Former Major League Soccer midfielder Santino Quaranta has spoken before about a story that is both disturbing and uplifting -- signing with MLS when he was 16, battling abuse of cocaine and painkillers, becoming sober, returning to the game and playing for his country.
But Quaranta said Tuesday's speech to about 650 Baltimore-area high school athletes was special. It was the largest crowd to hear his deeply personal message. It was delivered near where he was raised (he attended Archbishop Curley). And its target audience was an age group he believes can relate to his story.
"This was the most enjoyable because this is kids," said the former D.C. United player, 27, who presented his anti-drug message without the aid of notes.
Quaranta was so young when he signed with MLS that his mother had to drive him to his first practice at Washington's RFK Stadium because he didn't have a driver's license. He was an MLS All-Star his first season ("I felt bulletproof") but hadn't learned how to handle money and success, injuries and disappointment.
When he was injured, he said, pain pills were easily accessible. At 17, he said, he did his first line of cocaine.
"My life spiraled out of control," said Quaranta, leaning into the lectern in the ballroom of a Timonium hotel. "Lost my wife. She was gone. Daughter gone. I stole from my grandmother. I was stealing out of her purse at night.
"This is real stuff, guys," Quaranta said. "I'm not reading off a paper, because this comes from here," he said, tapping his chest.
Quaranta was the keynote speaker at the sixth annual conference sponsored by St. Joseph Medical Center's "Powered by ME!" awareness program. Previous conferences have served as public confessionals for Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts and New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez to talk about using performance-enhancing drugs.
This year's conference, also attended by U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, included a diverse set of workshops for students. Topics included eating disorders, teen dating violence, gambling and financial management.
"We try to do things that nobody would do in school," said Michael Gimbel, director of "Powered by ME!"
Quaranta's story was intended as a cautionary tale. But it had a happy ending.
"I went to treatment for three months in 2007. I was given a second chance in life," he said.
Three months into sobriety, he was asked back by D.C. United. "That year, I was the lowest-paid player on the team," he said.
In 2009, he played for the United States in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Quaranta said he became emotional listening to the national anthem. Three years earlier, he had missed a chance to play in the World Cup because of substance abuse.
The audience seemed to respond to Quaranta. Megan Strayer, a three-sport athlete at Franklin, said his sincerity "put power into his words." She said substance abuse "is definitely a huge issue. It's always going to be a danger" for high school students.