His years at Ohio State became a horrendous roller coaster. As a sophomore, he led OSU to an 11-1 record—the loss was to USC, 17-16, in the Rose Bowl. His coach, Earle Bruce, ticked off the attributes of his straight-arrow quarterback: "Leadership, courage, toughness, intelligence, quick feet, never gripes." From that high point came the drop. OSU was picked No. 1 in Schlichter's junior year, but the team went a disappointing 9-3. His senior season was worse, though for different reasons.
He was considered a strong Heisman Trophy candidate early in the season, but a minor scandal engulfed him. Three traffic tickets of his had been suspended by friendly court officials and this was followed by a Columbus courtroom hearing in which 18 reporters and a TV crew turned up to see him fined $128 for the third offense, a speeding ticket. Then he hurt his ankle. He played bravely despite pain. But OSU lost to Florida State and then was upset by Minnesota, killing his chance for the Heisman. "By the end of the year," said Schlichter, "I was tired, sore, frustrated, worried about the NFL draft, and basically burned out. Once these things start to accumulate, you stuff them inside you. Pretty soon you're looking for an outlet for all that pressure."
He had been going to bet at Scioto Downs more and more often during his college years, upping his routine bets to $20 or $30 a race. When he was a junior, he began wagering on college basketball. It was quicker than going to a track; his bet was only a phone call away. He fell about $2,000 in debt. He didn't have the money himself, so he summoned his courage and went to his father. "He was shocked and angry, but he bailed me out," recalled Schlichter.
After that traumatic experience, Schlichter began betting more furiously than ever—$200 to $300 a college basketball game. By the end of his senior year, he needed another bail-out—$12,000 this time. The vicious pattern was set.
The Baltimore Colts had drafted him No. 1, in 1982. They gave him a $350,000 bonus, a salary of $140,000 and a $125,000 low-interest loan. But Schlichter was a physical and mental mess. He wound up third string. Another rookie quarterback, Mike Pagel, was named the starter. Schlichter was devastated. "It was like whooooosh!" he said. "All the air went out of my balloon and my world came tumbling down." The blow to his ego was tremendous and he felt a powerful sense of rejection. "He relieved it through gambling because that was the only thing he had found that could help," said Custer.
The NFL players' strike on Sept. 20 also appeared to be a critical factor in his self-destructive behavior. Schlichter had never been without football to give him a sense of self-worth. The strike, in effect, cut his psychological lifeline. When he recalled those desperate months, he spoke in a faraway voice, as if he were reliving a nightmare. "I went home and got very heavily involved in gambling. I lost a lot, paid some money back, lost more. I never really won and I started chasing."
His bets were getting bigger. At first, he wagered $1,000 or $2,000 per college football game. When college basketball games began, he started dropping as much as $30,000 a night. Betting with a Baltimore bookie under the code name Fred, he often parlayed a dozen three-team bets at $1,000 or $2,000 a shot. He didn't always lose. He recalled one particularly bright night during his rookie year: "I won $120,000. It was a Friday and I had parlayed my ass off. I hit a whole bunch, nine out of 10, I think. It was the greatest night in the history of my life." His face lit up as he spoke, but then it grew cloudy. "I called the book to collect and they said they couldn't pay me until Tuesday, because it wasn't the end of the week yet." Schlichter said that by Monday he had lost not only the $120,000 he had coming but also $70,000 more.
This madness went on for about three more months, until early February 1983. "I was living minute to minute," said Schlichter. "I was constantly, constantly worried, paranoid, sick to my stomach. I was up all night in my room at my parents' home thinking of ways to cover my bets." Food binges puffed his weight up from 202 to 222. He simply couldn't slow down. "It grabs you," he said. "You lose some money and then you start chasing. And you keep going and going and going. Your own mind is lying to you, telling you that your next bet is going to be better, that it's going to be the big winner. But it's not. It never is."
Schlichter tried to stop gambling by going into therapy. But he was in too deep. To keep betting, he borrowed $300,000 from banks just on his good name and signature. He hit friends, family, strangers, anyone who would give him a listen and a loan. He was betting $50,000 a pop on three-team college basketball parlays. He placed two huge bets one night in early 1983 in which he tried to win back $400,000.
"I just didn't give a damn," he said. "I knew I wasn't going to be able to pay my debts. I just fired, fired, fired, fired, fired. I kept lying. I said, 'I'll pay, I'll pay, I'll pay....' But I didn't. I couldn't." One night during that period, he fell to his knees in his room. "I've never come out and told anyone all that happened to me that night. I didn't want anyone to say I was using it as an excuse or to get sympathy. But I turned to the Lord. I prayed that he would make it all end."