Commentary

Crossing the Line

Former NFL quarterback Art Schlichter is recovering from a devastating gambling addiction that resulted in him going to prison.

Updated: February 28, 2008, 1:41 PM ET
By Ben Houser | Special to ESPN.com

On a Sunday in April, the light streams brightly through the colorful stained-glass windows at Centerville Methodist church in Ohio. The pews are neat and tidy, the pastor is warm and friendly, and worship music plays throughout the church. It's a familiar setting in the church, familiar except for the man at the altar. The speaker, a man of vast infamy in the Buckeye State, can't be explained or categorized in a word, a phrase or a sentence. He has been called a golden boy, a friend, a phenom, a felon, a father and a con man. He is perhaps the most complex compulsive gambler in the history of American sports.

His name is Art Schlichter.

It is his first time speaking in public in a decade. Based on Schlichter's opening remarks, it appears his humor helped temper his trepidation.

"When the pastor told me that he had contacted the Centerville Police, man that scared the heck out of me, I wasn't ready for that, I did hold my breath," Schlichter said.

After spending 10 years of his life behind bars, Schlichter understands most of the world is waiting for his next fall, and that includes himself.

OTL: Crossing the Line

"Outside the Lines" (Sunday on ESPN, 9:30 a.m. ET) talks with Schlichter about what went wrong and whether he can recover from the compulsion that has in many ways ruined both his professional and personal life OTL

"I am not guaranteed that I am not going to gamble again," Schlichter said. "But I certainly want to make sure that I don't hurt anybody else again."

In order to fully comprehend Schlichter's message, you have to go back to the 1970s, where his story begins on a family farm in Washington Courthouse, Ohio.

He was the son of a farmer, Max Schlichter, who gave Art the option of working in the fields or working on his sports. Schlichter chose sports, and his father expected him to work a full day developing his athletic prowess. Art rose to stardom playing basketball and as the quarterback for Miami Trace High school, where he never lost a football game in his high school career. In 1977 he was the most heavily recruited player in the country and legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes made a visit to Schlichter's grandparents' house for Thanksgiving dinner. That sealed the deal as Schlichter chose Ohio State.

During Schlichter's tenure at Ohio State, he began to frequent Scioto Downs, a horse track near the college campus. He described his love of the track quite simply: "I could just be another guy, be standing there enjoying the races and trying to pick a winner just like they would … I do everything else for everybody else, and this was something that I enjoyed doing and this was something for me. It was kind of a safe haven for me."

Schlichter compiled a stellar college football career, finishing twice in the top five for the Heisman trophy, gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated and setting or tying 30 records at Ohio State. But Schlichter's gambling grew into a habit as he began playing late-night poker with friends and gambling on pro and college football, although he says he never bet on a game that he played.

Schlichter had built a glowing reputation for his hard work on the field during his years in high school and Ohio State, and the Baltimore Colts picked him fourth overall in the 1982 NFL draft.

But, even in his first NFL training camp, teammates like fellow quarterback Mike Pagel sensed something was wrong. The two shared a dorm room and Pagel says he didn't recall Schlichter working hard during camp, but that Schlichter would talk on the phone to numerous people who would call and never leave a return phone number. When the phone bill arrived, Pagel was shocked to find that it was 39 pages with calls to 32 different states. The bill was for $1,800 and Pagel was responsible for only $400 of the bill.

When the NFL strike happened in 1982, Pagel says Schlichter virtually disappeared and chose to stay away from the rest of the team. Schlichter admits he had too much free time on his hands during the strike and his gambling habit grew into a full-blown compulsion.

While an active NFL player, Schlichter says he was betting upwards of $40,000 a weekend on 15 or 20 games. By the end of the strike, Schlichter reportedly owed more than a million dollars to various bookies, and he told the NFL about his gambling.

"I borrowed, I stole, and I couldn't pay the bookies anymore so I went to the NFL and I let them know that I had made some mistakes," Schlichter said. "They promptly sent me to a treatment center and suspended me for the rest of my life, which I thought was a little harsh at the time, but they said I could come back in a year if I did the right thing."

Schlichter did return to the Colts in 1984 after a year's suspension, but he never regained the glory of his Ohio State career. He bounced from team to team and league to league from the Buffalo Bills to the CFL's Ottawa Rough Riders and then to the Arena Football League's Detroit and Cincinnati teams. For the next decade, in addition to his football career, Schlichter made a career of pledging to change and failing to do so.

After a stint in the Arena Football League ended in 1992, he began stealing money from friends and family. Schlichter recounted his fall from hero to criminal: "I retired and said I am going to live my life my way. At 32 years old, my football career was over, I was the father of a beautiful young daughter, married, had a good wife, but I was still gambling and though she tried and my parents tried and everybody around me tried to tell me, that I needed to stop and get help I continued to do the wrong thing. I didn't see my life spiraling down like they did. When you are an addict all you can see is that next bet, that next drink, or that next drug. By 32, I was bankrupt, I had borrowed and stole from everybody I knew, and I was still gambling."

Schlichter eventually would be convicted of a bevy of crimes including money laundering and racketeering. Prosecutor Larry Brodeur said that Schlichter was the best con man he has ever seen.

"He knew how to read people, how to size them up, what needs they have that he might fill," Brodeur said. "He was absolutely relentless, he was tireless, and he would find a way to get them to trust him to unbelievable extents to give him incredible sums of money which would disappear as soon as they got into his hands."

Beginning in 1994, Schlichter was either in prison or serving a sentence in a community corrections program.

Valerie Lorenz, an expert on compulsive gambling, treated Schlichter for the first time in 1997, and said his addiction was the most severe she'd seen in the 30 years she'd worked with compulsive gamblers.

"Art tried so many times to stop gambling and he would be able to do it for short periods of time," she said, "maybe for two or three weeks or a month and then something would attack him psychologically again and he had only one way of coping with that pain and that was to avoid it and that was through gambling."

Schlichter says he finally hit rock bottom while in prison in 2004. After being caught gambling behind bars, Schlichter was thrown into solitary confinement.

"When they threw me in the hole, they grabbed my attention. After all that time I had never faced anything like that in my life. I thought I had revisited the 'Shawshank Redemption' movie. They put me in a cell with a bed and blanket, no pillow and a steel toilet, a 20-watt light bulb and when they handcuffed me and put me in there, I looked in there and said, 'I am not going in there,' and they said, 'Art you only have to stay for 120 days in here,' and I thought, 'this is insanity.'"

Schlichter says he hit his knees that first night in solitary confinement and had a long conversation with God. He says he received a renewed sense of how important life is and that after nearly 22 years, a divorce, countless victims and 3600 days in prison, he realized what he had lost, and what he had gained: God's grace and mercy.

Finally, Schlichter got a break when his state sentence was modified, over the objection of the state of Indiana, and he was granted an early release from prison on June 15, 2006.

He says he owes nearly $500,000 in restitution, and that it would be unrealistic for him to say he would be able to pay that money back to his victims. After all he's been through, Schlichter says he still can't explain the events of his own life. "I think the biggest question is why, why did it happen," he said. "But that is the toughest question to answer, and really in the end, it may never be answered totally, I certainly can't answer that question."

Now at 47, Schlichter has started his own organization, Gambling Prevention Awareness, is speaking as often as he can to help others with gambling addiction, and is working with the Williamsville Wellness Center, a compulsive gambling treatment center in Virginia.

On that April night at the church, Schlichter told the crowd he wasn't looking for forgiveness, but was "just looking to tell my story."

The congregation listened, and after the final words spoken by Schlichter that night, it responded with a standing ovation.

Ben Houser is a feature producer for "Outside the Lines."

Ben Houser is a Senior Producer for ESPN's E:60.