Clint Peay eased into a chair in an Italian restaurant on Columbia's east side, and the guy waiting to buy him lunch couldn't help noticing how gingerly he pulled his left leg into place. Peay's only 27, and it was movement distressing to witness.
That left knee ...
It's scarred - four surgeries' worth.
It finished Peay's pro soccer career prematurely. Formally, the five-year career ended in November, although, he said, he had accepted the fact long before then. He's back home in Howard County, enjoying the son his wife, Holly, delivered nine months ago, doing commentary on Comcast SportsNet's broadcasts of D.C. United games, helping friends coach a little youth soccer and expecting employment this fall as a stockbroker.
That left knee ...
Truth is, said Peay, his playing soccer is done, period.
"It's pretty much arthritic," said Peay, who began playing with his two older brothers in Columbia's Hannibal Grove apartments and developed into a standout in club ball, at Oakland Mills High and the University of Virginia. "There's nothing [in terms of cartilage] left. ... Even in a beer league, you wouldn't want me on your team."
Peay has experienced more competitive success than any of the dozen or so other Columbians who have reached national and pro ranks in the sport.
Among them are Desmond Armstrong and Columbus Crew star Dante Washington, who, like Peay, earned Olympic-team status.
What sets Peay apart are championship rings. Any player cherishes one. Peay owns seven.
"They're home, in their boxes - tucked away," he said. "Maybe one of these days I'll set up a place where I'll display them. But, I don't know, they're bulky. I don't wear them."
Four straight NCAA Division I championships at Virginia,. Peay started all four of those years, one of four players able to say that.
Three Major League Soccer championships with D.C. United. He'll never forget playing in the first, United rallying from a two-goal deficit late to beat the Los Angeles Galaxy, 3-2, in overtime on a miserable, cold October afternoon before 34,643 rain-drenched fans at Foxboro Stadium, near Boston.
Curiously, none of those seven rings tops Peay's favored-memories list. OK, one does, sort of - his sophomore year at Virginia, when "we had a great team" and he made All-American and captained the U.S. under-20 men's national team.
But then the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee tore when a teammate tackled him from behind during practice, costing him the U-20 world championships in Australia.
But after surgery and a year-long rehab, he played the next two college seasons, got his bachelor's degree in communications and was drafted by the then-new MLS.
Despite that left knee aching and sometimes locking because of a pea-sized chip floating inside, he started on defense for D.C. United in 1996, MLS's first season, as well as for the U.S. Olympic men's soccer team.
The Olympic experience - his career highlight, he said - gave him not only tough, international competition, but one electrifying July evening before 58,012 in sweltering Washington's RFK Stadium. Many soccer experts contend that that game was the most thrilling a U.S. team has played at any level - an intense, come-from-behind, 1-1 draw with Portugal, a pre-Olympic medal favorite. But the Americans needed to win to advance to the medal round.
Soccer has taken him to 10 countries on four continents. It let him learn under the man he considers his best coach, Bruce Arena, now the U.S. national team coach. Peay had him at Virginia, D.C. United and on the Olympic squad.
It also gave him a brief fling with the forgettable Maryland Mania two summers ago.
His performance unexpectedly earned him a second chance with D.C. United, which had released him earlier. However, a series of leg problems benched him almost immediately, and then that left knee rendered him unable to walk.
Was his relatively brief pro career worth the work and pain?
"Oh, yeah," he said. "Any time you have a passion, enjoy doing something and you do it well, it's an easy decision to go out and do it. ... I love soccer. ... I've had an incredibly good time. ... Injuries certainly have held me back, but they're part of the game."
"[Doctors] have done what they can do," Peay said. "The next time I go in, depending on how active I am for the next X-amount of years, probably it'll be for a new knee."