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1978 Gator Bowl: Ohio State vs. Clemson

December 4, 2016

Author Lyman Abbot said, “Every life is a march from innocence, through temptation, to virtue or vice.”  College football took a strong step in its march from innocence on December 29, 1978.

Late in the 1978 Gator Bowl, ABC Sports television captured images of the downfall of two collegiate gridiron legends.  Ohio State trailed Clemson 17-15 in the final moments of a tense game.  Buckeye quarterback Art Schlichter was leading his heavily-favored squad on what was expected to be a desperate, yet game-winning drive.  The mid-Ohio native had suffered 45 interceptions in his career at Ohio State, but he would throw one more, to Tigers’ linebacker Charlie Baumann, and the game ended in violence and chaos.

ABC cameras chronicled the pick that ended Ohio State’s season and, almost by accident,  viewed the subsequent punch to Baumann’s jaw that finished Buckeye coach Woody Hayes’ career. Hayes saw the end of a brilliant run of leadership against Clemson that night.  Schlichter’s troubles were only beginning.

Within 10 years, Schlichter’s professional football career turned into failure.  The NFL suspended him for gambling, the first player to be sanctioned for betting on games since 1963.  He won reinstatement, but his best years as an NFL player were over.  What many sports fans do not know is that Schlichter built a comeback in the early 1990s with the then-fledgling Arena Football League.  He led the Detroit Drive to back-to-back AFL championships and was named the league MVP in 1990.  The former Ohio State star’s addiction seemed behind him.  He appeared on radio and television shows, discussing the dangers of excessive gambling.

But Schlichter’s shocking relapse in the mid-1990s would cost him whatever goodwill he generated, and ultimately took away his freedom as well.  Police arrested Schlichter for illegal gambling activities.  He was convicted, and sentenced to serve time in prisons and jails for offenses related to fraud and forgery.  The former football star sat behind bars intermittently until 2006.  Even after starting a non-profit educational organization to urge up-and-coming athletes not to gamble, Schlichter became involved in a multi-million-dollar ticket scam and later tested positive for cocaine while on probation.  In 2011, he was sentenced to 10 more years in prison on fraud and drug charges.

Schlichter said in one of his interviews that becoming a major celebrity during his collegiate career caused him to doubt himself, and drove him deeper into addiction.  Throwing interception number 46 in the Gator Bowl opened one of the darkest chapters in sports for a college football hero of the 1970s.

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