By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
* * *
Quaranta grew up in Highlandtown, a diverse, working-class section of Baltimore east of the polished Inner Harbor and trendy Fells Point. His father, Tommy, helps manage an apartment complex and his mother, Lisa, is a hostess on the suite level at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium. Santino is the eldest of four sons in a family with deep Italian roots.
Soccer was his passion from a young age, and after playing two seasons at Archbishop Curley High School in Baltimore, he entered an elite residency program in Bradenton, Fla. About 18 months later, after deciding to turn pro at age 16, Quaranta was selected by United in the first round (eighth overall) of the 2001 MLS draft. Until Freddy Adu arrived three years later at age 14, Quaranta was the youngest player in league history.
A gifted attacking player suited to play in midfield or on the front line, he mixed strength and speed with ball skills and a finishing touch. In his rookie year, 10 of his 16 appearances were starts and his five goals were third most on the team.
But over the next three seasons, injuries limited him to 24 league games and four goals, and during United's MLS Cup season in 2004, he appeared in only one match. The following year, he regained his health and contributed five goals and a career-high five assists.
His addiction, however, deepened.
The pressure of being a young pro athlete seemed to contribute to his demise.
"I sacrificed high school, I sacrificed weekends because I was away -- the normal things I didn't get to do when I was growing up," he said. "So when I signed a contract, who was going to tell me what to do? Who was going to guide me? I made it happen, I made the sacrifices, I am going to enjoy it and spend my money. . . . I was doomed from the start."
After practice, he would be the first to leave the locker room and head to White Marsh, northeast of Baltimore, where he lived with his wife, Petrina, and daughter, Olivia, born in 2003 when he was 18. On the way home, however, he would stop in Baltimore to buy painkillers. "I needed it to get me through the day," said Quaranta, who got married in 2005.
Some of his teammates recognized changes in Quaranta but were unaware of his serious drug use. He arrived late for practices, wore the wrong outfits for road trips, missed medical appointments and eventually ditched the team-sponsored tutoring sessions necessary to earn a high school diploma.
"Tino had a wonderful knack for telling you what you wanted to hear," said midfielder Ben Olsen, a member of United since 1998 and the only MLS player Quaranta communicated with while in rehab. "He is as charismatic and loving as a person could be. You wanted to believe him. He was like a con man: He knew exactly what to say and when to say it. . . . A lot of us brushed it off, unfortunately, on him being a kid. And maybe that's why he got away with it."
Team President Kevin Payne also recognized changes in Quaranta, whose dark secrets contradicted a colorful and engaging personality.
"It would take weeks to pin him down just to talk," he said. "And when we would talk, it never seemed he was being truthful. I was worried about his conduct and professionalism. He was running the risk of wasting a prodigious talent."
Team officials said they first learned of his drug problem in 2006, when United players were subject to a random test conducted by MLS; Quaranta's result came up positive for cocaine use. As a condition to remain in the league, he had to submit to regular drug tests at home for several months, which meant he had to explain it all to his wife.
"He said he made a mistake and it wouldn't happen again," said Petrina, who first met Santino at an eighth-grade dance. "He used all the excuses."
Fearing another positive test, Quaranta kept away from cocaine but continued to swallow painkillers, which don't violate league rules. MLS's substance abuse program is included in the collective bargaining agreement with the players' union but is confidential.
Quaranta's behavior remained unchanged, and United had had enough. In August 2006, the day before United played world power Real Madrid in Seattle, the club announced it had traded Quaranta to Los Angeles for player acquisition funds.
"We knew what we were getting into," Galaxy President Alexi Lalas said. "With the appropriate leadership and right environment, you believe it is going to work."
Said Quaranta: "I would have traded me a long time before that. My attitude was terrible. . . . I told myself, 'Man, maybe this will be good for me; I'll get away from D.C. and Baltimore.' "
Every time he tried to quit taking pills, however, he suffered from withdrawal symptoms. "I started to meet people. I am attracted to people like me. I am attracted to the craziness," he said. Before long, he was hooked again and buying pills on the street. His wife and daughter soon joined him out west, and "Petrina knew what was going on [with the drugs]. I was changing as a person," he said. "I was chasing happiness, and my happiness were in these pills."
Back in Baltimore during the offseason, Quaranta said he was spending $300 to $500 per day on pills. When he returned to the Los Angeles area to prepare for the 2007 season, his weight ballooned to 205 pounds, 25 more than he carries now. He struggled to complete fitness runs and "ate pills all day long," said Quaranta, who, according to a report by the Department of Health and Human Services, was among 5.2 million Americans using prescription pain relievers for nonmedical use in 2006.
When his family rejoined him in Los Angeles, he again tried to quit.
"I said I was done, I can't do this anymore," he said. "The first four or five days, the bed was soaked because I was sweating so bad. It was emotional for [Petrina], but she didn't know it was this bad. That emotional attachment, the obsession, it had not lifted."
So Quaranta found a dealer and got his fix. His wife thought his condition had improved without pills, but soon she was finding them in his pockets.
By last summer, the Galaxy had given up on Quaranta and traded him to the New York Red Bulls, where he was reunited with Bruce Arena, the former U.S. national team coach. A year and a half earlier, Quaranta had squandered his chance to earn a spot on Arena's 2006 World Cup squad by arriving at a winter training camp in terrible condition. But Quaranta's immense potential and low asking price (a conditional draft pick) led to another deal.
"We told him, 'We want to give you an opportunity, you have something to prove and we believe in you,' " said Red Bulls sporting director Jeff Agoos, who declined to discuss Quaranta's drug use other than to say, "I'm sure there were other issues going on."
Still hooked, Quaranta said he would dash from practice in Montclair, N.J., to Baltimore almost every day to buy a new supply. He partied into the night, got a few hours' sleep at a friend's or family member's house, then rushed back in time for practice. It should have been about a three-hour drive each way, but "when your stomach hurts and you need pills, you do it in two," he said.
Three games into his stay, Quaranta's season was over, the result of a foot injury.
Things were bad, but they were about to get worse.
* * *
He reached bottom after returning to Baltimore, where he drank heavily and continued consuming pills. He ignored pleas from his wife and parents to get help. On Oct. 7 last year, he underwent surgery on his foot. He polished off the prescribed painkillers in a few hours. The next day, on crutches, he hobbled to the ATM and then to his dealers.
"I remember being at the top of a parking garage downtown one night," he said. "I'd been partying. I was looking down on all the people having fun. I said, 'I don't want to live anymore, I might as well jump off this [expletive] thing.' "
He called Petrina, who drove him home.
A few days later, for reasons unclear to Quaranta, his dealers refused to sell to him. The next morning -- Oct. 23, 2007, the date etched on his right forearm -- he called the league office in New York begging for help. Through his agent, Dan Segal, he contacted Dan Cronin, a counselor who runs the NHL and MLS substance abuse programs. Cronin arranged for him to be admitted into the treatment center in Malibu. On his way to the airport, he made one stop: for pills. "I didn't want to freak out and open the emergency door," he said.
The first three weeks were miserable. A fellow patient helped him overcome problems sleeping by reading out loud a book on explorer Ferdinand Magellan. "I am curled up, physically sick, listening to a man read, and that would soothe me," he said.
Petrina visited on family weekends. He spent 60 days in primary care, returned to Baltimore for Christmas week, then went back to the facility for a transitional stage.
All the while, he was working himself back into shape by running and hitting the weight room. He dropped weight and regained muscle tone. His foot healed quicker than expected.
Upon his release, he boarded a plane and faced another sudden challenge. Sitting next to him in first class was a Baltimore Ravens player he used to drink with. (Quaranta declined to identify him for this interview.) Reluctant to tell his friend where he had been, Quaranta politely declined the mini-bottles of liquor placed on his armrest and invitations to a party that night.
Back home, every week includes two mandatory drug tests, three or four meetings for recovering addicts and alcoholics, and daily conversations with his sponsor, Derrick Butta, a Baltimore fireman who had similar problems. Reality set in, as well: After the Red Bulls waived him, he had no job.
United officials said they were unaware of Quaranta's plight until Segal called them saying Quaranta was looking for a second chance.
"There was a lot of hesitation on our part," General Manager Dave Kasper said. "But deep down, he is a teddy bear and we've always really liked him. We talked to a lot of people who felt he was in a good place."
Payne said he felt the team owed Quaranta another opportunity, in part because "there were probably things we should have done differently for him" early in his career.
Olsen and team captain Jaime Moreno vouched for Quaranta and, after separate meetings with Kasper, Payne and Coach Tom Soehn, he earned his way back onto the team. His modest contract is laden with incentives.
"He is a totally different person," Kasper said. "To his credit, he has been nothing but a true professional. He finally gets it."
Primarily filling the role vacated by the injured Olsen on the right side of midfield, Quaranta has played in all 12 league games, starting nine, and has two goals and two assists. In addition to the drug tests and therapy, United mandated that he finish his high school work this summer. He counsels other drug abusers. He is living with Petrina and Olivia and has strengthened the bond with his parents.
Most importantly, he has turned away from pills and alcohol.
"Is there a temptation today? No," he said. "I can't tell you what will happen tomorrow. I live for each day."