He was the consummate athlete, a straight-arrow Ohio farmboy with an intense hatred of losing and an uncanny knack for finding the open receiver.
Handsome and gregarious, Art Schlichter was a hometown hero who seemed to have it all. Including, it turned out, an insatiable urge to gamble. That urge ruined his career, cost him his wife and kids and, eventually, cost him his freedom.
Today, Schlichter is locked in a spartan jail cell in North Las Vegas, broken by a gambling habit that led him to prey on friends, family and even casual acquaintances.
At 34, he could still be a starting quarterback in the NFL, like John Elway. Instead, he has agreed in a plea bargain to spend 18 to 24 months in federal jail for stealing up to $500,000 to feed the gambling impulses that eventually consumed him. Local prosecutors are planning other charges that could add to that sentence.
"Athletically there wasn't anything he couldn't do," said his father, Max Schlichter. "He just couldn't not gamble."
Schlichter stole from his friends; conned his acquaintances. As the debts mounted and the need for a big score increased, he stole $16,500 from his wife's sister, according to court documents. It was the final straw for his wife, who took their young daughters and left.
Even as the web of lies, stealing and deceit closed in on him, Schlichter cashed some final bad checks and made a beeline for an Ohio racetrack.
His last gamble wasn't much better than the others. His horse didn't come in.
"He would bet on whether someone would cross the street," said Jerry Kutner, owner of the Las Vegas radio station where Schlichter was the host of a popular drive-time sports talk show. "He knew every sport, every player. He still couldn't win."
Max Schlichter sat slumped in a plastic chair in the cramped waiting room at the North Las Vegas jail, tired and rumpled after a hastily arranged flight the night before from Ohio.
"I believe he's finally reached rock bottom," Schlichter said. "He's lost his wife and his kids. It's finally sinking in. But he's not a criminal. He's just a very sick person who can't stop gambling."
In a few minutes, father and son would have a tearful reunion in the visiting area, separated by thick glass and able to talk only by telephone. On advice from his lawyers, Schlichter declined to be interview.
"He was as great a quarterback as is in the NFL today and he threw it all away," Max Schlichter said. "It's a perfect waste of God-given talent."
Schlichter didn't know his son had a gambling addiction until 1983, when Art, threatened by bookies and badly in debt, went to the FBI for help.
After admitting he bet on at least 10 NFL games during his rookie year in 1982, Schlichter was suspended by commissioner Pete Rozelle and began the first of many attempts at therapy.
"Doctors believe that Art's condition is under control and that his chances of a relapse are minimal," Rozelle said when reinstating Schlichter in June 1984.
They were wrong. After being released by the Indianapolis Colts in October 1985, Schlichter was gambling again. By the time he filed for bankruptcy in 1988, he had listed debts of $1 million and income of only $3,800 the previous year.
Schlichter, though, still had a talent for throwing the football. He led the Detroit Drive to an Arena Football League title in 1990, and as late as 1992 was playing for a semipro team.
"He could still play today for an expansion team," his father said. "Nobody could excite a crowd the way Art could."
But his effort to get back in the NFL was squelched when Rozelle denied his reinstatement appeal in September 1987 after he had signed a contract with the Cincinnati Bengals.
"They let drug addicts have chance after chance after chance, but the NFL wouldn't give Art another chance," the father said. "He never reapplied after Pete Rozelle embarrassed him. He was afraid they would embarrass him again."
In addition to a gifted right arm, Schlichter had a gift for gab. He used it in his second career as a radio talk show host. He used it to get money for gambling, often from the same people listening to his show.
"He could talk better than anybody I ever met," Kutner said. "He had fame and a silver tongue, and he parlayed it into cash."
Schlichter would talk betting lines with his listeners, then try to get their home phone numbers so he could call them and pitch one of his many scams.
Advertisers on the show didn't fare much better.
One of them, Jeff Day, owned a struggling golf club rental company with partner Derrick Hanson, whom Schlichter befriended and defrauded.
"He said he had some advertising money from some guy who was going to pay him instead of the owner and wanted Derrick to trade checks for about $5,000," Day said. "He got us to write him a check for $5,000 and gave us the other checks. Of course, they all bounced."
Day said his partner had to take out a home equity loan to cover the loss so the company could stay afloat.
"We're sports guys and we knew he was a sports guy," he said. "We were just nice trusting Mormon kids. It almost put us out of business."
Even hardened casino operators were taken by Schlichter.
One casino lost $12,000 in bad checks; others were taken for thousands more.
"We took all the normal precautions, he was just very good," said Dean Harold, a vice president at Bally's, where Schlichter bounced various checks.
Not that good, it turns out. Las Vegas got the better of him. Coming here was like putting a drunk behind the bar at the neighborhood tavern.
"I begged him not to move here," said Ron, a longtime friend who asked that his last name not be used. "He thought it was the best thing for him because then he wouldn't be caught for illegal gambling."
In a city built on failed gamblers, Schlichter thought he was going to be the one who bucked the odds. With his knowledge of sports, he was going to make the big score betting on anything involving a ball.
Instead, he was one of its biggest losers, playing long-shot parlay bets for thousands of dollars with hopes that one big score would set him straight again.
"He just couldn't win," Ron said. "He had the worst beats of any guy I'd ever seen. It was like God wouldn't allow him to win."
At one major Las Vegas Strip sports book, Schlichter was a regular customer with a penchant for betting $2,000 on four-team parlays.
If all his teams covered their respective spreads, he would walk away with $22,000. It rarely happened.
"Those were sucker bets," said one of the book's managers, who asked not to be identified. "He was a sucker playing sucker bets."
Even on the occasions Schlichter did win, he wasn't rich for long.
Kutner said Schlichter told him of winning $30,000 early one Sunday morning and heading home with the intention of paying off his debts.
The allure of more action, though, was too much. Sitting in his car at an intersection near the Las Vegas Strip, Schlichter turned right instead of left. He headed for the blackjack tables at the MGM Grand, where he lost the $30,000 before the morning sun filled the Las Vegas Valley.
"It wasn't about money," said Arnie Wexler, a consultant on compulsive gambling. "It was about needing and having to be in action. Art had to have the action."
Circumstances, meanwhile, were converging on Schlichter.
His wife, Mitzi, had stuck with him for nearly seven years as he struggled with his gambling habit, enduring the weeks of no money punctuated by a few days of sudden riches.
By August, however, it was the beginning of the end.
Heavily in debt and running short of marks, Schlichter stole and cashed $16,500 in checks from his sister-in-law. When she found out, Mitzi gathered up their newborn daughter and 4-year-old and went back to Ohio.
"When he got involved with a family member, that was it," Ron said.
Schlichter followed his wife to Ohio, taking an apartment near her in the hopes of a reconciliation.
He took a job working with a contractor, but the salary wasn't enough. Schlichter wrote a $1,150 check Oct. 8 to a grocery store in the Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington, and it allegedly bounced, according to prosecutors.
He went to the racetrack to gamble on one last big payoff.
"When he went back the last time, he tried to beat the horses," Ron said. "It didn't happen."
"I don't think Art ever understood the devastation of this disease," said Arnie Wexler, a recovered gambling addict and now a consultant on compulsive gambling. "He would be in treatment and then leave. People who are famous or think they're different have a hard time getting treatment."
Wexler said Schlichter, like all gamblers, believed his next bet would be the one that would set him up for life. Instead, it plunged him deeper in debt, leaving him increasingly desperate for ways to get money.
" . . . Art can't go out and sell his autograph to make money," Wexler said. "Art Schlichter had to write a check or con someone out of money."
And con people, he did. Enough so that prosecutors asked that Schlichter remain jailed pending his Jan. 27 sentencing so he couldn't take anyone else for money.
Deputy U.S. Attorney John Ham convinced the judge that Schlichter was an "economic danger" to those around him.
"He's a self-admitted gambling addict which has cost him careers and relationships, yet he hasn't gotten counseling," Ham argued. "He uses his problem like a credit card to leave a trail of victims. He's blessed with a gregarious personality that people find engaging."
In the jail waiting room, Ron carried new tennis shoes for Schlichter, who asked for them long with a book on compulsive gambling and a copy of "On the Brink," which chronicles one season with Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight.
"He told me something on the phone last night I had never heard before," Ron said. "He said you will never, ever, see me bet any money again."
Max Schlichter looked warily at his son's friend, not entirely convinced.
"I've heard it all before," he said with a sigh. "I've heard it all before."