Sunday, July 02, 2000

Art Schlichter: Bad bets and wasted talent

Gambling addiction leads quarterback to a cell

By Scott MacGregor
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Schlichter when he was arrested in May
        This is where a gambling addiction will take a man: He will steal from anyone, even his family. He will trash a promising professional football career and waste a powerful charisma that makes even victims want to believe in him after he has shattered their trust.

        He will end up in a crowded jail cell, awaiting a trial that could put him in prison for 20 years.

        Art Schlichter has done this to get money to feed the addiction that's controlling his life. He's so sick that he knows the wrong he does but does it anyway — crying to his therapist, wondering why he can't stop and whether he's losing his mind.

Schlicter at Ohio State.
(AP photo)
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        Schlichter's fall has been more public than most. Once Ohio State's golden-boy quarterback, he was a star athlete with an image so wholesome that his biography was titled Straight Arrow.

        He was a first-round NFL draft pick, a contemporary of John Elway, Dan Marino and Steve Young. But while they spend their retirements awaiting the Hall of Fame, he lingers in a cell in the Marion County Jail in Indianapolis. He faces federal charges of money laundering, including unauthorized use of his father's credit card to get $42,000 in cash.

        Federal prosecutors expect to formally indict him in the next 60 days, and he will remain in custody through a trial. He also faces state charges in Indiana for violating the terms of a 1999 prison release and state charges in Ohio for theft.

        The nightmare can end, his advocates say, if he is given a chance and proper treatment.

Schlicter has been in 17 different jails.
(AP photo)
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        “There are people who think he's an absolute, 1,000 percent con man,” said his lawyer, Indianapolis federal defender Linda Wagoner. “And there are some people who think he's very sick.”

        Schlichter's latest problems are no surprise. Through 18 years of personal destruction, he has been banned from the NFL, lost millions of dollars and his marriage, run up debts of more than $300,000 and spent four of the past six years in 17 different jails and prisons. In 1997, he was pulled out of a court-ordered gambling treatment program and hauled back to jail when he was caught betting.

        Schlichter, 40, declined to be interviewed for this story because of his pending legal case. His father, Max Schlichter, also declined, saying he wants to keep his son out of the news.

Ex-wife Mitzi Schlicter with art therapy projects at Custer Gambling Treatment Center.
(Mike Simons photo)
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        “I know he has caused a lot of people pain, and I've felt very angry at him, just like everybody has,” said his ex-wife, Mitzi Schlichter, who helped found the Custer Gambling Treatment Center in Indianapolis after she left her husband six years ago.

        “But at the same time, I know his pain is also very real. That's been hard to watch. The most painful thing about the whole process is seeing the turmoil he's been in for such a long time. He's very sick, and I think he needs a lot of help.”

        Schlichter knows he will be haunted until he gets that help. In 1996 he told People magazine how he felt after he stole from his wife's purse.

        “When you start stealing from your family and friends,” Schlichter said, “you know it's only a matter of time before you're in jail or you put a gun to your head.”

What he threw away
        Friends and family members respond the same when asked about Schlichter.

        “It's the greatest waste of talent I've ever seen in my life,” said Donn Burrows, who worked with Schlichter in sports talk radio at Cincinnati's WSAI-AM in the early 1990s.

        Growing up on a farm outside Washington Court House, about 80 miles northeast of Cincinnati, Schlichter was a school-boy idol. Rugged. Handsome. Talented.

        A gifted athlete with a rifle arm, he went on to star at Ohio State, then become a No.1 draft pick of the Baltimore Colts in the 1982 NFL draft. His combination of skill, intelligence and arm strength seemed to make him the ideal candidate for stardom.

        But the disease that's now called compulsive gambling had taken hold of Schlichter even then, and the $350,000 signing bonus he received from the Colts sent him on a spree. He gambled it all away halfway through his rookie season. He was suspended by the NFL in 1983 and reinstated the following season.

        Cut by the Colts in 1985, he never played in the NFL again. By 1988, when he filed for bankruptcy to shield himself from creditors, he claimed to be $1 million in debt.

        When FBI agents searched the Schlichters' Las Vegas home in 1994 and couldn't find money he had allegedly stolen, they demanded to know where he was hiding it. Mitzi Schlichter had only one answer: “He gambled it all away.”

Anything to gamble
        Schlichter placed bets any way he could — mostly at horse tracks and on sporting events through bookies. Even after his legal troubles surfaced, bookies continued taking his bets. If he didn't have the money to pay them, he'd find someone to give it to him — or he'd take it by fraud.

        He claims to have started gambling as a kid, betting nickels and dimes on card games. At Ohio State in Columbus, he would take $40 or $50 and spend an afternoon at the local track, Scioto Downs. His bets grew into the hundreds of dollars, then into the thousands when he started betting on baseball games.

        Even that became chump change. In Baltimore, where Schlichter's bets grew to the tens of thousands, he reportedly made calls to bookies about NFL games from Memorial Stadium's pay phones. In the spring of 1983, he lost $300,000 in one week.

        Burrows said Schlichter told him that as a backup quarterback with the Colts, he was supposed to be charting the plays on a clipboard on the sideline. Instead, he charted the out-of-town scores of games he had bets on.

        Media reports describe how he would call a play in the huddle, only to forget it when he got to the line of scrimmage because he was thinking of a bet.

        The bet always has been the most important thing; he once hocked his wife's ring for money. Even after he left the NFL, he gambled nearly his entire salary from the minor league Arena Football League and his radio jobs. He hid it so well that Mitzi Schlichter says she didn't know the extent of her husband's problem — or how much he was gambling — until his legal troubles began to mount.

        “He had so much money, the amount had to be high for it to be a thrill for him,” said Chuck Grubbs, an old gambling friend. Grubbs was in sixth grade near Washington Court House when he first met Schlichter, who was seven years older and the hero of every small-town boy in Ohio.

        The two became fast friends in the early 1990s at local horse tracks, where Grubbs, who owns and races horses, helped Schlichter handicap races.

        “I knew he was making money playing Arena Football,” Grubbs said. “But I didn't know where he got (so much).”

        When the money ran dry, Schlichter began writing bad checks. Casinos, knowing his record, allowed him to cash $160,000 in bad checks.

        He'd borrow money from friends, then repay them with checks that were no good. He stole checks from his employers, and once, even, from his sister-in-law. During breaks in his radio shows, Schlicter would often be on the phone hitting people up for money, Burrows said.

        “He preyed on people he knew, acquaintances, people he'd meet,” said Grubbs, who said even he became a victim.

        Before Schlichter was arrested last month, he spent two nights at Grubbs' Grove City home. Grubbs said he awoke one morning to find Schlichter gone, taking $9,000 and Grubbs' credit cards.

        “Every day when he wakes up, he's thinking of where he can make a bet,” Grubbs said. “It's a demon in his body. He stole off his dad. How can he not steal off his friends?”

Therapy undermined
        In 1994, the same year FBI agents searched the Schlichters' home, Mitzi took their two daughters — Taylor, now 10, and Madison, 6 — and left Art; their divorce became final in 1998. Ruining his football career, friends say, was not nearly as shameful to Schlichter as ruining his family. His love for his daughters is unquestioned by anyone, even Mitzi.

        “It makes me so sad, to think of all he could have been,” Burrows said. “It's got to be an illness. Nobody in their right mind would throw away what he has.”

        Schlichter claimed to be getting counseling through a 12-step recovery program in prison in Terre Haute, Ind., where he served time for bank fraud in 1996. And in 1997, he was ordered by the court to the Center for Compulsive Gambling in Baltimore, where he was caught betting seven weeks into psychotherapy.

        Another patient had convinced him to go to a local horse track, and as a result, Schlichter was sent back to jail. Last year, he was released and ordered into an Indianapolis rehab program called Sober Life, which deals mostly with drug and alcohol abuse and not compulsive gambling.

        Just last May, federal agents charged Schlichter with money-laundering and tracked him down in the small northeastern Ohio town of Ravenna, ending a three-day manhunt when they arrested him peacefully outside a diner.

        An IRS investigation discovered Schlichter allegedly had conned a suburban Indianapolis woman out of $100,000, promising to buy tickets to sporting events and sell them at a profit. Federal prosectors allege that to pay back the money, Schlichter took his father's credit cards and made unauthorized cash advances, repaying some of the money and taking the rest. Schlichter's own lawyer admits his latest problems are the result of gambling.

        Schlichter's abundant charisma allows him to keep luring people in. Even though he knew Schlichter's history, Burrows found himself inexplicably drawn to his gregariousness and good humor.

        “He's a fascinating person to be around — among the most charismatic people I've met in my life,” Burrows said. “He has the ability to say the right thing at the right time, and he knows what you want to hear most.”

        Burrows said when they worked at the radio station, Schlichter often would enter the studio by asking if the FBI or police had been there looking for him. Burrows thought he was joking at first, but now realizes Schlichter lived in constant fear of being caught.

        “One day, he was staring at me, and I asked him why,” Burrows said. “He said, "You know, Burrows, if you lived my life, you'd have committed suicide by now.'”

Root of his sickness
        While Schlichter was on the run from police in May, he made frequent calls to his former therapist, Dr. Valerie Lorenz, the director of the center in Baltimore where he had been treated three years earlier. Schlichter would be confused and in tears, Dr. Lorenz said, wondering if he was losing his mind.

        She's not surprised. Pathological gambling has been defined as a serious psychological disorder by the American Psychological Association since 1979. The high comes in escaping reality and believing that past debts can be repaid quickly and effortlessly.

        Dr. Lorenz said Schlichter isn't even an extreme example of a compulsive gambler; his infamy just puts his case in the public spotlight.

        She believes that like most compulsive gamblers, the root of Schlichter's problem stems from childhood traumas, including a fractured relationship with his father.

        Dr. Lorenz, who counseled Schlichter for seven weeks in 1997, said that as a boy, he was so haunted he could do nothing but try to escape reality.

        In their sessions, Schlichter talked of his need for genuine affection, not hero worship. According to Dr. Lorenz, he talked of fights between his parents, fights that were often about money and losing the family farm.

        “And what's gambling about?” Dr. Lorenz said. “Money.”

        Mostly, Schlichter spoke of how the expectations of his athletic greatness had destroyed his self-esteem. Because he was so talented, he always felt the pressure to keep pushing and be the best, Dr. Lorenz said. He was treated as a freak because he was so good, and he never developed the emotional stability he craved.

        After a fire burned two-thirds of his back at age 13, a young Art was just expected to deal with it without working through his fear, Dr. Lorenz said.

        Older kids didn't like him because he was better than they were in sports. At Ohio State, players were jealous when coach Woody Hayes promised him the starting quarterback job as a freshman, Schlichter told People magazine.

        Dr. Lorenz says they were at a critical stage in treatment when authorities sent Schlichter back to prison in 1997 after being caught at the track. Part of the therapy involved bringing Schlichter's family members, including his father, into therapy sessions.

        “We had been able to cut through some defensive walls, get to some very, very painful issues in his life, things he had never shared,” Dr. Lorenz said. “He was emotionally bleeding, and that's when they ripped him away.”

Hope in treatment
        His advocates believe the biggest question Schlichter faces now is not legal, but whether he can get the proper treatment they believe he needs — and if it will work.

        Dr. Lorenz believes it would. If left alone to be treated for six months, she says, Schlichter could “absolutely be a functional member of society. He will be able to cope with stress, but that doesn't mean he can ever gamble. But he's absolutely not hopeless.”

        Ms. Wagoner, Schlichter's lawyer, said she will push for Schlichter to be sent back to Dr. Lorenz's center for treatment as part of any new sentencing on the federal money-laundering charges. But Ms. Wagoner is not optimistic the court will agree.

        Local prosecutors have consistently argued that society is best served with Schlichter behind bars, and there is almost no gambling treatment in the prison system.

        “I don't question for a minute you suffer from (compulsive gambling),” said the judge in his 1995 trial. “But people were hurt by your criminal conduct.”

        Some believe that Schlichter isn't yet willing to admit that he is the problem, even though he talks of wanting treatment.

        “His biggest problem is Art Schlichter,” said Burrows, who hasn't talked to Schlichter since he was arrested in 1995. Their last conversation came when Schlichter called Burrows from jail, asking him to secure a $50,000 book advance. Burrows was unsuccessful, and says Schlichter never called back.

        “Whatever the addiction is, the first thing he has to do is make an effort to quit hurting people,” Burrows said. “He's got to quit taking other people's hard-earned money and stop sloughing it off by saying he has a problem.”

        Said Mitzi Schlichter: “It's very sad that Art may be going to jail again. But the reality is, this isn't the end of the story. There is still an opportunity for change.”

What is pathological gambling and where to get help

        1977: Signs with Ohio State, most highly touted quarterback prospect ever.

        1979: On cover of Sports Illustrated, fourth in Heisman trophy voting.

        1982: No. 1 NFL draft choice by the Baltimore Colts. Gambles away $350,000 signing bonus.

        1983: Suspended by NFL for gambling.

        1984: Reinstated by the NFL.

        1987-94: Arrested four times on charges of bank fraud, unlawful gambling and writing bad checks.

        1998: Files bankruptcy, listing $1 million in debts.

        1990-92: Plays Arena minor league football, named MVP with Detroit in 1990.

        1993-94: Hosts sports talk-radio show on Cincinnati's WSAI—AM.

        1994: Moves to Las Vegas, charged with federal and state crimes, including a charge of grand theft in Hamilton County.

        1995: Serves prison time in Terre Haute, Ind.

        1997: Caught betting while in treatment, sent back to jail.

        May 2000: Charged with money laundering and fraud, arrested after a three-day manhunt.

        Today: Jailed in Indianapolis, awaiting legal moves.

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