SAN DIEGO — When Branko Segota began played indoor soccer with the New York Arrows in 1978, he was a shy 17-year-old.
Though teammates kidded him about his age, others were more serious. The opposition often tried to intimidate the league's youngest player. One night in Philadelphia, for example, the home team protested a game by claiming Segota was too young to play. Major Indoor Soccer League rules then dictated a player had to be 18 years old, but Segota had received league permission to play.
"Branko didn't like anyone calling him a kid," said Socker defender George Katakalidis, a former Arrow. "When people would make jokes he'd say, 'I'll show them I'm not a kid.' He wanted to beat everybody badly to prove he was not a kid. Now, he has become more steady and mature. He has learned to harness that anger."
Today he's as quick with the jokes as he is with his feet.
Already, Segota has taken over from teammate Steve Zungul as the foremost comedian among the Sockers.
On a trip last month to Pittsburgh, the Sockers were riding in a van from the airport to the hotel. Almost everyone was depressed by the snow and sub-freezing temperatures.
"Hey driver," Segota said, "could you turn the air conditioning on?" Everyone laughed, but that was only the beginning.
During the 25-minute trip to the hotel, Segota had his teammates laughing when he cracked ethnic jokes about each player. He learned the barbs from a joke book he bought in San Diego.
"When I met Branko, he was quiet and shy," longtime teammate Steve Zungul said. "He was a really nice boy. I was the guy making jokes then. Branko is becoming more of me in that sense."
The native Yugoslavs first met as teammates on the Arrows in 1978. Since then, Segota has followed Zungul's lead in more than just joke-telling.
Zungul is the all-time leading indoor soccer scorer. Segota, 23, a midfielder, is considered Zungul's heir apparent.
Segota began making impressions in high school while playing for Canadian teams that toured Honduras and Japan. Don Popovic, then the Arrows' coach, heard of Segota through a friend and decided to pursue him.
"When I signed him, I can remember his mother crying and saying 'please take care of my kid,' " Popovic said. "He was just 17, but his mind was going on 25. He was a very mature kid. You don't see some of the things he did at 17 from a 40-year-old."
Early on, Segota reminded Popovic of a younger Zungul. In fact, Popovic is among those predicting that Segota could exceed Zungul's accomplishments.
"From Day One, I realized a player like Branko Segota comes along once every 10 years," Popovic said. "I think Branko is as good of a talent as Steve Zungul, except Zungul has accomplished a lot more in his career."
Segota was born in Rijeka, Yugoslavia, a one-hour drive from Zungul's home town of Split. Segota moved with his family to Canada at the age of 7.
He made an immediate impact his first year of indoor soccer, scoring 25 goals and 22 assists in 21 games. In three previous indoor seasons before 1984-85, he had 118 goals and 98 assists in 87 games.
Since Fort Lauderdale was exclusively an outdoor team, Segota had not played indoors for three years before this season. He enjoyed being away from the indoor game for a while, he said, because Fort Lauderdale toured South America and Europe for offseason exhibition games.
But now that Segota is back indoors, he is trying to follow the lead of his closest friend and road roommate--Zungul.
"I have learned a lot from Stevie," Segota said, "but everybody has his own style. Stevie is a great player. Maybe my goal is going to be to achieve some of the things that he has."
Segota came to the Sockers with the reputation of being a temperamental player.
He had noted strategy disagreements in Fort Lauderdale two years ago with Coach David Chadwick. They clashed over how much defense Segota should play.
But Socker Coach Ron Newman has quickly come to Segota's defense.
"I heard he had a prima donna image," Newman said. "He's certainly nothing like I heard about. He has never given me one ounce of trouble. His teammates get along with him, and his coach gets along with him."
Of course, it's easier to get along with a player when he helps win games. And lately, Segota has had a lot to do with the Sockers' five-straight winning streak. San Diego also has won 12 of its last 14 games.
In the last 14 games, Segota has 28 goals and 14 assists. He is second on the team and third in the MISL in scoring with 51 goals and 31 assists.
And around the league, he is respected for his powerful shots.
"When he first came here, I said I would consider changing my season tickets if I had them behind the goal," Newman said. "I'd think that his shot would break the glass. His shots have to hurt the goalkeeper. I've never seen anybody shoot quite that hard."
Segota has been difficult to stop several times. He had five goals against Chicago Feb. 13, and he had four-goal games Dec. 23 against Los Angeles and March 9 against Pittsburgh.
After the Chicago game, teammates and opposition alike held Segota in high esteem.
"We told our players at halftime to start kicking him more," Chicago goalkeeper Victor Nogueira said. "I guess we didn't kick him enough."
Zungul said that night: "Branko will be better than me. When I came to America (in 1978), I was 24 years old. I put the ball in the net each time I shot. Branko is 23 now, and he puts the ball in the net each time."
There is no doubt Segota has the potential.
"I've been here 20 years," Popovic said. "I have never seen the talent before that I see in Branko Segota. That talent is really starting to show now. He's getting better every day. Right now, he is the hottest soccer player in America."
And he's not kidding.