Tino Lettieri bobs and flaps about the goal mouth like a restless parrot in a rain forest. He preens his jersey, swivels his head and paces between the goalposts, his arms akimbo, like wings.
The opposition has been awarded a penalty kick. Lettieri leans down to the parrot just outside the net. "O.K., Ozzie," he says. "Let's go get 'em."
Ozzie doesn't reply. He just stares. Ozzie is a stuffed toy parrot.
"We can do it," says Lettieri. He lays a big smoochy kiss on Ozzie's beak. "We've done it before. It'll be easy." Then he sets himself to defend the goal.
September 2, 1984
An opponent aims, shoots. Lettieri catches the ball. He gives Ozzie a wink. "Now that I've stopped them from scoring," he says, "will you give me a cracker, Ozzie?"
This isn't Captain Kangaroo's Dancing Bear soccer team. It's the Minnesota Strikers of the NASL. Lettieri, 26, just likes parrots, alive or stuffed. And he's not just a parrot-flake; he's perhaps the best goalie in the league. He led the NASL in goals-against average while playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps in 1982 and '83 (1.23, 0.87), and is second this season, with 1.36, having recently been bothered by a knee injury. Italian born but Canadian bred, Lettieri was voted the league's North American player of the year in '83. "I owe it all to Ozzie," he says.
Make that a pair of Ozzies. Lettieri keeps two real parrots in his Minneapolis apartment. Ozzie is the yellow-naped Amazon. Then there's a red-lored called Lulu. Lettieri doesn't bring the real, live Ozzie to games because yellow-naped Amazons tend to break when struck by soccer balls. In fact, even toy birds are sitting ducks. A fan stole one predecessor of the current stuffed Ozzie, and another Ozzie lost one of his button eyes to an off-target shot. Or maybe it wasn't so poorly aimed. Frustrated opponents have been known to shoot for Ozzie rather than the goal.
Lettieri's parrots have attracted a certain amount of attention, which is why he keeps one around the net. "When I got traded from Vancouver, I could have gone to New York or Minnesota," he says. "My agent asked me if I wanted a little spotlight or a lot. I wanted a lot."
Indeed, Lettieri is just about the only colorful player in a league that needs color desperately. And he markets himself shrewdly. He hands out wallet-sized photos of himself wherever he goes. His uniform is plastered with more endorsements than a NASCAR stock car. Metrodome concession stands offer Ozzie-and-Tino T shirts, hats and jackets, and Ozzie dolls in five different colors. Lettieri gets a royalty on every sale. Last Christmas, Ozzies were the hottest selling toy in Vancouver after Cabbage Patch dolls. Now PARROT POWER has become the Strikers' slogan.
Other teams are running anti-Ozzie campaigns. They've raised banners against Ozzie in almost every stadium and indoor soccer arena; Lettieri has played NASL indoor ball since 1977. In Chicago the Sting passed out crackers to fans. At the '84 indoor All-Star Game there, in which the Sting played the All-Stars, the Sting hired a befeathered mascot to put a hex on Ozzie. Toronto Blizzard outdoor fans placed a miniature casket behind the Strikers' net and stuffed Ozzie inside when Lettieri wasn't looking. Tampa Bay fans pelted Lettieri with stuffed parrots. Elsewhere he has been shelled with peanuts. Some Ozzie haters have gone so far as to mail Lettieri audio cassettes of a Monty Python routine in which a customer tries to return a lifeless parrot to a pet-shop owner who insists it isn't dead. "Wherever we play on the road, fans want to get hold of Ozzie and strangle him," Lettieri says.
The ersatz Ozzie and his keeper do seem to unnerve teammates and opponents alike. "You're trying to be serious," says Minnesota midfielder Barry Wallace, "and Tino's being silly. He seems convinced that his parrot can save a penalty kick."
"Only in America!" sighs the Strikers' Scottish defender, John McGrane.
Lettieri is only 5'8", rather short for a soccer goalie. He compensates with quickness, agility and energy. Opponents try to cook his goose with high crosses and booming shots at the upper corners of the goal, but they rarely succeed. "Tino's small," allows Wallace, "but he seems to grow five times bigger than any other goalie when you shoot at him."
When Lettieri first came to the NASL with the Minnesota Kicks in 1977, he was told he was too small. Even though his first start was a shutout, he rode the bench for most of the year. He played in Greece during the off-season and saw that the national team goalie there, Vassilli Constantinou, was only 5'7". "He was a lot like me," Lettieri says. "He was aggressive, he was mean, he was crazy. He was like a little finch in the net, and like a hawk, too. He'd dive at people's feet and fly all over the place. I told myself that if I was as crazy as him, I'd be all right."
Lettieri went back to the the Kicks, but he lasted longer than they did. The franchise folded in 1981, and he was picked up by Vancouver before the '82 season. When the Fort Lauderdale Strikers moved to Minnesota last January, Lettieri was at the top of their shopping list. "It took six weeks to come to terms," says 'Strikers coach David Chadwick. "Two weeks to sign Tino and another four to get the parrots to agree."
Lettieri bears a resemblance to Robert Blake, who played TV's Baretta, the cockatoo-loving cop. Lettieri's Edina, Minn. apartment is filled with parrotabilia. Even his signature takes the shape of a parrot. He developed his fondness for parrots three years ago after watching a couple of them talk and sing on The Tonight Show. He was sure it was done with ventriloquism. Then he bought a parrot of his own and found it was at least as articulate as he was. Pretty soon he had his own flock: Charlie, a dwarf parrot; Peso, a Nanday conure; Gus, an African gray; Sam, a cockatoo; and Beaky, a cockatiel. He turned one of the three bedrooms in his rented Vancouver house into an aviary, complete with trees, tunnels, swings and tiny soccer balls suspended from the ceiling. "I got to the point where I was buying birds whenever I'd see one," he says. That ended when Ozzie came along and took over the room. "I'd peek through the door at the perch that ran the length of the room," says Lettieri, "and there'd be Ozzie on one side and all the rest huddled together on the other. Then Ozzie would swoop over them and beat them up." Ozzie's bullying didn't last long. "I decided I had to keep Ozzie," Lettieri says. "He's my best bird." So Lettieri sold some birds and gave the others away. Lulu is a recent acquisition.
Ozzie can imitate a catfight, cluck like a chicken and whistle the Colonel Bogey March from The Bridge Over the River Kwai, which is more than a lot of NASL players can do. Ozzie's repertoire runs from "Hurry up" and "Where you going, Tino?" to "skerslurp" and "geezzle-gizzle." Ozzie jabbers through a labyrinth of greetings and phrases, eventually wandering off into a tangle of chirps, croaks, whuffs and raucous shrieks, like Joan Rivers at the Republican Convention.
The live Ozzie made a somewhat auspicious Canadian TV debut two years ago on the Don Herron Show. Herron stood inside a makeshift goal and tried to stop Lettieri, on the attack for once, from scoring. Ozzie observed from the crossbar, punctuating the action with occasional drop shots of his own. Whenever Herron made a save, Ozzie screeched, "Oh, you lucky thing." And when Lettieri finally scored, Ozzie squawked, "Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah!" and fluttered onto Lettieri's shoulder.
"Parrots are so close to being humans," Lettieri marvels. "It's the way they look at you, the way they eat with their feet. Speaking to some people is like talking to a wall. At least Ozzie listens."
Lettieri's ex-wife didn't. She told him it was her or the birds. He still has the birds. His current girl friend, Michelle Nanne, the daughter of Lou Nanne, general manager of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL, is more tolerant.
In a Minneapolis bar recently, Tino and Michelle were chittering away like lovebirds. Lulu was perched on the rim of Michelle's chi-chi, pecking at a French fry that Lettieri's spindly 11-year-old cousin, also named Tino, dangled before her. Little Tino was trying to get Lulu to say "goddam it," but all she'd do was rasp, "ky-ake...ky-ake, yoik...yoik." Big Tino cocked his head and nibbled on Michelle's earlobe. "Think how lucky I am to have a G.M.'s daughter as a girl friend," he teased.
"I don't know why I'm so nice to you, Tino," she said affectionately. "You're such a jerk."
"You want to know the reason I can't stand you?" he cooed. "You smoke, you drink, and...you got no feathers, like Ozzie."
Tino's father, Franco, had been a goalie for the Italian Army team before emigrating to Montreal in 1958 to open a pizzeria. "My Dad was the first guy in Montreal to throw a pizza up in the air," Lettieri claims. Poppa Lettieri ran a very strict house. Tino was the eldest of four children, three sons and a daughter. None was allowed to speak at the dinner table, but if they did open their mouths, the rule was that they'd better speak in Italian. Tino watched in disbelief one night when his brother Enzo asked him in English if he wanted to play hockey after dinner.
"What was that?" demanded Franco in Italian, rapping his fork on the table. "At this table only Italiano is spoken."
"Hey, Pop," Enzo answered back in Italian. "Why don't you go to school like I do, and you'll learn English." Franco sent Enzo to bed for the rest of his adolescence. Maybe Enzo should have asked to go out and play soccer.
To hear Tino tell it, he spent his teens with his wings clipped. "I was always grounded," he says. "I was like a bird in a cage. The moment I went out the door, I wouldn't come back for at least five hours." As penance he'd have to stay home and roll the meatballs, stir the spaghetti sauce or grate the Parmesan, which he hated most. "Though I was raised harsh," he says, "it did a lot of good for me. I've always got to be the best. My father built that challenge into me."
Lettieri is a practical joker of the toothpaste-on-the-toilet-seat school. He impersonates Arab sheiks in hotel lobbies and on airplanes does a lively burlesque of a flight attendant's safety routine. "My Dad was a cutup, just like me," he says. "But when I was growing up, I didn't know that." If Franco Lettieri laughed, Tino's mother would say, "Look out kids, the devil is laughing, and something's going to happen."
Though he and his father are now the best of buddies, Lettieri still sometimes runs afoul of authority. "Tino had a reputation of being difficult to handle," says Chadwick. "He was supposed to be a bad boy who sometimes took his gimmickry too far." Chadwick had been reluctant to deal for the parrot-packing goalie because Lettieri had ruffled some feathers in Vancouver. After Whitecap coach Derrick Posse suspended him twice for insubordination last winter, Lettieri left the team, returned to Montreal and demanded to be traded. "Having to sit on the bench bothered me," he says, "but not as much as the Vancouver property taxes."
Lettieri was yellow-carded at the '84 Indoor All-Star Game for what he calls "illegal parrot downfield." Actually it was for delay of game. And he was ejected earlier this season from a game against his old team in Vancouver. He got his first yellow card for consulting too long with Ozzie before a penalty kick and the second for giving the fans the bird. The Strikers had to use a midfielder in goal and lost 3-2 in overtime. That little escapade brought Lettieri a fine of $500, the heaviest levied by the club this season. "Tino deserves to be put behind bars himself for some of his antics," says McGrane.
Parrot fever even spread as far as the Olympics, where Lettieri and the sawdust-filled Ozzie played goal for Canada's team. Before a pre-Games exhibition with Chile, an official barred Ozzie from the net.
"I looked at Ozzie," says Lettieri, "and said, 'Well, what can we do?' "
For Canada's first Olympic match, against Iraq, Lettieri hid Ozzie in a small duffel bag near the goal.
"What's inside?" asked a ref.
"Just gloves," said Lettieri.
Later in the game he pulled the parrot's head out of the bag and moved it closer to the goal. A swarm of photographers attracted the referee. Lettieri popped Ozzie's head back inside.
As soon as the ref turned his back, Lettieri let the parrot out of the bag again. Ozzie stayed out for the rest of the Games (Canada lost in the quarterfinals to Brazil) after Lettieri convinced the officials that his bird wouldn't bite.
"I just love throwing myself out in front of a crowd," says Lettieri. "When you're finished in this game, people don't care about you anymore, you're just another athlete gone by. So I say, have fun. Do things you can look back on and remember. The time to be serious is when you're dead.
"I want to send people home with my name in their mouths. I'll sleep well as long as they say Tino had a great game or Tino was a clown, or we enjoyed watching him. The moment people boo me and say Tino is bad, I'll pack my bags and the birdman will fly the coop." For now, Lettieri is content to stay on the roost. He's got the spotlight, he's got a G.M.'s daughter, he's got Ozzie—live and stuffed.
In his apron and chefs hat, Lettieri hovers over his kitchen stove preparing his specialty, vodka cream sauce. On the turntable, the record Make Your Bird a Star—a sort of Berlitz for birds—repeats, "Here's looking at you, kid" over and over and over. Ozzie stands in front of his own plate, twirling a strand of macaroni in his claw.
"So, Ozzie," Lettieri says. "Are you happy?"
"This is good! This is good!" says Ozzie. "Oh yeah! Oh yeah!"