LAS VEGAS — 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.