The title of his biography was Straight Arrow and he was only 21 when it was published—an All-America quarterback and budding Heisman Trophy candidate at Ohio State. But even as the pages rolled off the presses, Arthur Ernest Schlichter was hurrying down a dark and crooked path that would lead him into a private hell, to be quickly followed by public humiliation.
As the world knows now, Art Schlichter was a pathological gambler, so hooked by the compulsion to bet on sports events that even he is not sure how much he lost—$1.5 million is considered a realistic guess. Because of gambling, he was suspended from the NFL for the 1983 season. Now he is out of the game once more, abruptly dropped last October by the Indianapolis Colts amid rumors that he had been gambling again.
Thus, at 25, Art Schlichter has been profoundly scarred, if not totally ruined, by his affliction. Dr. Robert Custer, the Washington psychiatrist who is considered the nation's leading expert in the field, has been monitoring Schlichter's progress for almost three years. He says, "Art has suffered the full effects of his disease."
Recently, Schlichter agreed to talk at length about himself and his addiction. He was without a job, low on money and living on his parents' 450-acre grain farm in Washington Court House, Ohio. The interview took place in the living room of the suburban Columbus home of Gilman Kirk, a businessman who is now Schlichter's adviser and unofficial agent. Despite the searing nature of his experiences, Schlichter was relaxed and looked more like a little boy than a desperate betting man.
Of course, he was a little boy when the psychological seeds of his affliction probably took root. Like most compulsive gamblers, he was a bright, tense child of whom his mother once said, "If he was still, he was ill." He was blessed with a spectacular athletic talent (he could dribble a basketball at the age of four). He became a baby superstar: He once scored 47 of his team's 49 points in a junior high basketball game; his high school football team was 29-0-1 with him as an All-America quarterback; and he was an all-state guard in basketball.
He was, in short, consumed by sports. "I regret that now," said Schlichter. "The hype, the buildup, the headlines—it all beat me up. I had no privacy." In a separate interview, Custer said, "Art had no other recreation, no hobbies. Football was everything, and pressure came from everywhere—family, coaches, fans, friends. The expectations when you are a straight arrow are immense."
Another likely influence on Schlichter was a terrifying accident that occurred when he was in the eighth grade. He and his brother, John, were using gasoline to remove roofing tar from a floor at home when a spark from an oil burner caused an explosion and a fire that badly injured both boys. Art's right side, from thigh to shoulder, was severely burned. "It was torture," remembers his father, Max. "They'd give him painkillers but they never quite took hold. He screamed for me to let him die." But the elder Schlichter also recalls, "When he was in the hospital, he would always repeat to himself, 'I can play football this fall. I can play football this fall.' "
Custer said he had to dig this particular nightmare out of Art. "Nobody had ever asked him before if he had had any close calls with death. Incidents such as these set gamblers up psychologically. It's something unresolved they need relief from."
Schlichter began gambling regularly while he was still in high school. His family owned a harness horse and he was a frequent visitor to Scioto Downs, a racetrack 40 miles from his home. Usually, he was a penny ante $2 to $5 bettor but once, when he was a senior, he bet $20 on a long shot and won $150. More than the money, he liked the anonymity of the track, sitting with the railbirds. "Nobody bothered me," he recalled. "There was no pressure on me because the horses were the show."
Art had already come to see himself as more a product of other people's expectations than of his own personality. Custer: "People were telling him what to think, how to feel. He was trying to be a number of different people for everyone else—except when he gambled. Then he was Art Schlichter, his own man."