White of the Cowboys after 15 seasons.

"When Tatu hit 15 years and went on to 16 - and it's even more now - he was quite proud of the fact that he had been able to maintain his performance and stay in the city," said former Sidekicks coach Gordon Jago, who came with Tatu from Tampa Bay and stayed on through 1997.

He is revered in Dallas. He has been the face of the Sidekicks from Day 1, contributing to the community off the field (particularly with children) as much as on.

Tatu said the legs that have helped produce 851 goals and 719 assists in 620 games have not been there the past few years. But relying more on experience, positioning and the respect of opponents, he has 14 goals and a team-high 21 assists for 49 points this season.

"He reads the game better than anybody out there," said Sidekicks defender Brad Flanagan, a Dallas native who grew up watching Tatu in his prime.

"It's still pretty cool watching him because - even though it's his last year and everyone is saying he's old and this and that - he's still got it. He's still scoring goals, picking anybody out and holding the ball better than anybody."

One of the biggest factors in his return this season was the Sidekicks' return to the MISL after spending four seasons in the now-defunct World Indoor Soccer League.

It's another chance to go back to familiar cities that carry cherished memories.

His last visit to Baltimore was on March 29, 1992, when the Blast beat his side, 5-3, before 10,285 fans. Tatu still recalls one fan in particular.

"There was one woman, probably in her 40s, who would always sit behind the goal and give me grief," said Tatu.

"Then, I remember making an appearance way back somewhere around the Baltimore area. This girl comes and she's standing in the line - and it's a pretty decent-sized line - and she finally gets to the front. She didn't want anything, just to tell me I'm a jerk. I was impressed - those are good memories."

Married with three children and a new house on 20 acres just outside Dallas, Tatu said two things have kept him going at such a high level for so long.

"First, you have to be competitive, the guy who hates to lose. The second thing is being afraid to be embarrassed. I think that's one thing I always feared. I've always wanted to do the best I can and I'm not afraid to go out and work as hard as I can."

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