The title of his biography was Straight Arrow and he was only 21 when it was published—an All-America quarterback and budding Heisman Trophy candidate at Ohio State. But even as the pages rolled off the presses, Arthur Ernest Schlichter was hurrying down a dark and crooked path that would lead him into a private hell, to be quickly followed by public humiliation.
As the world knows now, Art Schlichter was a pathological gambler, so hooked by the compulsion to bet on sports events that even he is not sure how much he lost—$1.5 million is considered a realistic guess. Because of gambling, he was suspended from the NFL for the 1983 season. Now he is out of the game once more, abruptly dropped last October by the Indianapolis Colts amid rumors that he had been gambling again.
Thus, at 25, Art Schlichter has been profoundly scarred, if not totally ruined, by his affliction. Dr. Robert Custer, the Washington psychiatrist who is considered the nation's leading expert in the field, has been monitoring Schlichter's progress for almost three years. He says, "Art has suffered the full effects of his disease."
Recently, Schlichter agreed to talk at length about himself and his addiction. He was without a job, low on money and living on his parents' 450-acre grain farm in Washington Court House, Ohio. The interview took place in the living room of the suburban Columbus home of Gilman Kirk, a businessman who is now Schlichter's adviser and unofficial agent. Despite the searing nature of his experiences, Schlichter was relaxed and looked more like a little boy than a desperate betting man.
March 10, 1986
Of course, he was a little boy when the psychological seeds of his affliction probably took root. Like most compulsive gamblers, he was a bright, tense child of whom his mother once said, "If he was still, he was ill." He was blessed with a spectacular athletic talent (he could dribble a basketball at the age of four). He became a baby superstar: He once scored 47 of his team's 49 points in a junior high basketball game; his high school football team was 29-0-1 with him as an All-America quarterback; and he was an all-state guard in basketball.
He was, in short, consumed by sports. "I regret that now," said Schlichter. "The hype, the buildup, the headlines—it all beat me up. I had no privacy." In a separate interview, Custer said, "Art had no other recreation, no hobbies. Football was everything, and pressure came from everywhere—family, coaches, fans, friends. The expectations when you are a straight arrow are immense."
Another likely influence on Schlichter was a terrifying accident that occurred when he was in the eighth grade. He and his brother, John, were using gasoline to remove roofing tar from a floor at home when a spark from an oil burner caused an explosion and a fire that badly injured both boys. Art's right side, from thigh to shoulder, was severely burned. "It was torture," remembers his father, Max. "They'd give him painkillers but they never quite took hold. He screamed for me to let him die." But the elder Schlichter also recalls, "When he was in the hospital, he would always repeat to himself, 'I can play football this fall. I can play football this fall.' "
Custer said he had to dig this particular nightmare out of Art. "Nobody had ever asked him before if he had had any close calls with death. Incidents such as these set gamblers up psychologically. It's something unresolved they need relief from."
Schlichter began gambling regularly while he was still in high school. His family owned a harness horse and he was a frequent visitor to Scioto Downs, a racetrack 40 miles from his home. Usually, he was a penny ante $2 to $5 bettor but once, when he was a senior, he bet $20 on a long shot and won $150. More than the money, he liked the anonymity of the track, sitting with the railbirds. "Nobody bothered me," he recalled. "There was no pressure on me because the horses were the show."
Art had already come to see himself as more a product of other people's expectations than of his own personality. Custer: "People were telling him what to think, how to feel. He was trying to be a number of different people for everyone else—except when he gambled. Then he was Art Schlichter, his own man."
His years at Ohio State became a horrendous roller coaster. As a sophomore, he led OSU to an 11-1 record—the loss was to USC, 17-16, in the Rose Bowl. His coach, Earle Bruce, ticked off the attributes of his straight-arrow quarterback: "Leadership, courage, toughness, intelligence, quick feet, never gripes." From that high point came the drop. OSU was picked No. 1 in Schlichter's junior year, but the team went a disappointing 9-3. His senior season was worse, though for different reasons.
He was considered a strong Heisman Trophy candidate early in the season, but a minor scandal engulfed him. Three traffic tickets of his had been suspended by friendly court officials and this was followed by a Columbus courtroom hearing in which 18 reporters and a TV crew turned up to see him fined $128 for the third offense, a speeding ticket. Then he hurt his ankle. He played bravely despite pain. But OSU lost to Florida State and then was upset by Minnesota, killing his chance for the Heisman. "By the end of the year," said Schlichter, "I was tired, sore, frustrated, worried about the NFL draft, and basically burned out. Once these things start to accumulate, you stuff them inside you. Pretty soon you're looking for an outlet for all that pressure."
He had been going to bet at Scioto Downs more and more often during his college years, upping his routine bets to $20 or $30 a race. When he was a junior, he began wagering on college basketball. It was quicker than going to a track; his bet was only a phone call away. He fell about $2,000 in debt. He didn't have the money himself, so he summoned his courage and went to his father. "He was shocked and angry, but he bailed me out," recalled Schlichter.
After that traumatic experience, Schlichter began betting more furiously than ever—$200 to $300 a college basketball game. By the end of his senior year, he needed another bail-out—$12,000 this time. The vicious pattern was set.
The Baltimore Colts had drafted him No. 1, in 1982. They gave him a $350,000 bonus, a salary of $140,000 and a $125,000 low-interest loan. But Schlichter was a physical and mental mess. He wound up third string. Another rookie quarterback, Mike Pagel, was named the starter. Schlichter was devastated. "It was like whooooosh!" he said. "All the air went out of my balloon and my world came tumbling down." The blow to his ego was tremendous and he felt a powerful sense of rejection. "He relieved it through gambling because that was the only thing he had found that could help," said Custer.
The NFL players' strike on Sept. 20 also appeared to be a critical factor in his self-destructive behavior. Schlichter had never been without football to give him a sense of self-worth. The strike, in effect, cut his psychological lifeline. When he recalled those desperate months, he spoke in a faraway voice, as if he were reliving a nightmare. "I went home and got very heavily involved in gambling. I lost a lot, paid some money back, lost more. I never really won and I started chasing."
His bets were getting bigger. At first, he wagered $1,000 or $2,000 per college football game. When college basketball games began, he started dropping as much as $30,000 a night. Betting with a Baltimore bookie under the code name Fred, he often parlayed a dozen three-team bets at $1,000 or $2,000 a shot. He didn't always lose. He recalled one particularly bright night during his rookie year: "I won $120,000. It was a Friday and I had parlayed my ass off. I hit a whole bunch, nine out of 10, I think. It was the greatest night in the history of my life." His face lit up as he spoke, but then it grew cloudy. "I called the book to collect and they said they couldn't pay me until Tuesday, because it wasn't the end of the week yet." Schlichter said that by Monday he had lost not only the $120,000 he had coming but also $70,000 more.
This madness went on for about three more months, until early February 1983. "I was living minute to minute," said Schlichter. "I was constantly, constantly worried, paranoid, sick to my stomach. I was up all night in my room at my parents' home thinking of ways to cover my bets." Food binges puffed his weight up from 202 to 222. He simply couldn't slow down. "It grabs you," he said. "You lose some money and then you start chasing. And you keep going and going and going. Your own mind is lying to you, telling you that your next bet is going to be better, that it's going to be the big winner. But it's not. It never is."
Schlichter tried to stop gambling by going into therapy. But he was in too deep. To keep betting, he borrowed $300,000 from banks just on his good name and signature. He hit friends, family, strangers, anyone who would give him a listen and a loan. He was betting $50,000 a pop on three-team college basketball parlays. He placed two huge bets one night in early 1983 in which he tried to win back $400,000.
"I just didn't give a damn," he said. "I knew I wasn't going to be able to pay my debts. I just fired, fired, fired, fired, fired. I kept lying. I said, 'I'll pay, I'll pay, I'll pay....' But I didn't. I couldn't." One night during that period, he fell to his knees in his room. "I've never come out and told anyone all that happened to me that night. I didn't want anyone to say I was using it as an excuse or to get sympathy. But I turned to the Lord. I prayed that he would make it all end."
Later, Schlichter found himself trying to con Kirk, whom he had met once, a year before during a pickup basketball game. Schlichter paced Kirk's living room, talking nonstop for 45 minutes about his "cash flow" problem. He finally got around to asking Kirk to lend him $65,000. "I about fell down," recalled Kirk. "I realized that he had just pegged me as someone to use. I told him fiat no. I told him he had a gambling problem, not a 'cash flow' problem."
Schlichter left. He got money from another source, but he returned the next day, in tears. This time he begged for help instead of money. "Gil Kirk was the turning point," Schlichter said. "He told me I had a problem and that took some of the strain off me."
Of course, as far as the public was concerned, the worst of Schlichter's problems were only beginning. On April 8, 1983, the news broke that the FBI had arrested four bookies in Baltimore who had threatened to break Schlichter's passing arm and harm his family if he didn't pay the $159,000 he owed them. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle entered the case and ultimately suspended Schlichter for 13 months. At first Schlichter hid out at Kirk's home. Later he underwent an intensive 30-day therapy program at South Oaks Hospital on Long Island. In the last 15 days there, he says, "I finally found some inner peace."
The suspension ended in the summer of 1984. The Baltimore Colts were then the Indianapolis Colts and Schlichter was their starting quarterback. But last season he hurt his knee in the opener against the Steelers, and Colts coach Rod Dowhower let him stay on the bench behind Pagel. On Oct. 7 it was suddenly announced that Schlichter had been waived. Rumors flew that he had been gambling again. He denied this vociferously. Dowhower insisted that Schlichter was dropped because "he didn't progress in practice." But Schlichter says he wasn't even allowed to take a snap in practice.
Schlichter is bitter about what happened in Indianapolis. He is broke and still deep in debt, but he claims his gambling problems are behind him, and he is burning with optimism. His weight is down to 204, and he is said to be close to signing with an NFL team. "I will prove myself again," he says. "I made a mistake, yes, and I paid for it. I am now 10 times a better player than I was before this all happened. I really believe that my best days are ahead."
"You just keep going and going. Your own mind is lying to you, telling you that your next bet is the big winner. But it never is."