'I Should Have Been Dead'
Saturday, June 14, 2008
Santino Quaranta's right hand was throbbing, the consequence of a Toronto player stepping on him during D.C. United's home opener in early April. The swelling spread past his wrist and toward the freshest and most poignant tattoo on his ink-covered upper body: "10-23-07," a time stamp marking the turning point in his self-destructive life.
After being examined in the training room at RFK Stadium, he was told the second metacarpal was cracked. Injuries were nothing new to him -- his tally of ailments approaches his career goal total -- but this particular setback presented an immediate challenge: managing pain.
"I told the medical guys, 'You know where I am, right?' " Quaranta recalled. "They laughed because, of course, they knew. No painkillers. They just wrapped it up and gave me some ibuprofen. It didn't hurt that bad. There is no pain like the pain I went through before."
On and off for five years, mostly unbeknown to team officials and teammates, Quaranta grappled with pain -- both emotional and physical. He dulled it by taking drugs, lots of them. Between practices and games, on road trips and U.S. national team duty, his days and nights were spent visiting dealers, partying late into the night, behaving erratically and watching his once-promising career crash.
In an interview this week, Quaranta, 23, estimated he spent $250,000 during his troubled times on alcohol and a variety of drugs, including OxyContin and cocaine. He tested positive for cocaine in 2006, but because he was a first-time offender, MLS did not suspend him and the results were not made public. In the following 18 months, however, his addiction grew progressively worse, culminating with a three-month stay at a treatment facility in Malibu, Calif., last winter.
On Feb. 1, he returned to his home town of Baltimore and began rebuilding his shattered family and resuscitating his career. Convinced that Quaranta had been changed by the ordeal, United signed him as a free agent for barely more than the minimum salary for a senior roster player -- $35,000, a fifth of what he was making at his peak.
Quaranta's admissions are the first of this scale in MLS since the league was launched in 1996. The only other known case involving serious drug or alcohol use was Los Angeles Galaxy forward Edson Buddle, who in 2005 while with the Columbus Crew was suspended under MLS's substance abuse policy.
"I was a one-dimensional alcoholic and addict," Quaranta said in his most extensive public comments on his addictions. "When I tell you nothing else mattered in my life, I am not lying. To know there was a way out was a blessing."
Quaranta's introduction to painkillers came through prescriptions issued for injuries, the first a sports hernia that interrupted his second season, in 2002. "I was like, 'Whoa, this is not bad,' " he said of painkillers Vicodin and Percoset. "It wasn't an instant addiction. It was on and off. I don't know when I crossed the line, but it really got bad. I was a mess."
The injuries -- a knee problem in 2003, a groin ailment that he said required six surgeries in 2004 -- made life easier because he could justify requesting painkillers from doctors.
"The worst time was when I was healthy, because I had to go out and find more pills on my own on the street," he said. "Even when the doctors gave me pills, it was just 20 or 30. I would go through those in a couple hours. I would eat 10 at a time.
"There weren't enough pills in the world for me. You could have put me in Iraq and I would have found a way to get pills. I should have been dead a long time ago."