Gambler recounts his fall

Mike Wise
Columnist July 16, 2011

Sitting in his car in the parking lot of the Wegmans supermarket in Sterling for almost five hours, Mike Ryan kept obsessing over the fork-in-the-road moments:

If only the Tennessee women’s basketball team hadn’t beaten Rutgers so bad, everything would have been okay. If only that dumb kid from Fresno State hadn’t turned over the ball against Boise State, it all could have worked out.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

His job would have been saved, his wife and family never would have found out. He would have gotten out of the game even-steven, unscathed — instead of being in a $200,000 hole for gambling on sporting events.

Terminated for fraud from his $170,000-a-year job as a general manager of two skating rinks in Northern Virginia hours earlier, he would have to go home and tell his wife, his parents, and then find a way to pay everyone back.

It was too much.

Idling his black Honda Accord in that parking lot more than three years ago, inconsolably sobbing, the man who outwardly had it all decided he’d had enough. He would gun the damn accelerator over the edge of a freeway off-ramp, preferably the Waxpool exit off Sully Road. There, in a heap of twisted metal and body, his problems would end.

“Part of me was glad it was over — I was so tired of lying, running away, hiding everything,” he said.

Then his cellphone rang.

Ryan, the president of the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling, last week lobbied on Capitol Hill for the passage of a bill that would provide federal funds for education and treatment of compulsive gamblers. He then revealed the motivation behind his cause: He once was in the throes of addiction himself, so far down he nearly lost it all.

“I made $12 an hour working security at the U.S. Open last month, some extra bucks while I’m still living at home with my parents,” he said at a downtown restaurant after his lobbying effort was complete. “You wouldn’t know I once had a great job, great family and everything a guy could want.”

You wouldn’t know the depths from which a 43-year-old with a master’s degree in sports management has emerged until you hear how he got hooked.

It began in 1991. He found a game to bet, Duke-St. John’s, and a bookie through a friend at the law firm he worked at as a messenger. And then the worst thing that could happen to a burgeoning addict happened:

“I won,” Ryan said. “I couldn’t miss. I was hitting probably about 85 percent of my games in January and February of ’92.”

He was pulling down barely $22,000 in salary but betting almost as much in less than two weeks. His bookie told him he should go to Vegas and drop “dimes,” $1,000 per game.

He was suddenly down $10,000 and needed his brother to bail him out with his bookie.

For the non-addict, that’s a wake-up call. For Ryan, it was just bad luck. Over the next 15 years, he repeated the pattern, betting college basketball and college football through his bookie, a man who “quite frankly was a great money manager for me,” Ryan said.

He knows that sounds oxymoronic, like “responsible gambler.” But he said the man would call the day after he heard his 30 bets a night on a tape-recorded message — at $500 per game — and ask worriedly, “Mike, do you know how much money you bet last night? Fifteen grand.”

Then, married to his first wife, with children, and earning about $80,000 a year, he moved on to the future of sports betting, Ryan’s crippling new bookie of choice: the Internet.

His online gambling career flourished at first after he won a 10-team parlay when USC covered against Nebraska. “Boom! I won 30 grand, the online book paid,” Ryan said. And two weeks later, he hit a six-team parlay that paid $25,000. And no one had to know.

Opening a secret bank account, he became a proficient liar, hiding everything from his second wife and his closest friends and family.

In the first three months of 2007, he lost the $55,000 he had won in the two parlays. He had taken out half of his 401K, which was worth about $20,000, using that money to bet online every day. Ryan kept losing. In desperation, he began venturing outside the college games, soon betting on everything, including the WNBA.

His nadir was the NCAA women’s basketball title game between Tennessee and Rutgers in 2007. He stood to win $50,000 on a 16-team parlay that night, and after 15 teams came through all he needed was Rutgers to either win or not lose by six or more points. Tennessee won by 13, but Ryan kept chasing his losses, which were now piling up exponentially.

By January 2008, he was at a trade show in Las Vegas and used the company credit card, giving himself payroll advances because his signature was approved on the account.

He was now down $200,000 and the company was about to audit its finances.

Come in at 8:30 a.m., the bosses told him.

“I’ll never forget it,” Ryan said of Feb. 7, 2008, the last day of his old life. “Foggy, cold day, and I look to my left and I saw the big boss’s car. And he’s never in this early and it clicked in — ‘The jig is up.’ ”

“Mike, you need help,” Jorge Kfoury told his good friend that morning. The part owner of SkateQuest, Kfoury was floored when he found out the night before from the company accountant.

“The lying was so complete,” Kfoury said in an interview Friday night. “Unlike other addictions, there were no telltale signs. Most people you know or work with you don’t look for anything other than the hangover, bloodshot eyes or the needle tracks.

“When something like that happens, you feel two things: like you let someone down as a friend because you had no idea or you were the stupidest businessman on the face of the earth because you didn’t know.”

After Ryan was terminated, Kfoury brought him into his office and spent a couple of hours searching the Internet for a treatment center.

They found Williamsville Wellness in Hanover, Va.

Afterward, Ryan drove to the Wegmans parking lot in the depths of despair. Somewhere in the next five hours, he decided to take his own life. “I still had life insurance and I thought, ‘This is it; I’m going out,’ ” he said. “I was going to drive off a ramp, right off Waxpool. I was going to gun it over the edge.”

That’s when then he got a call from his mother, Carol.

“She told me to come home,” he said. “She said it would be okay.”

Then the woman from the treatment center called.

“Her name was Annette. She had this warm, Southern accent, called me ‘Darlin.’ She said: ‘It’s going to be okay, baby. It’s all going to be okay.’ ”

Kfoury and his company footed the $10,000 bill for Ryan’s month-long stay at the center, where his peer counselor was Art Schlichter, the former Ohio State star whose career was lost to compulsive gambling. SkateQuest never prosecuted Ryan, who is ever grateful for the empathy shown him by his former boss.

“At first, you think, ‘What the hell happened?’ ” Kfoury said. “All these emotions just come up. You get pissed off because he stole the money. You want to kick somebody’s ass. You feel like you were used. But the overriding feeling is, ‘This boy is hurtin’. He needs help.’ ”

Going on more than three years of sobriety as a compulsive gambler, Ryan said he has not wagered on a game since his life came apart.

He and his second wife divorced in the fall of 2009. Ryan remembered things weren’t going well that spring. But he had a stepson in the Marines, who was due home from Iraq in a few weeks. “I can’t wait to make it right with James when he gets back,” he told his then wife.

Three hours later, two Marines arrived at their door. Sgt. James R. McIlvaine had been killed in the Al Anbar province.

“We went to meet him at Dover [Air Force Base] after that,” Ryan said, smudging his tears away with a cloth napkin. “The ceremony was beautiful.”

He is still close to his teenage daughter from his first marriage, and his parents took out a home-equity loan and paid off the $72,000 he owed his company within two weeks of his firing. Ryan said that everyone has been paid back, and that he has made as many amends as possible — all except one.

“The hardest part for me is forgiving myself,” he said. “I’m done apologizing to everybody I hurt. I’m doing good things now to help others who suffer. But forgiving me is tough. Can I honestly say I’m there now? No. But I’m making progress.”

“People ask, ‘Why are you giving up your anonymity?’ ” Ryan said. “Number one, I want to help people. There’s no federal or state money in Virginia to help problem gamblers. We spend billions of dollars on alcohol and drug programs but nothing on problem gambling.

“And two, I was just sick of lying. I don’t want to have some good job at some point and someone say a couple weeks in, ‘Hey, that’s the guy that stole from SkateQuest.’ I don’t want to lie about anything anymore.”

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