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.