Eyes on the Goal

With 817 goals to date, the player-coach of the Dallas Sidekicks is one of the all-time leading scorers in the history of the World Indoor Soccer League. Recruited at age 14 by a premier Brazilian soccer club, the 38-year-old native of Mairinque, Brazil, turned pro at 17 and began playing in the United States in the 1980s. The father of three young children recently spoke with Register correspondent Kathy Vilim DaGroomes.

DaGroomes: How do you describe yourself?

Tatu: Sometimes people look at the athlete and say, “You're different,” and they put you in a different place than you're really supposed to be. To me, I'm just a regular person. I have a gift from God, a talent, and I can play a game of soccer, and that's basically it.

Where does your nickname, Tatu, come from?

In Portuguese, tatu means “armadillo.” Daddy used to work in a train station, so he was always under the train, checking the brakes and things like that. An armadillo is always under the grass. So people started calling my father Tatu.

They called my older brother Tatu. They used to call me Tatuzinho, which is a small armadillo. So all three in the family are Tatus. And now, in Brazil, if you call me Antonio Carlos, my given name, I will not answer. Tatu; that's it. And there were a lot of jokes in Brazil when I was playing, because “armadillo” was a strange name, but it helped me.

At what age did you decide you wanted to play soccer professionally?

I've played soccer since I was a kid. But when I really decided, everything was kind of by accident. For one thing, I had a teacher in school who asked me to do a project: “What are you going to do when you grow up?” I did a paper on engineering, but when I presented it, he turned to me and said, “Ah, you're going to be a professional soccer player.”

The second thing was how I got my junior tryout, which was on a Tuesday. My cousin came to me Monday night, saying: “Look, I'm going to São Paulo; I have some business to do. Would you like to come with me? I'll drop you to try out with São Paulo.”

I said, “Fine, no problem.” So there was never the thought, “Hey, I have to make this team.” No. It just happened. And, to me, it was more a situation like, “I really don't want to do this, but I'll just do it.” But then the guy at the tryout asked me to get back with them. It was my favorite team — São Paulo Futbol Club — and eventually I played for them.

How old were you when you began playing in the United States?

It had always been a dream. Growing up in Brazil, the United States was the best country in the world and still is. So having the opportunity to come to America was, to me, something unbelievable.

I was 19, 20 years old, when I first came [to play in Tampa Bay, Fla.]. I was the first one to come, and it was a very good agreement. They needed a kid with a head on his shoulders — who didn't do drugs, didn't drink, and things like that, and who also was a decent soccer player. So I was the one they chose.

Has your faith in God played a role in your success?

Without God, there's no way I would be here. I think that our life is a book, and God writes it. But the beautiful thing about that is, you make the decisions on which way you go.

So it's not like, it's already been decided that you're not going to do drugs. There's a chapter that says you could do drugs — but you will get to a point in your life where you'll say, “Well, I want to go on this road; this is the chapter I want to follow.” But I think the beginning, the middle, and the end of the book are there already; it's up to us to choose the proper way to get to that end.

You coach high school girls’ and boys’ soccer at The Highlands, a Catholic school in Irving, Texas, directed by the Legionaries of Christ. The boys’ team won its league's state championship two of the last three years. What's behind the success?

I've been at The Highlands three or four years, and, yes, we've done well. But you have to give credit to the kids. They work hard. We're not a big school; normally, we are 30-some boys at the high school — 20 were on the soccer team, and some of them had never played soccer. You basically start from zero, from the basics. You build it up; you motivate them.

You place them on the field where you can block and cover some of your weaknesses; you put the talented players on the right spots; and you succeed. We won two out of the three years; and the one we didn't win, we finished third — that's not bad also. So we've been going to the state championship finals the last three years.

But soccer at The Highlands is not, “we have to win.” Soccer, for us, is another tool, the idea being, “Sports and life are no different.”

In life, you have to have discipline; in sports, you have to have discipline. In life, you have to work hard; in soccer, you have to work hard, and have team-work. And you have to have teamwork at your job when you work. You need leadership in soccer and leadership at your job. So almost everything soccer-wise applies on the job.

If you're late for your job, you get fired. If you're late for training, there are consequences: You're not going to play, or you're going to run. So we try to use all these concepts and say: “This is the way it works in life; this is the way it works on a soccer field.”

And it works well here. We teach them, if you're negative — negative goes around and brings more negatives. And positives bring more positives. So we don't want to bad-mouth anybody; we want to be positive. If you see somebody talking bad about the other guy, turn around and say, “No, don't do that.”

So we do a lot of things here, not to build a soccer player, but to build a person. And we've been lucky to get both. And I'm very pleased. Those kids — they're not just good soccer players; they're good kids.

What advice would you give a young person who would like to play professional soccer?

Well, first of all, it is extremely important for them to carry through on their studies. They have to go to school; they have to get their degree. That's the first thing. Then, having the first door open, one can open the next door. If you are good enough, you work hard — those are a couple of things that are extremely important.

And you have to make sure you pray a lot; you ask for God to help you; and you just give it your best shot. First of all, though, make sure you get your degree. Then you go from there.

Do you have a philosophy of life, that is, a principal thought or idea that defines who you are and what you do?

I believe I'm nobody if I don't have God. I think God is the center of everything. You know, God gave me the talent; God gave me everything; and he can take at away at any time. So without God, I'm nothing.

Kathy Vilim DaGroomes writes from Dallas.