Quaranta Wows Youngsters With Tale Of Redemption
By Keith Mills
On a scale of 1 to 10, Santino Quaranta was a 12 on the Baltimore high school soccer fields.
A vision of power and precision, there was nothing he could not do -- run, pass, score with both feet, defend and create havoc for opposing defenses. He was, to steal a baseball term, a local phenom.
The same could be said of Sonny Askew. Nearly 40 years before Quaranta signed with D.C. United as a 16-year-old high school sophomore, Askew was electrifying local soccer fans at Patterson High School.
Quick and powerful, smart and savvy, he controlled the midfield for coach Harlee Russ at Patterson in 1975 as Santino did for Pep Perella at Archbishop Curley 35 years later.
Askew and Quaranta, Quaranta and Askew -- individually, they possessed that rare combination of athleticism, ball skills, European flair and East Baltimore toughness.
Together, they are on the short list of The Greatest Player Ever debates that rage on in a city long known for its soccer heritage.
Although they are nearly 30 years apart in age, they are close friends, linked forever by their amazing soccer skill, their Highlandtown roots and their battle against substance abuse.
"I've had success, failure, drug addiction, loss of every material thing I've had, mental and physical pain," Quaranta said. "Everything you can go through as a human being, I've basically been through it."
"I thought I was living the high and fast life," said Askew, who graduated from Patterson in the spring of 1976. "I thought that's what I was supposed to do. I was hanging out with guys who had six bolts on their doors and towels as their curtains, and I thought I had really made it."
Those were powerful thoughts from two of the greatest soccer players in Baltimore history, who sat side by side earlier this week at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Timonium, site of the sixth Powered By Me conference for local high school student-athletes.
About 650 athletes from 61 Baltimore City and County public schools and another dozen area private schools attended the daylong seminar started in 2007 by Mike Gimble, the director of the Powered By Me program and former director of substance-abuse education for the Sheppard Pratt Health System.
Amy Gooding of Sheppard Pratt's Center For Eating Disorders talked about nutrition. University of Maryland graduate Hakeem Clark of the Parisi Speed School talked about acceleration training. Former Maine field hockey player Lesa Densmore talked about her gambling addiction, and Quaranta talked about his intense, five-year battle with drugs and alcohol.
"This is a no-brainer," Quaranta said. "What Powered By Me offers kids, it suits everything I do now, to be able to explain to these kids -- not preach, but explain -- to relay a message from the heart, to be able to be guided.
"As athletes, we're not taught that. We're taught to never ask for that. Be tough. As athletes, we're never in trouble, because we can always get through something like this. It's not that way. That's the message."
During the fall of 1999, as a 15-year-old freshman at Archbishop Curley, Quaranta helped the Friars win the MIAA A Conference soccer championship. One year later, he was headed to the IMG Soccer Academy in Bradenton, Fla., as a member of the United States Under-17 soccer team. Then he headed to Washington as a member of the D.C. United of Major League Soccer.
His story since then has been well documented: 11 years in the MLS with the United, L.A. Galaxy and New York Red Bulls and 15 games with the U.S. senior national team, including a showdown with Honduras in the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup when he scored his lone international goal.
What hasn't been well documented until now is his addiction to drugs and alcohol, which included cocaine and prescription narcotic pain medication abuse, starting during his rookie year with the United. It ended five years ago when the league sent him to The Canyon substance abuse rehabilitation facility in Malibu, Calif.
"The breaking point is when the 'nevers' all started coming through," said Quaranta, whose father, Tommy, coached him and his cousin Brandon in a variety of leagues for the Soccer Club of Baltimore before he went to Archbishop Curley. "The stealing from your family, the loss of your wife and children, it got very ugly.
"It wasn't the hangovers. It wasn't the throwing up. It wasn't being sick from the opiates. It was the mental pain and not being able to handle living anymore. That was the breaking point."
His speech to students and teachers was as riveting to the athletes as it was soul cleansing for himself and emotional for Askew. Quaranta's mom, Lisa; his wife, Petrina; and his best friend, Sean Rush, all made the trip to Timonium in support of the 27-year-old retired player.
"Their support is crucial," said Santino, who retired from the MLS last fall. "To be able to relay a message of inspiration, hope, mistakes, failure, success -- it's really a great opportunity."
"I am very proud of him," his mom, Lisa, said. "I don't think you ever give up on your children. You always want to give them support and love. He got a second chance and he's making the most of it."
"It makes me feel very blessed," his wife, Petrina, said. "It's an amazing compliment that he's been asked to be such an influence on kids."
Quaranta and Petrina first started dating when the two were in eighth grade. Quaranta went on to Curley, Petrina to Mercy High and then Mount Carmel.
They have two children -- 9-year-old Olivia and 3-year-old Valentino. When Quaranta plunged deeper into his drug addiction, he not only lost his self-confidence and dignity, he lost his family.
"It was really hard," Petrina said. "I remember there'd be days when you say, 'Why am I doing this?' You keep giving him chances, putting up with all of this and all of that.
"Now I think, 'What would I do without him?' I didn't have the knowledge I do now. I didn't look at it as an addiction. I looked at it like, 'Well it will all be over soon, and we'll move on.' That's not how it is. But that's what got me through it. When he went away to rehab, I really learned a lot about addiction."
So did Askew, a generation older than Santino, but no less the star when he was playing on the Patterson pitch with such high-profile teammates as Pete Notaro and Mike Wall. The Clippers were a soccer powerhouse under Harlee Russ, and Askew was one of the finest high school players in the nation.
He was a Parade All-American in high school, a national Junior College All-American at Essex Community College in 1976 and a member of the Washington Diplomats of the North American Soccer League in 1977. He also played for the Baltimore Blast, Tampa Bay Rowdies and Montreal Manic.
Like Quaranta, Askew also played for the U.S. national team, earning four caps from 1979-84. And, like Quaranta, he battled drug and alcohol addiction.
"I guess I was in my late 30s, early 40s," said Askew, now 56 years old, "and everybody was telling me: 'You've got to see this Quaranta kid. You got to see this kid.' I didn't have the time. I was living in the fast lane. I feel now God's put him in my life for a reason."
"We share a common bond," Quaranta said. "We've lived it. There's not a lot of people who've lived it and been accepted by their peers in the locker room. He has. I have."
"I was constantly being told how wonderful I am," Askew said, "how great I am. The breaking point for me was just over two years, when it looked like the person I loved the most was going to go. We were done."
That person was Askew's daughter, Elizabeth. Now 19, she's back and so is Askew, clean, sober and heavily involved in soccer and Quaranta’s recovery.
"When Santino asked for help, that hit my heart," Askew said. "I thought: 'There's no way. The jig's up. Now what am I going to do?' I was so grateful through the grace of God that I asked for help. I was never available for anything or anybody. Now I'm available."
He's also kicking a soccer ball again, this time as a coach and vice president of the Pipeline Soccer Club of Baltimore, a club Quaranta started two years ago with Rush.
Rush, a former all-state striker for Dulaney High, was among Quaranta's many family and friends, watching him almost mesmerize the kids at the Powered By Me seminar with his blunt honesty and eye-opening story.
"When Santino was talking it was quiet," Rush said. "All eyes were on him. Everyone was so intrigued by what he was saying."
The Pipeline S.C., which has grown from six teams in 2010 to 45 teams and more than 600 players now, occupies much of Quaranta's time these days. So do Petrina and their two children, and so does speaking the truth about substance abuse.
"It's been a pleasure getting to know him and working with him," Gimble said. "He has a great story to tell."
"I'm not reading off the paper," Quaranta said. "It's coming from the heart. Ninety-nine percent of the kids may never go through what I went through. I hope they don't. But there may be one kid who is extremely talented and can listen and say: 'Hey, I don't want to make the same mistake, and maybe I can be guided by someone. Maybe I can talk to him.'
"That's my goal."
Posted May 4, 2012