Santino Quaranta became emotional when he stood against his locker after scoring a goal in his first start of the season for D.C. United, knowing he took another step in salvaging a once-fruitful professional soccer career.
Quaranta was 16, barely old enough to drive, when he was drafted by the franchise in 2001. At the time, he was the youngest player to appear in a Major League Soccer game. He played like a man, scoring five goals in 16 games his rookie season, but then a series of personal missteps and injuries left his MLS career in jeopardy.
In a recent interview, Quaranta (Archbishop Curley) said he often took his life as a professional athlete for granted. Now, after turning an invitation to train with United this season into a full contract, he is eager to not only become one of the best players in MLS, but to also perhaps go overseas and leave his mark on the world. To do that, the forward must supplement his natural ability with an unyielding commitment to staying in shape.
"I didn't take care of myself. I didn't take care of my body. I didn't do what I was supposed to do as a professional," Quaranta said. "Yeah, I did take it for granted. That's the truth. A lot of people might look at that and say, 'He was ungrateful.' But that is just the truth. That's where I was at that point.
"I thought I could just breeze by on my talent, and it worked for a long time. I rode that train for a long time."
Quaranta, 23, said he became absorbed in his new lifestyle and was doing things off the field, such as going out too much and not training enough, that were detrimental to his career.
He was once on track to make the 2006 U.S. World Cup roster because he was the type of player who could dazzle coaches with his deft touch and uncanny instinct for scoring goals. But he would sometimes leave those same coaches scratching their heads when he showed up out of shape for practice.
United traded Quaranta in 2006 to the Los Angeles Galaxy, where he played in 12 games and scored three goals that season. He was traded to the New York Red Bulls the next year and appeared in three games for New York before suffering a season-ending foot injury. This year, he was signed to United's 18-man roster after being waived by New York.
"I loved L.A., but I felt things slipping away from me," Quaranta said. "I was not doing what was right at all - in all aspects. Whether it was being on time or taking care of myself, I wasn't dependable."
United coach Tom Soehn said he did not hesitate to start Quaranta in the MLS home opener last month against Toronto FC because of his ability to attack. United hadn't scored in its two previous matches, so Quaranta was given the nod ahead of Franco Niell to find a spark.
The move paid off as United coasted to a 4-1 victory. Quaranta scored his second goal of the season in a victory late last month over Real Salt Lake, and it appears things are clicking again.
Quaranta's family is from Highlandtown and was around at a time when pickup soccer games were as common as playground basketball in the Bronx. Some attribute his early love of the game and meteoric rise through the ranks to his genes. His father, Tom, and uncle, Steve Quaranta, were All-Americans at what was then called Essex Community College.
Peter Caringi, the men's soccer coach at UMBC, has known Santino Quaranta since he was a boy and coached his father and uncle at Essex and on club teams. Caringi said Quaranta has been one of the top players at every level he has competed. Caringi has served as a mentor to Quaranta and said Quaranta is finally starting to understand that he can't always get by on just his natural ability.
"He is a natural soccer player, who now is obviously working hard for it," Caringi said. "When most kids are finishing high school or going to college, he was playing pro soccer. He had a lot of growing up to do at a young age."
John Ellinger, who coached Quaranta on the under-17 U.S. national team and is a former UMBC coach, remembers that Quaranta had remarkable skills even as a 10-year-old. Ellinger could not remember a time when he questioned Quaranta's commitment to the game under his tutelage.
However, Ellinger can understand some of Quaranta's problems because there is pressure put on young players who turn pro. Despite the recent struggles, Ellinger said Quaranta is still one of the top American-born players in MLS, and if he remains in shape, he still could have a future with the senior national team.
In 2001, Quaranta led the U.S. under-17 team with 11 assists and was second with 17 goals.
"Once he's fit, he is a machine," Ellinger said. "I love watching him play. I would buy a ticket to watch him play."
Before each United game, Quaranta will partner with a couple of other players and joyfully knock the ball around just like when he was a boy. However, the street lamps are now replaced with the stadium lights of RFK Stadium and the throng of 20,000 towel-waiving fans.
"I am starting for D.C. United again," Quaranta said. "I am scoring goals and competing. That is just because I finally put in the work that it takes."
One thing that has not changed is Quaranta's love of the game. His spends his days playing soccer and then goes home to his wife and 5-year-old daughter. Things are simple. The prodigy they called "Tino" has finally grown up. And he has finally found peace.