John Wilkie remembers his conversations with the young quarterback around the paddock at Laurel Race Course last fall. He remembers that Art Schlichter, the Baltimore Colts' rookie, preferred to talk about trotting horses, not football.
"He was a sociable guy, but kind of shy," Wilkie, a jockeys' agent, recalled last week. "He didn't like to be around a lot of people. We'd sit on a bench there by the paddock and talk. He talked about home, about people on the farm.
"Truthfully, I never saw him make a bet. He asked me about different people--jockeys and trainers. We didn't talk football. I asked him one question: 'How is your coach (Frank Kush)? Is he as tough as people say he is?' He replied, 'He ain't no pansy.' That's as much as we talked about football."
Ten days ago, Wilkie and the rest of the country read that Schlichter, the former Ohio State star whose biography was titled "Straight Arrow," told the FBI he had lost $389,000 in sports bets with bookmakers in the first 10 weeks of this year.
"It floored me when I read that in the paper," Wilkie said. "I never knew he did that stuff."
Until recently, not many people did. They knew Schlichter as the all-America boy from Ohio State, not the young man whose football future is now very much in doubt.
According to an FBI affidavit filed in court, Schlichter still owes $159,000 to Maryland gamblers, two of whom allegedly threatened to tell the Colts about his losses. According to the affidavit, Schlichter contacted the FBI field office in Columbus, Ohio, on March 15. His cooperation with federal authorities led to the indictment of the four men on gambling charges. They each pleaded innocent last week and trial was set for June 6.
Schlichter was not charged with any crime and is under protective custody in the Columbus area, according to a federal law enforcement official.
But clearly, his NFL career is in jeopardy. The league has had a long-standing rule against its players gambling or associating with known gamblers. Both the FBI and the NFL security department are investigating his activities.
It may be another two weeks before the NFL completes its investigation and Commissioner Pete Rozelle decides whether to take disciplinary action. The commissioner can fine, suspend or ban any player who breaks the gambling rule. Except for a brief statement issued through his attorney, Schlichter has declined comment, and may not tell his side until the trial of the four men in Ohio.
Schlichter's lawyer has said his client did not bet on any Colts' games last season and has never bet on any game in which he participated. According to published reports and law enforcement officials, he lost his money the last three months betting on basketball games.
But none of those reports have been able to determine how it happened, how a promising athlete who spent many hours visiting senior citizens homes and children in the hospital, could have gambled and lost such huge sums.
There are generally two portraits of Schlichter emerging, depending on which side of the street you are walking and to whom you talk.
In Columbus, a city where perhaps only Woody Hayes is a bigger hero, Schlichter is seen as victim. One former teammate summed up the mood of the Ohio State football team and the town: shocked.
"It was so out of character for him . . . I could barely believe the reports," said the player, who asked that his name not be used because Ohio State Coach Earle Bruce told the team not to talk publicly about Schlichter. "I kept thinking there was more to it than that. Sometimes, I still do.
" . . . It was pretty solemn around here when we heard. Coach Bruce? He was hurt. He's still close to Art. It really hurt him. You could see it when we had the team meeting on the weekend."
The day after the news broke, Bruce, who owns a thoroughbred racehorse and acknowledges occasionally making small bets on races, gave his team an impassioned speech about the pitfalls of gambling.
"It hurts me to see it," Bruce said last week. " . . . It's terrible, terrible for Art."
Fred Zechman, Schlichter's high school football coach, his quarterback coach for three years at Ohio State and now the New Mexico State coach said, "I'm shocked, amazed, surprised--you pick one.
"I'm 2,000 miles away. I don't know all the details. I never had any indication in high school or college that something like this could happen. I don't want to answer anything else, because I don't know the whole story. Describe him? He's a good, all-American boy. Straight arrow still fits. He's a good country boy. That's all I have to say."
Ernie Accorsi, the Colts general manager, described Schlichter as "a terrific fellow, vibrant, light-hearted, a great athlete. It was a total shock."
Accorsi said that at the end of the season, the Colt coaching staff noticed a lack of concentration by Schlichter, but thought it was because he wasn't playing. Schlichter had been beaten out in training camp for the starting job by Mike Pagel, a fourth-round draft choice from Arizona State.
His former teammates and acquaintances in Columbus say Schlichter was mostly a loner. Schlichter, who did not graduate, went to class "about as much as anybody," a former teammate said. According to at least two former teammates, Schlichter didn't drink, smoke or hang out in the bars on High Street near campus. Despite signing a contract worth more than $800,000, with a $350,000 signing bonus, Schlichter stayed on the farm in Bloominburg with his parents when he returned to visit Ohio.
Another, less flattering portrait of Schlichter also is emerging. He has been depicted in several published reports as someone who knew a lot about sports betting, even as a college student.
At this time the case raises more questions than it answers.
This much is known: Besides being the home of Ohio State, Columbus also is the location of the national headquarters of the U.S. Trotting Association. Every county in Ohio has a fair; every fair has a week of harness racing. On every other farm you can usually find a broodmare or a racehorse.
On most farms you also can find young men who get acquainted with horse racing at an early age. On two farms in Fayette County, less than 60 miles from Columbus, two boys grew up as friends and athletes liking harness racing.
Bill Hanners became a professional harness-racing driver; his friend Art Schlichter grew up to start four years as quarterback at Ohio State and become the fourth player picked in the 1982 NFL draft.
Schlichter's mother owns a harness horse, a 4-year-old named Phantom Bret. Bill Hanners is its regular trainer and driver. His lawyer says Schlichter is interested in buying harness horses.
But how did Schlichter go from horse-loving farm boy to someone who told the FBI he lost $159,000 with bookmakers in one week in early March? How much was Schlichter wagering at Beulah Park, a thoroughbred track, and Scioto Downs, a harness track, in his college days? If the amounts were large, as has been reported in Ohio, and if he was losing, where did he get the money? And, did he bet on any other NFL games while he was competing in the league?
Only Schlichter knows the answers, and right now, he's not saying.
NFL sources say neither the security department nor the league's three scouting combines had any information that would focus on Schlichter having a serious gambling problem in college.
From a man actively involved in investigations of Schlichter's gambling activities came this assessment: "It does not fit the normal mold of gambler-bookmaker relationships."
Hoofbeats Magazine, the official publication of the U.S. Trotting Association, once approached Schlichter during his senior year and wanted him to pose in a sulky for a picture layout of celebrities in harness racing. Schlichter declined.
One source said Schlichter turned down the magazine because he thought it wouldn't look good for him prior to the draft; another said the magazine was told it would jeopardize Schlichter's amateur standing under NCAA rules.
In interviews on the Ohio State campus last week, it was widely known that Schlichter attended the two racetracks in the Columbus area. But opinions on how often he went and how much he bet differed sharply. Some reports say Schlichter went to the track almost daily and bet as much as $400-$500 per race.
A maintenance worker at Beulah Park, who did not want his name used, said, "I think some of the reports about the number of times Art came here are a little too high. I saw him around here, sure. But it was about once a week."
Phil Pikelny, a Scioto Downs track official, said he did not remember seeing Schlichter more than a half-dozen times last season.
Schlichter's attorney, John J. Chester, said that Gamblers Anonymous, among others, has offered to help Schlichter since his betting habits became public.
Asked whether Schlichter would accept such an offer, Chester said, "They think he has a problem. I don't know that he does. I'm not a psychiatrist."
Some will say that all the publicity, all the coddling of gifted athletes so prevalent in college athletics today can be blamed for taking Schlichter off the straight-arrow course. Kush told Sports Illustrated in the current issue: "A fantasy world. 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."
While at Ohio State, Schlichter received three speeding tickets in the Columbus area within 11 months, according to published reports. All three fines were suspended. But the handling of the third ticket raised enough questions that the case was reheard and Schlichter was fined $100 and $28 in court costs.
According to the Columbus Dispatch, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation sought to interview Schlichter while he was in college but was denied access by campus police and athletic department officials. Hugh Hindman, Ohio State athletic director, has been quoted as saying if any campus, city or state police agency investigated Schlichter, it was without the athletic department's knowledge.
Bruce said he told Schlichter he had to take responsibility for the speeding tickets.
"I told Art after the (third) speeding ticket, 'Do you see that this attention doesn't just go away? It can follow you for three days if it lasts that long. It can follow you for three months. That's why you've got to be able to accept the pats on the back, and the kicks in the butt, too.' "
This past Wednesday, after a spring practice session, Bruce at first declined to answer questions about Schlichter, then went into an emotional monologue.
"Oh my God," he said, "I don't understand it--how he could get involved. I have to think he got duped at first, even though I hesitate to say that because he wasn't any country hayseed. He was a little immature, but no more than most 22-year-olds. It hurts me to see it. I know it hurts his family. It's terrible, terrible for Art.
"He was great for this program. For four years, he recruited. He recruited Mike Tomczak (a sophomore quarterback from the Chicago area). He helped recruit a lot of the receivers. He spoke well. He presented himself well. He represented this university and this program. He worked every day at football. He worked at passing to get better. He took the blame from the critics his junior and senior years when the team wasn't playing as well as it could have. It's a team game, but Art took so much of the blame. It's always the coach or the quarterback.
"I don't know what he did. I don't know what games he bet on. I don't even understand it, like I said. I don't like what he did. But I have compassion for Art, and I hope he can call on everything he's ever learned in athletics and in life to come back. I still support him. I'll do everything within reason I can to help him . . .
"How could he do it? Death and taxes are the only sure bets. What he's done is gamble with his life.