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Handle With Care

By John Eisenberg

When the Baltimore Colts selected Art Schlichter with the fourth pick in the first round of the 1982 NFL draft, they thought they had found a quarterback to lead them for the next decade. Schlichter had a shiny football pedigree, having started for four years at Ohio State, one of the nation's premier college programs.

But Schlichter's career was quickly destroyed by his addiction to gambling, an off-field problem the Colts didn't know about, even though it was already in evidence when he was drafted.

Twenty-seven years later, as the 2009 NFL draft approaches, the Ravens and the NFL's 31 other teams are trying to learn as much as possible about the players they're considering drafting -- not just how fast they run or how far they throw, but also whether they are bad eggs with "character" issues such as Schlichter's that could undermine their careers.

Problems with drugs or alcohol, domestic violence, other criminal behavior or gambling can cause a talented player's draft stock to plummet -- if teams know about the problem.

"I will walk into our draft room and see a prominent name with a black dot on his card up on the wall. That dot means he's been rejected for character issues. Our people call it 'the jerk factor,'" said Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' senior vice president of public and community relations, who has worked in the NFL for more than three decades.

But as Schlichter's case illustrated, uncovering such issues isn't always easy.

"We thought we were being thorough with Schlichter. We just missed it. It was a big mistake and I was part of it," said Dick Szymanski, the longtime Colts center who was the team's general manager when Schlichter was drafted.

Sometimes, recognizing a player has a problematic character issue can be as easy as seeing his name in a news story. There is certainly no lack of "police blotter" material in the sports world. At other times, as in cautionary cases such as Schlichter's, the potential problem can be hard to discern.

Schlichter appeared to be the classic All-American youngster -- handsome, athletic, friendly, the eternal star quarterback. Raised in a middle-class household in Bloomingburg, Ohio, near the Ohio State campus, he never lost a high school game. He went on to lead Ohio State to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl appearance as a sophomore and finished in the top six of the Heisman Trophy balloting in each of his last three seasons.

But away from the spotlight, a troubling pattern developed. Schlichter was routinely seen betting on harness races at nearby Scioto Downs, wagering modest amounts starting in high school. By the end of his college career, at least three law enforcement agencies were aware that his fondness for gambling might be more serious, according to a 1983 New York Times article.

The Columbus Police Department's organized crime bureau, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation and the Ohio State campus police all knew Schlichter liked to gamble. The head of the organized crime bureau told the Times Schlichter had been seen at the track with a major bookmaker, and the two had also participated in a high stakes poker game with thousands of dollars on the table -- a charge Schlichter later denied.

The Colts didn't discover any of that when they investigated Schlichter in the weeks before the draft, in the late winter and early spring of 1982.

"We talked to his coaches and got a lot of good info. We got his [academic] transcript to see if he was having any problems. He checked out. And let me tell you, some teams didn't go to the lengths we did," Szymanski said.

Schlichter and Brigham Young's Jim McMahon were considered the top quarterbacks in that year's draft class. Colts head coach Frank Kush sent Zeke Bratkowski, the team's quarterbacks coach, to meet with both quarterbacks and watch them work out. Bratkowski reported Schlichter, though lacking superior arm strength, was probably the better prospect because McMahon had physical issues that would shorten his career.

"Zeke knew nothing about the gambling," said Bob Leffler, the Baltimore marketing executive who worked for the Colts in sales and publicity in their last year in Baltimore.

Why didn't Ohio State's coaches mention Schlichter's gambling? For starters, he wasn't breaking the law by betting on harness races. There was no paper trail of criminal behavior. Gambling, unlike drug use, was considered more of a "boys will be boys" exercise in the era before the public learned it could be a ruinous compulsion. Ohio State coach Earle Bruce also liked to bet on the races at Scioto Downs.

And of course, the more pro teams liked Schlichter, the more Ohio State stood to benefit.

"Of all the information we get on players, the least credible is from the college coaches," Byrne said. "They want their guys to get drafted. It makes them look good and helps them recruit their next set of players."

There was disagreement in the Colts' front office about which quarterback to take. Some wanted McMahon, others preferred Schlichter. "The only problem with Schlichter was some people questioned his arm strength. And they were right," Szymanski said.

The issue was settled when Colts owner Bob Irsay, a Chicago resident and fan of Big Ten football, said he loved the idea of taking the Ohio State quarterback.

Schlichter signed a contract with the Colts that included a $350,000 signing bonus and more than $500,000 salary spread over three years. He moved to Baltimore and, flush with cash, his gambling escalated. Betting on college and pro basketball games and also NFL games not involving the Colts, he lost more than a half-million dollars within a year, according to the Times.

"I knew him when he was in high school and I was doing some TV work," said Kush, now 80 and working as a fundraiser for Arizona State. "I got to know his mom and dad and then he eventually went to Ohio State and then we drafted him, but we did not know about his personal problems. There are a lot of things wrong with college athletes. Even though the scouts for the various teams were very knowledgeable and tried to get personal information, there are things, like his problem, there was no awareness of it."

On the field, Schlichter was beaten out by Mike Pagel, another rookie, drafted three rounds later. Off the field, he was constantly on the phone, placing bets. The Colts didn't find out until the spring of 1983 when NFL security officials told them they had a "problem player."

Schlichter was suspended by the league, sat out a season and returned to the Colts in 1984, their first year in Indianapolis. He started five games, performed poorly, went back to the bench and was released a year later. He played in just 13 games for the Colts, making him, indisputably, one of the greatest draft busts ever.

Schlichter, now 48, has been in legal trouble for most of his adult life as a result of his gambling addiction. It ruined his marriage and led him to commit fraud and forgery, steal from friends and get caught gambling in prison, a low point that led to a four-month stay in solitary confinement. He has been in and out of multiple jails and treatment clinics, most recently one in Baltimore. Now residing in Ohio, he has founded a non-profit organization to provide education about the perils of compulsive gambling.

There is an obvious reason why NFL teams more carefully investigate their high draft picks today than in Schlichter's era -- much more money is at stake. The fourth pick in the first round of the 2008 draft, Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, signed a six-year contract with the Oakland Raiders that included $26 million in guaranteed pay, exponentially more than Schlichter received as the fourth overall pick in 1982.

Plus, since the NFL salary cap went into effect in 1994, teams are set back especially severely when they make a mistake with a top pick; not only is the heavy investment wasted, but salary scheduled to be spent on other positions must be used to replace the wasted high pick.

"If you swing and miss on your first-round pick, it is going to cost you terribly," Byrne said. "You just can't make a mistake. It takes you years, both on the field and in the cap, to fix a failed first-round pick."

As a result, teams strive harder than ever to avoid those mistakes. Byrne cited the example of Joe Flacco, the University of Delaware quarterback whom Baltimore took in the first round in 2008. Trying to determine if he was the right guy to lead them, the Ravens spent weeks investigating his background, talking to more than a dozen sources.

"We talked to his high school coaches and teachers, and the people at Pitt, where he played for two years before he transferred. We talked to his teammates and coaches at Delaware. It was a long, tedious process," Byrne said.

Plus, Byrne said, the Internet offers new investigative tools for teams to use. College football players, like many young people, post pictures and conversations and happily discuss the highs and lows of their lives on their home pages at social networking sites such as Facebook.

"You can learn a lot about them from what they put online themselves, as well as what others say in conversation with them," Byrne said. "You better believe we check that out."

Could a character issue as ruinous as Schlichter's slip through the cracks in such an "open" environment?

"I don't think so," Byrne said. "I don't think it could happen, at least not with high-profile guys who are under so much scrutiny."

Not everyone agrees. Vito Stellino, a Hall of Fame football writer who was covering the Colts for the Baltimore Sun when Schlichter was drafted, wrote in an e-mail that teams still miss on players with character issues.

"Supposedly the background checks are better now, but Pacman Jones was still a top-10 pick," Stellino, now of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, wrote, referring to the troubled defensive back whose career has been marked by off-field incidents that resulted in his being suspended for the entire 2007 season.

Obviously, some red character flags are easier to discern than others. A player can't hide if he runs afoul of the law in an incident that makes headlines, or if he is caught in an academic cheating scandal, such as the one ongoing at Florida State.

But, as the Colts discovered, a compulsive gambler can be hard to recognize.

"Schlichter fooled a lot of people," Leffler said. "I thought I knew him. He was a nice guy, a cheerful guy. Then, wham, we got the phone call (from NFL security). It all happened out of view, behind closed doors, in private phone calls. With something like that, you don't see anything coming until suddenly one day a guy doesn't have any money."

Could it happen today?

"I agree that it would be harder for a high-profile player to get through (the draft vetting process) today without something like that being known," Leffler said, "but it could and does still happen. All you can do is learn as much as you can about a guy and hopefully cut down on the odds of having a problem down the road. Because it can really wreck you if you make a mistake."

Krystina Lucido helped with the research for this story.
 
Issue 136: April 2009