No, the Tatu who plays in the Major Indoor Soccer League didn't model himself after the no-neck guy on Fantasy Island. Yes, both are short, both sound funny speaking English, both are highly attuned to flying objects, and both make their living as sidekicks. But fortunately for the MISL, that's where the parallel ends.
Tatu is a Dallas Sidekick. Tattoo was Mr. Rourke's. In real life the man who played Tattoo on Fantasy Island founded the Herve Villechaize School of Bad Career Moves when he left the show while its ratings were high. Tatu may have left a bright soccer-playing future in Brazil six years ago, deciding instead to try a career in the U.S., where the sport—at the professional level, anyway—seems to be conducting a disappearing act. Tatu is attempting to do something about the state of U.S. soccer. He has even made it clear that he will give the shirt off his back to get indoor soccer noticed So far this season he has done just that 44 times.
That's the league-leading number of goals Tatu has scored for Dallas. He celebrates each goal—it doesn't matter if he scores at home or on the road—by taking off his jersey and throwing it into the stands. As far as the MISL is concerned, Tatu's jersey jettisons are as colorful as any NFL touchdown dance. Along with talent, charm and good looks, the shirt throwing has made Tatu, born Antonio Carlos Pecorari 25 years ago in Mairinque near S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Paulo, the most marketable soccer player in the U.S. since Pelè.
Getting half naked during games and leading the Sidekicks in their quest of the MISL's Eastern Division crown is only part of what the 5'6", 160-pound forward does on behalf of his sport. Tatu is a promotional dynamo. He makes unpaid appearances at the birthday parties of his youngest fans, puts on soccer clinics, coaches a youth team, makes instructional films, poses for posters and signs autographs until the last kid has gone home happy. "Tatu Toffee" is the latest Baskin-Robbins flavor to hit the Big D. "I am determinated to make our game work in this country," he says.
Other players are among Tatu's biggest fans. They take no offense at his protracted postgoal celebrations, possibly because they are used to seeing people involved with indoor soccer lose their shirts. Recently the New York Express, whose projected success was thought to be the key to landing the MISL much needed national exposure, went under. Before Tatu came to Dallas three years ago, two soccer franchises had failed in the Metroplex.
"He's not doing the shirt thing to put it in your face." says San Diego Socker defender Kevin Crow, who often marks Tatu. "He's doing it to put people in the stands. Everybody is for that."
Tatu has also earned respect for his talent. He dribbles in tight quarters as well as any player in the league, gets open with explosive quickness and shoots hard and accurately with either leg with almost no windup. He thrives on contact, using his strength to "post up" less powerful defenders He also is developing into an unselfish playmaker. In this year's balloting by the players for the MISL All-Star Game, he was the Eastern Division's top vote-getter.
"Right now, Tatu is the best player in the game, the type of player you can build a franchise around," says Shep Messing, the part owner and goalkeeper of the ill-fated Express. "Besides, Tatu is a wonderful guy. There is no sense of ego in what he does. He projects joy, which is what the game should be about."
With the experience derived from 156 goals in the last three seasons. Tatu slings shirts with streamlined efficiency. He never tucks in his jersey, and he gets it over his head and on its way to the stands almost before the scoring light has stopped glaring. On the road he avoids making offerings to hard-core fans who may throw the shirt back.
"If I see a bunch of kids or a sign that says, TATU, I LOVE YOU, I feel safe throwing it there," he says. After a triumphant heave and a few hugs from his team-mates, he gets a new jersey from Sidekick equipment manager Chris Agnes. The team apparently doesn't mind the expense; each jersey costs $39.95.
But in a 6-1 Dallas win last month over the Kansas City Comets in Reunion Arena, Tatu had a problem. After he somehow eluded three defenders and beat goalkeeper Alan Mayer with a pinpoint shot to score his third goal early in the fourth quarter, a worried Agnes handed Tatu another jersey with TATU and 9 stenciled on the back. "This is the last one we have." said Agnes.
With 2:32 left he scored again and could only shrug in apology when fans screamed for the trendiest sports souvenir in Dallas. At game's end, Tatu tossed his shirt into the crowd in retroactive celebration and ran around the perimeter of the field slapping high fives with fans reaching over the protective glass.
"Tatu" means armadillo in Portuguese. Antonio Carlos inherited the nickname from his father, a stocky former railroad worker. By happy accident, Texans have long professed affection for armadillos, even though the nocturnal critters are rarely seen until they have been squashed on the interstates.
Tatu was a promising player for S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Paulo's first-division team in 1981 when Sidekick coach Gordon Jago, then the coach of the NASL Tampa Bay Rowdies, spotted him during a scouting trip to Brazil. Tatu, who was 19 at the time and spoke no English, was sent to Tampa in an exchange agreement between the Rowdies and S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Paulo. He was fearful that he might be throwing away certain success as a soccer player in his native country. "People say I have it easy," says Tatu, "but what got me here was a lot of sacrifice."
It was in Tampa in 1983 that Tatu first tried to enliven American crowds by throwing his shirt into the stands after he scored a goal. "It didn't work so good in Tampa," says Tatu. "It's hard to score outdoors, the fans are too far away and the older players didn't like it."
The next year, with the Rowdies in limbo, Tatu joined the Sidekicks and found that his emotions projected better indoors. His close-to-the-ground style of play was also more effective there Dallas's home attendance jumped from 4,969 in 1984-85 to 6,904 last season. This year the Sidekicks are averaging 8.568 at home, and they are among the league's top attractions on the road.
Tatu is particularly pleased when youngsters come to see him play. "I relate more to the kids," he says. "They don't have the dirt in life that we do. When an adult says something good to me, I always have that feeling, well, 50-50. But when a kid says it. I know it's a hundred percent—maybe because we are almost the same size."
Not that Tatu can't operate in the adult world. His salary is more than $100,000 a year. He owns homes in Dallas and Tampa as well as five condominiums and five houses in Brazil. His town-house in North Dallas is decorated with Peter Kitchell prints and every conceivable type of man-made armadillo. For the last two years he has dated Lene Westerman, a Dallas native whom he met at an indoor soccer complex in which he owned an interest. The boy who was afraid to leave home six years ago is now a man who, when he visits Brazil, can't wait to return to the U.S.
One thing that beckons is his mission to make indoor soccer successful in this country. "I get so froostrated," says Tatu, his pronunciation losing a battle with his emotions. "Something is holding the game back, but I don't know what it is. I just want to break it down."