From Pro NFL Quarterback to Gambling Junkie to Federal Prisoner

By Robert Rosso 03/15/16

Robert Rosso talks with fellow inmate Art Schlichter about his rise and fall and his memoir "Busted."

From Pro NFL Quarterback to Gambling Junkie to Federal Prisoner
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When Art Schlichter's autobiography went to print in 2009, the man himself was a pre- and post-game analyst for the Ohio State football program, the executive director of a gambling addiction awareness and recovery program and, by all appearances, a model parolee.

At the time, he had finally turned his life around after spending more than two decades in and out of state and federal prisons for a multitude of crimes that stemmed from an addiction to gambling.

"Passing bad checks, stealing, lying, and conning people out of their hard earned money just so you can gamble is a sleazy way to live, believe me," wrote Schlichter. "It's terrible. It's not the way I wanted to conduct my life, and I was not happy with myself when I did these things. I knew it was wrong. I just couldn't stop doing it."

The book, suitably titled Busted: The Rise and Fall of Art Schlichter, is the tale of a true American tragedy—a small town farm boy turned college football star makes it into the NFL, only to succumb to a career-ending gambling addiction after three uneventful seasons. A life of crime soon followed. At its core, the book is a detailed account about one man’s struggle with addiction.

"The addiction—the war inside of me—is sometimes stronger than my will to stay free," Schlichter confesses in his book. "Some days it’s easier to deal with. Some days it’s not."

Sadly for Schlichter, less than three years after his book was published, he found himself "busted" once again.

Now 55, he is serving a 127-month federal prison sentence for wire fraud, bank fraud and filing false income tax returns—a sentence that was run concurrent with a similar state charge. Additionally, Schlichter is one of the thousands of former football players who are plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the NFL, all of whom have suffered concussions and brain injuries. The NFL has agreed to pay out $900 million to the players over the next 65 years.

Inside the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Terre Haute, Indiana—a prison in which both Schlichter and I reside—I spoke to Art over a six-month period about a variety of issues, with emphasis on the head injuries he endured throughout his football career and his addiction to gambling. I wanted to know if there might be a direct correlation between Art's head injuries and his addiction to gambling.

Like so many young Americans, Art began playing football in the Pony League when he was in the fourth grade. During his third season, or sixth grade year, he took a helmet to the head and experienced his first concussion.

"Back then we called it getting our 'bell rung,'" says Art. "The coaches, parents, adults, no one really thought much about it—as long as we made it back to the huddle we were fine."

In 1975, during his sophomore year in high school, Art received his second and more serious concussion.

"Now that was a bad one. I was brought to the hospital and had to spend the night," Art recalls. "And although I didn't realize it at the time, that's when things in my life started to change."

According to Art, prior to his concussion, he was a good student. His grades were above average, he retained information well, and he was able to concentrate and focus.

"But after my sophomore year, my grades declined," Art says. "I just couldn't focus or study. Later in college I remember just trying to get by. I would just do whatever it to took to get by."

And there were changes in his personality as well. "I was always outgoing, perhaps too much so. But there were times I wasn't comfortable in my own skin, and these were during some of the best times in my life."

As the starting quarterback for the Ohio State Buckeyes, Art became a star. Not only did he completely change the offense from a running offense to a passing one, but over his four-year reign, he broke all of Ohio State's single-season records and Big Ten Championship career and total offense records, and even played in the 1980 Rose Bowl. But he also suffered several serious concussions.

"One time when I was playing against UCLA, I got hit on the head in the middle of the third quarter by a guy named Irv Eatman and they had to carry me off the field," Art explains. "What I remember next was looking up at the scoreboard, seeing that we were behind and grabbing my helmet. I then went over to the coach and told him that I was ready to go back in. That's when I found out that it was the end of the fourth quarter. I had been knocked out, but I was wide awake on the sidelines the entire time."

Meanwhile, off the field, Art was starting to exhibit signs of risky behavior. Although he didn't drink or do drugs, by his junior year in college, his love of horse racing had turned into a full-blown gambling addiction—so much so that he even had to borrow $4,000 from his parents to pay off a bookie that he owed.

In his autobiography, Art summed up his time at Ohio State as follows: "During the college years I became isolated and geared into thinking that my job was to play football and my recreation was to gamble."

In 1982, Art was drafted into the big leagues by the Baltimore Colts—a franchise he would stay with for two years as they moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis—before being traded to the Buffalo Bills. During his three short years in the NFL, Art says he suffered "several good concussions," one of which he explained this way:

"It was after the Colts had moved to Indianapolis and we were playing the Raiders," he says. "I got sacked a total of nine times that game, and I mean, I really got my butt kicked." It was during one of those tackles that he got his bell rung and nearly got knocked out, but he kept on playing. "I had a real hard time coming back from that one."

The one incident that Art couldn't recover from in the NFL occurred on April 9, 1983. That was the day the Columbus Citizen-Journal printed an article with the following headline: "Schlichter Fears For Career, Life."

In a nutshell, the article revealed how the NFL became aware of Art's gambling addiction after evidence surfaced that he had been placing bets with two con artists posing as bookies—men who were arrested in a sting operation involving Art. And while his life was never truly in danger, as the article alleged, the incident was the beginning of the end of his professional career.

After being suspended from the NFL indefinitely, Art went on to play in the United States Flag & Touch Football League, spent a year in the Canadian Football League, and ultimately ended up in the Arena Football League, where he played for the Detroit Drive and the Cincinnati Rockers, respectively. He won an Arena Bowl once with Detroit and lost another one. It was during a game with Cincinnati that he received his final concussion.

"We were driving downfield and I get hit simultaneously from the front and from the back, and it knocked me out on my feet," says Art. "I stayed in the game and kept playing until we scored a touchdown." But as soon as he hit the sidelines, he passed out.

In the locker room, the coach asked him a few questions but he could not respond, Art says. "They tried  to force me to go to the hospital, but I refused."

Midway through the bus ride back home, Art looked over at the guy sitting beside him and said, "Why am I sitting next to you?"

"That's when I realized that I had been knocked out," says Art. "I didn't even remember leaving the arena or if we won the game or not."

In 2006, during one of Art's numerous court hearings, his defense counsel called in a leading expert on gambling addiction to try and get him out of jail and into rehab. Dr. Valerie Lorenz testified: "Your Honor, gambling addiction is a disease. He needs treatment. We have a place for him to get the treatment he needs. Being in jail does not serve his needs."

The fact of the matter is, Art had been in treatment numerous times before, and numerous times since. Moreover, he went on to become the director of a gambling intervention organization—he's helped counsel other gambling addicts, has given addiction awareness speeches and even wrote a book about his gambling addiction. Perhaps people should have looked a little closer when he wrote in said book: "When I say that the chase is a never ending battle, I mean it hasn't ended. It probably never will for me...It never gets better. Only worse."

"I never really quit." Art says. "Since those days in college, all the time when I was giving those speeches. I never would sustain any long periods of sobriety." 

Art has been back in the public eye as of late, regarding a woman who he was involved with financially and criminally. Anita Barney, the widow of a former Wendy's CEO and Art's co-defendant, has written a book and made an appearance on Dr. Phil accusing Art of being abusive to her and blaming him for all of her problems.

Although Art has not spoken publicly about Ms. Barney, nor wishes to at this time, he does say that he "feels sorry she would have to fabricate her stories as a way of repairing her reputation. It is incredibly difficult to sit back and let her do this, knowing the real truth."

Art wants to make one thing perfectly clear: "I have never borrowed money from Anita or anyone believing that I wouldn't pay them back. I spent years of my life chasing money that I borrowed or trying to cover hot checks, believing each time that—in the end—I would win and cover my debts. I always believed that it would work out in the end. It’s what the addiction tells you."

As it stands, Art Schlichter has been diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's Disease, dementia and depression—all of which combined are consistent with a person who has a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Furthermore, studies have shown that 20% of people who do not have substance abuse problems become vulnerable to substance abuse after a brain injury.

"I didn't drink or do drugs and I never had the desire to do either," says Art. "Then one day I was around someone who was using cocaine, and I had the sudden urge to do some. So I did. And I was hooked after one hit." 

For the next three months, Art says he used cocaine anytime he could get his hands on it. So hooked on cocaine did he become, that after he was arrested on his current charges and released on bond, he violated the terms and conditions of his bond by using cocaine.

Could the numerous concussions that Art suffered throughout his life be directly linked to his long battle with addiction? Could it be that after three decades of struggling to find answers as to why he continued on this path of insanity, he has the answer?

"I do believe that my numerous head injuries have affected my decision-making throughout my life, but I don't want people to get the wrong idea," says Art. "I am not blaming my behavior on anything. I take full responsibility for my actions and I am sorry for those I hurt along the way."

From having a once promising career and his life cut drastically short due to a gambling addiction and traumatic head injuries, Art has dealt with his demons over a lifetime, and they continue to plague him today as he sits at FCI Terre Haute and does his time.

He will eventually get out and hopefully recover—but with his head injuries, that isn’t certain.

Robert Rosso is a federal prisoner serving life for a drug conspiracy. He writes for gorilla convict.

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Robert J. Rosso is a journalist serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense. He writes for VICE and TheFix. You can follow Robert on Twitter.