"He's a 22-year-old nationally recognized sports celebrity who doesn't smoke, drink or use drugs, who respects and obeys his parents. He is an Ohio State All-American athlete with an All-American personality and you'll love his story."
—Introduction to Straight Arrow, a biography of Art Schlichter
Art Schlichter's story isn't so lovely anymore. On March 15 in Columbus, Ohio, he told FBI agents that he'd paid Baltimore bookmakers $220,000 to settle sports bets he'd lost, plus another $10,000 for one week's interest on that sum, and still owed them $159,000. Now, he said, he wanted help. He said the bookies had threatened to go to his NFL team, the Colts, and blow the whistle on him unless he paid up. He agreed to cooperate in rounding up the bookies and bringing them to trial.
The FBI assigned an undercover man, Stephen A. Glaser, to play the part of Schlichter's friend and act as a go-between with the bookies. Schlichter gave their names as Sammy and Sid. Federal agents checked phone records for January and February and found numerous calls from Schlichter's telephone in Columbus to two numbers in the Baltimore area. One was the home phone of Samuel R. Alascia of Catonsville, Md., Schlichter's Sammy; the other, was the number at Alascia's business, a Baltimore meat distributorship known as Golden Home Meat Service. The FBI also obtained records of three calls from the Meat Service number to Schlichter. Privately, the agents wondered how Schlichter, a rookie backup quarterback for the Colts in 1982, could have been such a lousy bettor, how he could have lost $220,000 plus interest between Jan. 1 and March 1 and another $159,000 in eight days, March 1 to 8, as he said he did.
By late March the Bureau had monitored four calls between Sid (later identified by the FBI as Harold E. Brooks Jr., 26, of Baltimore, an employee of Golden Home Meat Service) and Glaser, setting up a payment schedule for Schlichter. Glaser's statement on a complaint sheet issued on April 1 says that Sid verified Schlichter's avowal that the $159,000 debt was the result of basketball bets. Glaser got the $10,000 interest already paid knocked off the outstanding balance, reducing Schlichter's debt to $149,000, which would be paid in three installments between April 1 and 15.
The first installment was to be handed over at 10:15 a.m. on April 1 in Port Columbus International Airport. Glaser would appear ready to fill an empty briefcase brought by the bookies with $65,000 in 50s and 100s. Then the FBI would move in.
At 10:07 a.m. on Good Friday or April Fools' Day, depending on how you look at it. Brooks, Joseph A. Serio, 24, a Baltimore food salesman, and Charles Thomas Swift, 41, a Baltimore County fireman and Brooks's prospective brother-in-law, stepped off USAir Flight 269 at Gate 11. Also on board had been an FBI agent. The trio walked into the main terminal area, stopped in front of the video-games parlor and waited for Glaser to come out of the snack bar across the way, as arranged. He appeared on schedule, presumably with the $65,000, and the party made its way through the terminal, toward the escalators that lead to the baggage-claim area. Serio, carrying the empty briefcase, trailed the other three by 10 to 15 yards. His job was to watch out for any law enforcement officials, but he somehow failed to notice 10 FBI agents who filtered out of the snack bar and followed the group through the concourse. The Bureau, ready for anything, had a total of 14 men at the airport.
Just after passing The Buckeye, an airport bar, agents swooped in on Brooks and Swift and handcuffed them. No guns were drawn. Serio, seeing the commotion, kept walking along, casually. He reached the escalator and stopped beside a corn plant to look back at his colleagues. At this point another agent rushed up to him, pushed him against a large Coke display, searched him and handcuffed him.
Forty yards away, at a gift shop called Paradies Airport Shops, a likeness of Art Schlichter serenely took in the action. Prominently displayed at Paradies, as it has been for years, is an artist's sketch of Schlichter in his Ohio State football uniform. A play from the 1980 Rose Bowl is diagrammed on a blackboard. Next to it is a manikin wearing No. 10, Schlichter's number at Ohio State. Most of the jerseys on sale at Paradies bear the number 10.
Airport Police Officer Larry Lager, who witnessed the arrests, said airport security had been notified at 8 o'clock that morning that FBI agents would be there but hadn't been given any details. He said that usually the FBI approaches a suspect quietly and walks him away without any handcuffing. "This time they really came out of their shell..." he said. "I've never seen so many badges flying." When Serio was arrested it was just like in the movies, with the FBI agent saying, "This is the FBI. Put your hands on the glass!" The glass was the Coke display.
"All those FBI agents," says a lawyer for one of the defendants. "Jesus Christ, they must have thought they had 'Scarface' Al Capone or something."
"My guy told me that one FBI agent made some comment about April Fools'," G. Warren Mix, Swift's attorney, says. "We didn't think it was a joke when they took him to jail."
The three were arrested on charges of interstate gambling (Alascia was apprehended on the same charges on the same day in Baltimore), an offense punishable by up to five years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine. After U.S. Magistrate Mark R. Abel read the charges to the three in Columbus and set bail, he asked them if anyone cared to make a statement. "I have a wife, three kids," said Brooks, a burly man, "and I'm scared to death."
The news of Schlichter's gambling didn't break until last Friday, April 8, a week after the arrests and one day after a Federal Grand Jury in Columbus handed down a six-count indictment against the four Baltimore-area men. The story sent shock waves through the football community. Colts' General Manager Ernie Accorsi said he didn't know anything about it until Wednesday, April 6. Coach Frank Kush said he found out a day later; it was "the first thing that greeted me when I came into the office Thursday morning," he said. Colt players, none of whom had been particularly close to Schlichter, expressed surprise at the news that their teammate was a high-level gambler. The NFL said it would conduct its own investigation.
In jeopardy is Schlichter's NFL career. The key to his football future, assuming that federal authorities don't press charges against him for gambling illegally, would seem to be whether his betting action involved any NFL games. Commissioner Pete Rozelle's interpretation of paragraph 15 of the standard player's contract, which details possible "severe penalties" for associating with gamblers or gambling activity, has been to punish a player only for betting significant sums on football. In 1963 Rozelle suspended Green Bay Halfback Paul Hornung and Detroit Defensive Tackle Alex Karras for a year for betting as much as $500 and $100, respectively, on NFL games. Rozelle reinstated them in 1964, having drawn a distinction between betting for, as opposed to against, their own teams. "There was no evidence either one ever bet against his own team or performed less than his best in any football game," Rozelle said. Five of Karras' Lion teammates, who had also bet on NFL games, were fined $2,000 apiece but not suspended.
In 1969 Rozelle became concerned about New York Jet Quarterback Joe Namath's ownership of a bar called Bachelors III, which was frequented by "undesirables," but Rozelle avoided having to invoke the anti-gambling rules by forcing Namath to sell his interest. In 1981 Hall of Fame Quarterback John Unitas was made to leave his consultant's job with the Colts because he allowed his name to be used on a football betting sheet, but that. same year Minnesota Quarterback Tommy Kramer was only reprimanded for making a "friendly $25 bet" on a football game with a bartender, and no action was taken against then-Houston Quarterback Ken Stabler after the league ended a year's investigation into charges that he had had a lengthy association with a convicted bookmaker.
Rozelle has remained silent on Schlichter's possible fate, but at his press conference in Los Angeles two days before last January's Super Bowl, he talked about high-level gambling in general. He had been asked to comment on reports that Philadelphia Eagles owner Leonard Tose had run up half a million dollars of gambling debts in Atlantic City casinos. "The money that he acknowledged gambling is heavy," Rozelle said, "but the owner does not control the outcome of the game. I'd be a hell of a lot more concerned if I heard that his quarterback, Ron Jaworski, lost $200,000. He controls the outcome of the game."
The implication was that a player so deeply in the hole could be ripe for any kind of offer, but Schlichter was hardly in a position to influence the outcome of anything last season. He was the fourth player and the first quarterback drafted in 1982. Many scouts felt that Brigham Young Quarterback Jim McMahon, who became a starter for the Chicago Bears, could offer instant help, while Schlichter, whose passing mechanics had eroded in his last two years at Ohio State, would be a long-range project. Mike Pagel, a fourth-round draft choice from Arizona State, beat Schlichter out of the starting spot, and veteran David Humm edged him for the backup job. Schlichter only got in for fourth-quarter action in the opener, a 24-13 loss to New England, and for mop-up work in the season's last two games, a 44-26 loss to San Diego and a 34-7 loss to Miami.
And in the dreary January days that followed, he apparently fell into a betting pattern that would eventually put him deeply in debt. People connected with the situation are puzzled about three things: where Schlichter got the money for such action, how he could place bets of such magnitude, and how the bookies could let him run up so big a tab before demanding payment. His contract had been comfortable but not overwhelming for a fourth pick—an $830,000, three-year package, broken down to a $350,000 bonus, some of it deferred, and yearly salaries of $140,000, $160,000 and $180,000. More than half of his $140,000 paycheck for 1982 was lost because of the strike. Assuming he did all his betting on basketball, which carries a 20% vigorish to the bookies, and assuming he lost two-thirds of his bets—a high loss ratio for a heavy gambler—Schlichter would have had to bet $832,700 to run up a $389,000 debt. Where did he get the money?
"It smells like the loan sharks got into him," says a former law enforcement official with a close knowledge of gambling operations. "How else would he be paying $10,000 a week in interest?"
Last weekend a source close to the Schlichter family said, "People talk about [Art's] compulsive gambling. He has been to a psychiatrist to check, and he's not [compulsive]. If he is punished, it will be because of publicity."
Publicity has been the constant companion of Schlichter ever since his high school days, when he was the most sought-after quarterback in the country. In his three-and-a-half years as a starter, Miami Trace High in Washington Court House, Ohio, never lost. In his recruiting pitch to Schlichter, Woody Hayes, then the Buckeye coach, promised the kid that he'd open up the Ohio State attack and let him throw the ball.
Schlichter was a publicist's dream—the good-looking farm boy who stayed home to go to school, who missed nary a start in 48 games, who said the right things, dated a cheerleader and seldom turned down a charity event. But underneath a darker side was emerging. It started at the local racetracks—Scioto Downs for the trotters, Beulah Race Track for the thoroughbreds. Nobody made much of it. What the hell, Fayette County is horse country. Everyone around there owns horses, even Schlichter's mother, even Hayes's successor, Earle Bruce. The kid had been going to the track since high school, but no one remembered him making huge bets.
"He wasn't a good gambler," says a Beulah official. "He didn't know which horses were going to win. Worst of all, he would always listen to touts. A guy would come up to him and say, 'Take the five horse,' and he'd take the five horse. He doesn't understand odds at all, and he never took the time to study why horses win. He just wasn't a real good gambler."
In his junior and senior years at Ohio State, Schlichter was fined three times for traffic violations in a space of 11 months. All three fines were suspended. The third incident, which involved going 84.5 mph on I-270, caused such a public outcry that the case was reopened and Schlichter was fined $128. The municipal court referee who had made that decision retired shortly thereafter.
"A lot of these kids who go through the system—college recruiting and all the rest of it—live in a fantasy world," Kush says. "They think they can do anything and get away with it. People think that by the time they reach pro ball they're men. They're not. It's just an extension of what they knew in high school and college."
People at the Olympia Gold Bowl in San Diego, one of the All-Star games that Art played in after his senior year, remember the Schlichters quite well. "His father, Max, did all the negotiating for Art," says Frank Pace, who was an organizer of the game. "He got us to give Art one of the Isuzu cars used for promotional considerations, and Art got another Isuzu because he won the offensive MVP award. And that was just for his play in the first half. He left the game at halftime. He had to fly to Washington for a Touchdown Club dinner, and we had to charter a jet for that purpose at a cost of around $8,000. Plus, Art got $2,250, a winner's share, and we flew in Art's parents from the Hula Bowl in Hawaii and gave them food and lodging in San Diego for six days at a cost of around $1,000."
"A fantasy world," says Kush. "The whole time they're coming up through the system they think they can get away with anything. Then something happens and it's a shock to them."
And a career hangs in the balance. If Schlichter admits he bet on NFL games, he will surely be suspended. In any event, the volume of dollars he gambled might spur Rozelle into some kind of heavy action. Last Sunday, Schlichter's lawyer, John J. Chester, once a member of Richard Nixon's Watergate defense team, said his client received no promise of immunity, either from the NFL or the FBI, when he turned himself in. Chester then was asked whether Schlichter ever bet on pro football.
"He has never bet on any football game in which he participated or on a team that he was involved with," Chester said, leaving open the question of whether Schlichter bet on any other NFL games. Is it plausible that he could have gambled so much and not have bet on football?
Friends of Schlichter's have said that now that he has gone to the FBI, he fears for his life. But a source close to the investigation says that Schlichter isn't the one who has to be fearful: "If someone booked his bets and laid them off with a person higher up, then he's the one who has to be scared, because there's still a lot of money uncollected."
Hanging over the whole sordid story is the image of Schlichter in happier times, in the summer of 1980, when he was coming back from a sophomore season in which he made All-America and finished fourth in the Heisman balloting.
"What's important to you?" a reporter asked him then.
"I think what I like most of all is respect," he said. "That's it, sure. To be respected for being good and for doing what's right."
Last week he was spotted as he came out of his lawyer's office in Columbus. He was asked if he were Art Schlichter. He smiled.
"I was at one time," he said.
A lawyer for Schlichter, who rarely played in '82, says he didn't bet on any Colt games.
The display in the airport's gift shop made an ironic commentary on the nearby arrest.
Serio knew the arrest was the real thing when he was handcuffed at the Coke sign.
Records show Schlichter's calls went to this meat service.