January 15, 1996 12:00 PM

On Nov. 24, the undefeated Ohio State University football team was cruising toward a national title bid and a berth in the hallowed Rose Bowl. One day later, after a 31-23 upset loss to archrival Michigan, the storybook slammed shut, and OSU was left to finish its season in the Citrus Bowl, a tepid reward for an autumn of such grand hopes. Oddsmakers made the Buckeyes 5½-point favorites in that game.

Inside the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., former Ohio State quarterback Art Schlichter—who knows much of point spreads and dashed promises—faithfully followed the Buckeyes all year. Back in 1979, Schlichter was the man of the hour in Columbus, Ohio, leading OSU to an 11-1 record—losing only to USC in the Rose Bowl—and was fourth in voting for the Heisman Trophy. The youngest of three children born to John “Max” Schlichter, an Ohio grain farmer, and his wife, Mila, Art was a folk hero of sorts, handsome and modest with a sterling reputation. His biography, published when he was just 21, crystallized his persona—Straight Arrow.

But Schlichter had a secret, one that would bring him to grief and to prison: like a large number of other Americans—some 12 million, according to the Council on Compulsive Gambling, a research group—he was an addicted gambler. Typically, the problem afflicts “competitive, bright, charismatic” men between 21 and 55, says the council’s executive director, Edward Looney. “But when you peel away the surface, these people suffer from loneliness and low self-esteem.”

A first-round National Football League draft pick, Schlichter (pronounced SHLEES-ter) signed with the Baltimore Colts in 1982 and promptly blew his $350,000 bonus betting on sports. Banned twice by the NFL, he ran up $1 million in debts and was arrested four times between 1987 and 1994 on charges of unlawful gambling, bank fraud and writing bad checks.

Now 35, he has served 13 months of an 18-to 24-month sentence for bank fraud after admitting to bouncing $175,000 in checks. (He faces additional felony charges for writing another $50,000 in bad checks, but his sentence may be plea-bargained to time already served.) “Going to prison is the best thing that could have happened to me,” says Schlichter, who is working closely with a gambling-addictions counselor. After his expected release in August, he hopes to reconcile with his wife, Mitzi, 32, who left Schlichter in 1994. Now living in Indiana with their daughters Taylor, 5, and Madison, 1½, Mitzi works in sales for a cable-TV company. Taylor, she says, often cries for her father at night. “I hope Art comes out a changed man,” Mitzi says, “so our daughters know that a person can have a second chance.”

From the sparsely appointed prison chapel in Terre Haute, Schlichter spoke of his hopes and travails with correspondent Judith Valente.

I was a young child in the small town of Washington Court House, Ohio, when I first started betting. It was for pennies, nickels and dimes—card games on the holidays—with my grandpa, uncles and cousins. I enjoyed it. With an older brother and sister, I was always a competitive person. Even back in that era, I can remember how I liked to win.

If I lost at a sporting event or anything, I took it probably more seriously than other kids. I wanted to be the best in everything I did. I look back at it now and wonder if I wasn’t looking for acceptance of some kind even then, because maybe I felt a little bit inferior. In high school, there’s always a clique, and I wasn’t in the clique.

I was worried about being liked by other kids. Because I was good at sports, I was always playing on a level with older kids. It made everybody want to beat me or the teams I was playing on. I made the football team as a freshman at Miami Trace High School. No one had ever done that. Older kids don’t like to see a younger guy playing, because it’s their time, they want to be the focus. There was a lot of jealousy; I was very insecure.

In college, I had similar feelings. I was heavily recruited as an athlete. I could have gone just about anywhere. But I chose Ohio State because I grew up around Columbus. Coach Woody Hayes promised me I would start as quarterback as a freshman. I did, and again a lot of teammates were resentful, both of me and of Woody. That made life miserable for me my freshman year. I started isolating myself a lot. I stopped going to classes as much, and I started going to the track, Scioto Downs, near Columbus, in the spring of 79. I probably took $40 or $50 with me. Nobody knew me. I would go there to escape from everything.

I can’t remember my first bet, but I remember my first big win. It was around April of 1979. I put $72 down on a trifecta, picking the top three horses in correct order. I won $300 or $400. I thought that was great. I started going back every three or four days with a group of friends. You know, when you’re winning you get into these grandiose thoughts. You go on an ego trip, not unlike when you win in sports and you’re thinking, “I can do something better than anyone else.”

The next season, my sophomore year, Ohio State went undefeated in the regular season. I was on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED with three or four other guys. Then I was on the cover alone after we beat Michigan at Ann Arbor. Right about then, it probably got a little too much for me to handle. I was giving interviews everywhere. I was in the Heisman race. A part of me felt I was living a lie. I didn’t have enough confidence to believe I was one of the better players in the country. The gambling increased at that time. I can’t blame my parents for my insecurity. They weren’t abusive, they were normal in every way. They never pushed me, and they didn’t demand anything of me except that I be a good person.

Pretty soon, I was betting hundreds of dollars a night. I probably had about $10,000 in the bank then from raising prize steers. I stopped working out as much. I had troubles in my relationships. Gambling became more important to me than football, schooling or even relationships with girls.

I began betting on sports the summer of my junior year. That’s when I had my first big loss. This guy at the track said, “I’ve won 40 or 50 thousand betting on the [Cincinnati] Reds.” After that, I remember running down to my car to listen to the scores of the games. I started betting and made like, $4,000-$5,000 that weekend. The next week, I lost it all back, plus $1,000, and I had to pay the guy. It’s funny. When you lose, you face a down period. Then the disease starts talking to you, telling you the next bet will be better than the last one, the next bet will put you where you want to be.

The winter of my junior year, I lost $4,000 to a bookmaker and a friend. My dad bailed me out. My parents had been concerned that I was spending too much time at the track. This time, my dad actually hit me. He slapped me across the face and said, “What’s it going to take to get you to stop this?”

My mom had cancer when I was in high school, and they had gotten some insurance money to pay her medical expenses. My dad said, “It’s your mom’s body you’re taking this money from.” I cried. My mom cried. I swore I’d never do it again. But all I could think of was getting the money back, so I was betting again the next week.

I laugh when people ask me if I was involved with organized crime. If they would just look at my track record, they would see I was the most unorganized criminal ever. At first, when I lost, I paid as I went along, with my savings and my winnings, so it wasn’t so much of a problem. Nobody ever threatened to break my legs, though I had one incident in 1983, after I turned pro, where I was betting with a bookmaker in Baltimore. I met him at the airport with $60,000 in cash. He told me if it was a dollar short, he’d break my fingers and the hand I threw with.

I thought, “This is not worth it.” But then the compulsive gambler thinks the only way to get out from under is to gamble some more. It got to the point where I lost so much, I couldn’t pay anymore. And against all the rules, I was betting on professional games. That’s what led to my suspension from the NFL.

First, let me say I never bet on a game I was playing in or a game I could influence the outcome of. That’s how I justified to myself betting on football.

In the fall of 1982, I had about $300,000 in the bank from my signing bonus with the Baltimore Colts. I was going to put that toward buying my dad’s farm. What happened was, I lost $10,000 on games. The next week it went to $20,000. Six or seven weeks down the road, I lost my entire signing bonus. I started borrowing money at the banks and put myself in horrible debt. At that point, I knew I was sick. I called my dad, and he flew out to Baltimore immediately. I remember just breaking down. My dad held me like I was a child. I was 22 years old. My dad called my agent, and the agent said, “Don’t worry. We’ll get help for you. I’ll call you back tomorrow.” To this day, I haven’t heard from that agent.

Even football people who suspected I had a problem kept quiet, because it would ruin my career. But the team knew something was wrong. I was a horrible player. I couldn’t concentrate. It was as if I’d lost all my skills. Emotionally, I was shot.

In the spring of 1983 I lost $300,000 in one week—and my salary was only $140,000 a year. These two gamblers I owed money to threatened to expose me if I didn’t pay. I had an attorney who told me I needed to go to the FBI and come clean. I did. I also told the NFL. I was hoping since I admitted what I was doing, the NFL would be lenient. They would see that I didn’t throw games or anything like that. But it was a media disaster. It was on all the national news.

I was referred to a doctor, a leading gambling specialist in Washington. He gave me a 60-question test. Afterward, he said, “Art, you’re sick. You’re a compulsive gambler.” I started crying. I said, “I’m so happy this is a disease. I thought I was just a bozo.” He told me, “We can treat this. There’s hope.” I checked into South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, N.Y.

Four days later, I was suspended from the NFL. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know anything else but football. I went home after a month and went to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting in Columbus. A couple of months later, I was gambling again.

In 1984, after my treatment, I got reinstated to the NFL. I played two seasons with the Colts in Indianapolis, earning $200,000 a year. But I was again banned from the NFL, and they refused to reinstate me because I continued to gamble.

On Dec. 16,1984, I met my wife, Mitzi. She had no idea who I was. She didn’t know anything about football. She was a journalism student at Ball State University at the time. We met on a blind date. We married in January 1989. Since 1988 I had been playing football in Canada and continuing to gamble. Mitzi didn’t know the extent of it. I was earning $100,000 a year. And I was good at keeping the gambling hidden. In September 1989, after I got hurt and was dropped from the Canadian Football League, I was caught writing a bad check in Ohio. I was fined and given a suspended sentence. Mitzi was pregnant with our first child. I entered Charter Hospital, a top rehabilitation center in Las Vegas. I spent three weeks out there, decided I liked Las Vegas, so Mitzi and I moved out there. It hurt more than it helped. I was in and out of the program, and gambling a lot. Why hadn’t my therapy worked? I wasn’t ready for it to work. I hadn’t hit rock bottom. I actually felt I would die if I gave up gambling. It took going to jail to bring me out of my fantasy world.

In 1990 I began playing Arena Football for the Detroit Drive, and we left Las Vegas. But in 1994, I got an offer to work for a radio station in Las Vegas as a sports talk show host. Mitzi was six months pregnant with our second daughter. I told her this was a great opportunity, a chance to start anew. I told her I was committed to stop gambling. She said that if I didn’t straighten up, that was it.

In reality, I was probably at the worst point of my addiction. I stole money from my wife’s purse. When you start stealing from your family and your friends, you know it’s a matter of time before you’re put in jail or you put a gun to your head. I was desperate at that point. I’d walk into a supermarket and write a bad check. Or I’d ‘ tell a friend to hold a check, that it would be good in a couple of days, and it never was. I justified it to myself by saying I’d pay it all back. I never used the money for fancy cars or anything like that. It all went to gambling.

The final straw for Mitzi came when the FBI showed up at our door in Las Vegas. I had taken some checks from her sister that were from a closed account and tried to cash them. They came looking for my sister-in-law. At that point, Mitzi said she was through. She was going back home to Indiana to start over. I was losing my family. I knew it in my heart.

One of my last big bets was in the fall of 1994. I had spent the day in a bar, and I had bet a couple of thousand dollars on a game—I think it was Denver against Kansas City. It could have made me $10,000-$15,000. The last play of the game cost me the bet. I was literally down to my last dime. That night, I’m driving down this back road in Lebanon, Ohio, and I’m just banging my head against the steering wheel. My heart was racing, and I had broken out into a sweat. So I roll down the window, and I’m driving with my head out the window. I started driving really fast and thought about killing myself. They have a penitentiary right there, and I knew that was my next step. Either I was going to die, or I was going to be in the penitentiary.

On Nov. 10, 1994, I was charged in Las Vegas with bank fraud. I thought I’d be home the next day, but the judge wouldn’t set a bond. I was shackled in chains and led off to jail.

I was totally in shock, suicidal. That day, in my cell, I got down on my knees and asked God for help because I didn’t want to be this way anymore. I made a commitment I was going to stop because it couldn’t get any worse than this.

I’ve been clean from gambling for more than a year now. I’m working in a 12-step program in prison. I’ve worked real hard on my relationship with my wife through a counselor. I’m trying to work on some of my character defects. I read a lot, especially the Bible. I spend a lot of time in the chapel praying. My wife works 60 hours a week, takes care of two kids. She has a lot of stress on her, so I pray for peace about that. And I pray for an end to my addiction.

When I get out, I’d like to go to every college in the country and talk to young kids about what this disease, this addiction, is all about. People can get help for it. The first step is to call Gamblers Anonymous, which is located in most cities. I’d also like to open up a recovery center for compulsive gamblers in the Indianapolis area, or at least lend my name to one.

The toughest part will be earning back the trust of so many people, starting with my wife, my children and my family. That’ll take some time. I don’t ask anyone to believe I’ve got this under control. This is an insidious disease that has ruined my life. I’ll have to take it one day at a time.

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