MLS: The Saving of Santino Quaranta

In January 2006, life couldn't be brighter for Santino Quaranta, or so we thought. He'd fooled us all, including himself.

Standing next to a training field at Home Depot Center, his handsome face smiling despite a minor injury that had limited his participation in national team training sessions, Quaranta exuded confidence and satisfaction. "I really feel a part of things now," he said, "both with D.C. and the national team."

His professional career had hit a few bumps, as it would for any kid who signed a pro contract in his mid-teens. D.C. won an MLS Cup in 2004 but injuries, which had marred 2002 and 2003 as well, limited him to one game. Yet his national team career skied upwards the following year on the momentum of good showings in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and World Cup qualifiers that earned him an invitation to HDC from then-head coach Bruce Arena, and presented him a legitimate chance to make the World Cup squad of 23 players.

"People ask me about this," said D.C. president Kevin Payne at the time, "and I tell them, 'Do you think he was playing poorly and Bruce just decided to take a flyer on him?' He was playing very well for our team and Bruce saw that and that's why Bruce gave him a chance with the national team."

Quaranta had married his childhood sweetheart, Pretina, and the couple lavished love and attention on their young daughter Olivia, who'd been born two years prior to their wedding in 2005. Easygoing, likable, attractive, Quaranta said all the right things about the setbacks in his professional career and personal life, and looked, for all purposes, the part of a blossoming young athlete.

Yet already he'd taken a wrong turn, a wicked swerve into drug addiction and denial that uprooted his career and marriage and left him just this side of dead. In the next two years he would be traded twice and then waived, dropped from the national team and disowned by his wife. He would squander a small fortune on Oxycontin and other pain pills before extensive surgery and a tortuous 90-day stay at a drug treatment clinic in Southern California yanked him back from the precipice.

"I played well at the Gold Cup, I got a great Nike deal, things were going great," remembers Quaranta. "Everything's good, I've got a daughter and a wife. You've talked to people in these situations before, man, and the mindset is totally absurd. But for me it made sense. I looked in the mirror and thought I really looked good."

On June 3, 2008, Quaranta sat in the team dugout at RFK Stadium. Looking out on the smooth grass field he once feared would never again feel his boots, he ended a long silence regarding his miraculous recovery.

"People can look at me now and see me doing well and having some success and playing 90 minutes every game," said Quaranta, his face squarely turned towards mine, "but eight months ago, you wouldn't want to look me in the eye. I couldn't look you in the eye and I detached myself from the rest of this world. I really did. I was gone. I was in a different place and it's somewhere that I wake up every morning and remind myself where I was."

When D.C. United announced early in 2008 that Quaranta, who began his career with United at age 16 in 2001 and played five seasons before the team traded him to Los Angeles, would rejoin the team for preseason training, no details were provided of what had occurred before and after his waiver by New York a few days into the New Year.

After signing a contract in early March, he would only hint at a personal struggle, talking about being mired in a "dark place" he'd fortunately been able to escape. He had taken a personal leave of absence from United in 2006 and had offered no explanation as to what necessitated a week-long absence. In both cases, drugs and alcohol were the answers to all the questions fans were thinking and reporters were asking.

"It was a possibility, for sure, that Santino wasn't going to come back and play," says United midfielder Ben Olsen, one of the few people Quaranta confided in during his recovery. "I'm glad he proved a lot of people wrong and I know he's glad he proved a lot of people wrong."

A poor training camp at HDC in January 2006 had eliminated Quaranta from 2006 World Cup consideration, and his performances for D.C. had deteriorated alarmingly. His fortunes turned from bad to worse when he failed a random drug test in July 2006 -- shortly after his former U.S. teammates faltered in the World Cup -- by testing positive for cocaine and he was sent by the league to Southern California to a clinic for evaluation and possible admission.

By then, Quaranta was downing dozens of pain pills daily yet despite a startling weight gain of more than 20 pounds and lackluster fitness he had hidden his addiction through charm and smooth talk. Caught red-handed and facing the music, rather than pleading for help, he turned on the spigots again.

"I bull------- my way around it and I was really good at that," he says of telling doctors all was well, which is what they wanted to hear and believe. "I could get myself out of situations. I told them I didn't have a problem, I just got a little carried away. I was proud of myself: 'Man, you're ----ing good.'"

By league mandate, a player who fails a drug test has to be tested regularly, so Quaranta stayed away from cocaine. But painkillers aren't covered by the league's drug policy, so he could pop them with impunity.

"I'd have pills in my pocket. I've taken them in that locker room," he said while motioning with his head to the rooms and offices behind the dugout at RFK. "After practice, as soon as I got out, I would take them.

"Some days I would take 40 to 50 pills. Easy. And try to play. That was a normal day for me. I should have been dead, with the amount of Tylenol and codeine and Oxycontin I was putting into my body. I was a full-blown addict, man. I can't explain it any other way. My life revolved around that."

LIFE IN LA. United gave up on him just a week after he returned from his leave of absence. It traded him to the Galaxy for a partial allocation.

"I was cheating the team and I was cheating myself," says Quaranta, whose denial had escalated to nearly delusional status. "But coming into work everyday, my mindset was that everything was all right and I was doing the right thing."

He'd played just four games for D.C. in 2006. He scored three goals in 12 games for the Galaxy despite seldom playing well. Yet on a team careening through a poor season that would fall short of the playoffs despite the presence of Coach Frank Yallop and Landon Donovan, Quaranta's erratic play was but a footnote to widespread recrimination.

When Pretina asked about his irritable behavior and unhealthy appearance, Quaranta relied, again, on lies and reassurances

"I had a lot of excuses," he says of concerned confrontations with his wife. "I was very good at that. It's so sad because I love my daughter, I love my family, I love my wife, I love my family, but I just couldn't be any of the above.

"I'm likable and I like everybody. I appreciate everybody. When you don't have anything to offer, when you're declining, when you can't deal with life on life's terms, that's scary."

Upon being traded to New York a year ago, Quaranta lashed out bitterly at Galaxy president Alexi Lalas and the team to hide his public shame and embarrassment at yet another dismal failure.

By then, sources had told me of a failed drug test though I had no inkling of his opiate addiction. Not for the first time, Quaranta had thrown away a lifeline tossed by people willing to help him.

"I have a lot of respect for Alexi," says Quaranta. "I respect his decisions because he makes them and good or bad, he lives on that. Was I wrong? Of course, I was wrong. They should have got rid of me when I showed up for training camp."

During his time in LA, a former Galaxy employee told me a story of strolling through one of the beach cities that dot the Southern California coastline and seeing a raving, ranting figure lost in a world of agitation.

"I thought it was a homeless person," the former employee said to me. "Then when I got a little closer, I said, 'Oh, it's Santino!'"

Asked when the downslide began to accelerate, Quaranta cited the first time he'd trained while high, near the end of the 2005 season. He'd been semi-dependent on Vicodin and other opiates during a rough run of injuries: sports hernia (2002), knee damage (2003), and numerous groin surgeries (2004), but he crossed a treacherous line in 2005. Once he blew through the pills he got with prescriptions, he'd find the right street corners and alleys to meet dealers.

"I remember if I was home at night, my wife would be in bed with the baby and I'd take a few pills and play video games," he says. "She wouldn't really know. That was it and I'd think, 'That was nice.'

"Then I started a little earlier. It wasn't because of pain. I had a couple of surgeries, too, but I'm not blaming it on that. Then it just got to the point, I remember the first time I took 'em before practice at 10:45 [a.m.], just like it is now. I had a great practice, my body felt great, and I like, 'Man, that's the ticket for me.' That was at the end of '05, when Peter [Nowak] was still here.

"That was the best practice I'd had in a long time. You've got to be kidding me. I can have fun and I can play great? That went on and with the injuries I just started taking more and more pills, and I didn't even get it. I didn't get it. It got worse and worse."

ROCK BOTTOM. In 2007, Quaranta played six games for the Galaxy before it sent him to the Red Bulls, who were being coached by Arena. He managed to play just three games before suffering a serious foot injury that would require extensive surgery in early October.

Back in Baltimore, separated from his family by Pretina's insistence that Olivia not see his deteriorating condition, Quaranta downed pills and drank at a furious pace and ignored follow-up medical appointments. In every regard - his injury, his mindset, his health, his career, his marriage - he'd run out of options.

"Numbing myself really worked," he says. "I put it off to the next day, everything. Those days were bad, man. I stayed in a lot. The opiates and the pills, they were bad. I was down and out. I mean down and out. You know what these pain pills do to you. They kill you.

"I don't know if I would have made it much longer, literally. I don't know if I would have been living at the rate I was going."

On his right wrist is a tattoo, one of many that adorns his body. In dark ink, alongside a bracelet of barbed wire, are the numbers 10-23-07, the date he reached out, just in time.

His agent Dan Segal contacted Dan Cronin, who runs the substance abuse programs for MLS. Cronin directed Quaranta to a treatment center in Malibu, Calif., where Quaranta would join entertainment celebrities, famous athletes and giants of industry.

"I told him at 10," says Quaranta, "and I left at 2:30 that same day."

Quaranta stayed for 90 days, at first undergoing a 60-day primary phase, then returning to Baltimore for Christmas, and heading back for a month of transitional sessions and meetings.

"It was hell," he says. "I was very sick when I went to California, I mean really sick, just horrible. I didn't sleep for 33 days. I had to do it myself. There was nobody who was going to be able to help me until I was ready.

"The first day I thought, 'it's not so bad.' For 33 days, I didn't sleep normal. I'd sleep for two hours here, three hours there, two hours. I had to take a salt bath every day because my body hurt so bad.

"Thirty-three days in, I slept for five hours, and I was so happy. It was the best feeling, not to be twitching all night. I thought, 'Man, this is great.'"

A foot specialist in Los Angeles familiar with U.S. soccer and Quaranta's demise helped speed his rehabilitation, and arduous work with weights and running carved him back into shape. Segal contacted D.C. officials in early February about giving him a look, which Payne, head coach Tom Soehn and general manager Dave Kasper agreed to do after Olsen and Jaime Moreno vouched for him.

"Originally, before he left here the first time, we talked to him many times," says Payne. "We had many of those conversations. But I think they were a little bit in one ear and out the other. I saw a huge difference when I sat down with him in February.

"When he was younger, things came easy, and now, he appreciates that the best things in life are the ones that you really fight for. He's just a different kid now and I couldn't be more pleased. He and his wife and his lovely daughter, I'm just very, very pleased for him."

Each week Quaranta undergoes mandatory drug tests, and attends three or four meetings of Alcoholics' Anonymous and recovering addicts. He calls his sponsor, a Baltimore fireman, every day. He speaks to recovering drug abusers often.

"This is the first time I've talked about this, and I think there has to be more of this, so people know," he says, gazing at the RFK grass, the scoreboard, the stands that bounce up and down when the Barra Brava gets it going.

"I've come from the bottom. The only thing worse was I could have been living on the street. Other than that, I faced the worst. I was dead, a dead man walking. Sitting here is a blessing.

"I've got to give a lot of credit to Kevin and Dave and Tommy, and I've talked a lot with Jaime and Benny. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them. I know I wouldn't be here."

(This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

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