Schlichter on long road back to straight and narrow
Jan. 29, 2007
By Pete Prisco
CBS SportsLine.com Senior Writer
He was the golden boy quarterback of the Colts, a can't-miss kid with a strong arm -- with looks that made women stare -- and a charming way that bordered on con-man smooth, which, later, proved to be an apt description.
Long before Peyton Manning took over as the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, there was Art Schlichter, whose wonderful talents made him the fourth overall pick in the 1982 draft. They were the Baltimore Colts then, and they traded Bert Jones for the rights to draft Schlichter, who nearly led the Ohio State Buckeyes to a national championship as a collegian.
On the surface, he looked like the perfect pick. Why not? He came from a big-time program, had all the physical tools and he didn't drink or smoke or do drugs. There was even a book written about him. The title: Straight Arrow.
"That was about my first 20 years," Schlichter said.
The next 26 have been a living hell.
At a time when contemporaries like John Elway and Dan Marino are getting busts made in Canton, and the Colts are on their way to their first Super Bowl in 36 years behind Manning, the face of the NFL, Schlichter is trying to pick up the pieces of a life shattered by gambling addiction.
In the sports world, he's considered one of the biggest ever wastes of talent. His career came up snake eyes, cut short by his troubles, leading to a life spent meandering through the legal system.
In the real world, Schlichter is considered a loser -- right or wrong since gambling really is a sickness. But there are few sympathies for a man who lost it all, including a chance to be an NFL star.
Alcoholics, we forgive. Drug abusers, we forgive. Gamblers end up on taboo island, misfits who walk around as pariahs, their disease much more difficult to understand than some drunk or druggie.
"I lost my self-respect, my dignity, my money, my job and my family," Schlichter said by phone last week. "I lost it all."
A long story
The phone call came in from Ohio. "Pete, this is Art Schlichter," the voice said.
"Hey, Art, how you doing?" I said.
"I'm doing well," he said.
"I bet you are," I said, since he has been out of jail for almost a year, forgetting for a moment what a bad choice of words that was.
"Uh, Pete, I can't really bet on anything," Schlichter said, laughing.
That's the life of a compulsive gambler, which Schlichter certainly is -- and always will be. Schlichter has been gambling since his days as a schoolboy quarterback in Ohio, the size of his bets -- and the losses -- escalating as he matured and as his bank account grew.
First, it was stops at the race track and $2 bets. That soon became $10 and $20 bets and losses in the hundreds. Then, after getting a $350,000 signing bonus from the Colts, it was much worse, the whole damn thing blown to the bookies. And then some.
Since then, he has been suspended by the NFL, filed for bankruptcy, lost his family in a divorce, been in 44 different jails and prisons and disgraced his name and, admittedly, embarrassed his family. Along the way, he earned a reputation as a con man, a guy who would do anything, rip off anybody, to get the money for his next gambling fix.
Pick a word: swindler, hustler, con. They all fit.
You know the guy: He could talk you out of your last two dollars even if you were starving. Even on the phone, during an hour-long interview, Schlichter comes through as a charmer.
"Don't make me look too bad, Pete," he said several times.
Today, he lives with his mother in Ohio, a mother who stood by him through it all.
"Your mom stays with you forever," Schlichter said. "But it's a work in progress getting back into your family's life. It's been an adjustment again for me being a dad. It's a slow process."
His ex-wife and two daughters live in Indianapolis. He visits them on a regular basis now and did attend a Colts game this season for the first time in years.
"It brought back a lot of memories," Schlichter said. "It was the first time I was back in seven or eight years. To be honest, though, I remember the Marion County (Ind.) Jail more than anything, a lot more than the RCA Dome."
That's sad, but true. His legal resumÃ© far outweighs anything he did on the football field. Schlichter played just three seasons with the Colts, as a rookie in 1982 and then again in 1984 and 1985.
You might notice that 1983 is missing. That is because Schlichter was suspended for the season by the NFL for gambling, the result of his betting on NFL games and other sporting events with bookies in Baltimore.
"I broke the rules, I bet on NFL games," Schlichter said. "I never bet on a game I played in, but I bet on NFL games. My gambling got bad during the 1982 strike. I went home and I was bored. So I bet on college football. I lost $20,000 on a Saturday betting college football. It was all downhill from there. I chased that money into oblivion. By the time the strike was over, I was down hundreds of thousands of dollars. I was suspended for a year and I was still betting. Not football, but golf and other things."
Schlichter-betting stories abound. There are some that say he bet millions in a weekend. Others say he was threatened for payment. Another stated that he charted scores from out-of-town NFL games on the sidelines when he should have been charting plays.
"There's a lot of truth to them," Schlichter said. "I lost an exorbitant amount of money. But there weren't a lot of people chasing me for it. I hurt my friends and family more than anybody. Back in Baltimore when I was betting with a bookie, I handed him a bag of money and he told me if it was a dollar short, he would break my legs. I thought he was joking, but maybe he wasn't.
"One of the reasons I got caught was because I went to the NFL with my problems. I didn't want the bookies coming back at me with the hopes of trying to fix a game. I had some integrity. That wasn't something I was willing to take a chance on."
That's the great NFL fear. Gambling is a way of life when it comes to the NFL, whether in Las Vegas or online or with the many illegal bookies around the country. It's partly what makes the sport so popular, even if the NFL office would never dare publicly admit it. But it's there. Game-fixing, though, is a different issue. That's the great scare when it comes to gambling.
The fear is a player can get in deep with a bookie, and then a favor is asked, and maybe a quarterback throws high or low and his team doesn't cover. The bookies make the cash, the players gets even, and the NFL has a scandal that would live forever.
"It never happened to me," Schlichter said. "But I'm sure it would have happened. Eventually I was so far in debt that they would have wanted something."
Schlichter returned to the Colts in 1984 and 1985, but he was released by the team, then in Indy, in 1985. Schlichter said he was released because the team heard he was gambling again.
They were right.
"Plus, I wasn't playing very well," he said. "I was a shadow of the player I used to be. I lost my self-confidence. They let me go. They heard rumors I was still gambling. That's why they cut me."
He never played a down of NFL football again. At the age of 25, he was done. His career stats were 13 games, 91 completions, three touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He threw for 1,006 yards, which is a fraction of the amount of money he lost in those three years.
Schlichter played three seasons in the Arena Football League and tried to get back to the NFL. Twice, he went to New York to meet with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. Both times he was denied reinstatement into the league.
"I didn't have the money to fight them," Schlichter said.
It wouldn't have mattered. He was still gambling, and, worse, stealing and scamming to fuel the addiction. That led to a host of charges against him, including forgery, fraud, theft and receiving stolen property. One prosecutor he faced called him "the best con man I've seen."
Schlichter's ability to use his charms to get gambling money is a big part of his story. He has conned friends, family, associates and others out of money. After he got married, he told his ex-wife he owed the bookies $10,000. She took back their wedding gifts and gave him the money.
It was only the beginning. Schlichter always seemed to have a scam running to get money, many times involving getting tickets to sporting events.
According to one report, he scammed one woman he knew out of $100,000 in a ticket scam. She was dating him at the time. There are many more like it.
A writer who knew him back in the Colts days said he once asked for Indianapolis Pacers tickets for a friend. The writer got him the tickets and later that night saw Schlichter on the street corner selling them.
Schlichter said he plans to make restitution to all of his victims once he starts making a living. The court ordered him to pay back $500,000 to 22 victims. "In time, I will when I can," he said.
For now, his focus is on his non-profit gambling help website, gamblingpreventionawareness.org. The site features a picture of a balding, round-faced Schlichter, years removed from the handsome quarterback who once seemed destined for greatness. Life has battered him far worse than any defensive player ever did.
"I want to get people more information on compulsive gambling," he said. "Maybe it will stop some people from crossing the line."
He would also like to talk to college kids about the horrors of gambling, and even mentioned possibly helping the NFL -- which would seem like a hard door to get through.
Pariah is a tough obstacle to overcome.
"I haven't had contact with the NFL since I left the NFL, other than my meetings with Pete Rozelle," Schlichter said. "I would love the chance to be able to make presentations to players about the dangers of gambling. Who knows that better than me? I'd like the NFL to be able to use me for that. I think my story would help."
When contacted about the possibility of Schlichter working with the NFL, vice president of public relations Greg Aiello said:
"We would be interested in discussing it with Art, considering a possible role for him in our player program," Aiello said. "We're always looking for effective ways to communicate the right messages to our players."
It's a story of a life wasted. But Schlichter has not gambled since making a $20 bet from jail in January 2005. As soon as he was released last summer, he spent four months at a treatment facility working on his demons, and he says he finally feels at ease with his troubles.
To many, this is a story they have heard before. Art gets help. Art gets better. Art gambles again.
So far, the latter hasn't happened.
"For me, the disease was a symptom of deep problems for me," Schlichter said. "I needed to get rid of a lot of pain that came from personal things. Gambling was my painkiller. Once you lose a bet, you become a chaser. You chase the loss. And then it's all peddling uphill after that. I hate to lose. The more you lose, the more you try not to lose. The more that it takes from your self-focus.
"When you're playing a sport, if you lose, you lose your self-confidence. Betting is like that. It's a disease that beats you down. The more you lose, the more you try to win as a competitor. Most compulsive gamblers are very competitive. That's what keeps you in the game. It kept me in the game, the desire to win. But it never happened," he said.
On Super Bowl Sunday, he will watch his former team play the Bears. Watching football used to be all about gambling. It's not anymore.
"I wouldn't watch a game without a bet on it," he said. "Now I don't even know the lines."
Schlichter is hoping the Colts win. He wants it for Jimmy Irsay, the owner who he met in the weight room back in 1982, and for Manning, a quarterback he has come to admire.
"I have no connection with the Colts since they have nothing to do with me," Schlichter said.
"But I didn't set out to embarrass the city or the Colts. It just worked out that way. I love Peyton Manning and what he stands for. He does things the way I used to do things in college. But I don't look back and wonder what could have been if I wasn't a gambler. It happened. That's the way it is. All I can hope to do now is stay on the path I'm on now. Each day gets a little better. I'm happy where I'm at right now."