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Revisiting Art Schlichter’s sad tale of gambling addiction

Monday’s seismic news that Atlanta Falcons star receiver Calvin Ridley had been suspended for the 2022 season for betting on NFL games got me to thinking about another player who wound up being banned for gambling. He was a guy I interviewed several times when the Buffalo Bills took a chance on him in the summer of 1986. A guy by the name of Art Schlichter.

Schlichter’s story has become a sad, cautionary tale. One can only pray that Ridley’s apparent parlay play of $1,500 is a one-time thing and never reaches the depths of Schlichter’s gambling addiction.

Schlichter (prounounced SLEESH-ter) supposedly was on the road to recovery when he showed up at Bills training camp in Fredonia that July. I remember being impressed with him early on. He threw long and short and in between. Each pass was a tight spiral. Each pass was a forceful statement about what had been and what still might be.

As I watched him complete toss after toss to Bills receivers that sunny day 36 summers ago, I could see why crusty old Woody Hayes had scrapped his beloved three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust running attack at Ohio State and started passing the ball. I could see why the Bills braintrust was willing to take a flyer on the former first-round draft pick two years after NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle reinstated him following a one-season suspension for betting on games.

“I feel as if I’ve been given a new lease on life,’’ Schlichter told me back then. “I know there’s rumors flying around that I’m still betting on games, but they aren’t true. I’ve finally gotten this thing under control. I know I can never gamble again.”

He sounded convincing, sincere. It appeared as if a marvelous comeback story might be unfolding.

Two weeks before that regular season kicked off, the Bills signed future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, and Schlichter, who had struggled during exhibition games, was released to make room. It obviously was disappointing news for Schlichter, but he appeared to take it well. One month later, he visited the YMCA on East Main Street in Rochester to speak to a group of compulsive gamblers. Again, he sounded convincing, sincere. You couldn’t help but root for him and the others in that room.

Sadly, all these decades later, Schlichter’s words ring as hollow as a heat duct. There was no glorious comeback, just a comedown. The quarterback who once drew comparisons to John Elway and Dan Marino would fall prey to an addiction he never could kick.

By the end of 1994, he had seemingly hit rock bottom. He found himself in a spartan jail cell in North Las Vegas. He had lost it all. His family. His career. His dignity. His freedom. A few months later, he was found guilty of stealing $500,000 to feed his gambling impulses and was sentenced to two years in federal prison.

I remember interviewing his father around that time. Like so many others, Max Schlichter had been swindled out of money by his charismatic son. “He was as great a quarterback as there is in the NFL today, and he threw it all away,’’ the elder Schlichter lamented. “It’s a perfect waste of God-given talent.”

Max didn’t learn about his son’s problem until 1983 when Art sought help from the FBI after he fell deeply into gambling debt and was threatened by bookies. He admitted to betting on 10 NFL games and was suspended by Rozelle. After undergoing gambling addiction counseling for several months, Schlichter was reinstated by the NFL in June 1984. “Doctors believe that Art’s condition is under control,’’ Rozelle explained. “They believe his chances of a relapse are minimal.”

Schlichter had conned the doctors and Rozelle, just as he had conned so many others through the years.

I later discovered that while he was making that comeback with the Bills and speaking to those compulsive gamblers at the Rochester Y, Schlichter was betting on games and losing huge sums of money. He eventually turned his back on treatment and moved to Las Vegas. It was, as one writer said, like putting an alcoholic behind the bar of the neighborhood tavern. By August 1994, Schlichter’s debts were so staggering that he stole $16,500 from his sister-in-law. That was the final straw for his wife, Mitzi, who gathered their two young children and left for Ohio.

When sentenced the following January, Schlichter told the judge he had had reached his nadir and would never bet again. He was lying again. He wound up sinking deeper into the abyss. His addiction’s grip was so powerful that Schlichter found a way to continue gambling even while in prison.

After his release, he continued to bet, run up huge debts and swindle loved ones and strangers out of millions. In 2011, he was sent back to prison for 10 years after pleading guilty to wire fraud, bank fraud, falsifying tax returns and cocaine use. The man who once was Big Man on Campus at the Ohio State University wound up being incarcerated at the Ohio State Penitentiary, trading in his No. 10 football jersey for a No. A777924 prison shirt.

Last June, the 61-year-old Schlichter was released from prison, and reportedly has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and dementia that may have been caused by the 15 to 17 concussions he suffered during his 20 years of playing football at the junior high, high school, college and professional levels.

Here’s hoping that Ridley never slips to these depths. Here’s hoping it was a one-time error in judgment and the loss of the $11 million he was due to earn this autumn is a deterrent to him and others. Here’s hoping the billion-dollar bed the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL have made with DraftKings, FanDuel, Caesars and other gambling platforms doesn’t lead to more serious scandals and more heart-breaking stories like Schlichter’s.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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