(As Sunday’s Super Bowl approaches, PlayMichigan correspondent Julie Walker shares her own personal connection with gambling addiction. If you, or someone you know, needs help, call the Michigan Problem Gambling Helpline at 1-800-270-7117.)
Nineteen yards, yes. YES. Move the chains. Spike stops the clock. Here we go!
No. Breathe. Come on!
Oh, God. Nine seconds left. Can’t breathe.
NO. NO. Game over.
New York Giants 21, New England Patriots 17.
Eli Manning bests Tom Brady again.
Anxiety choked my heart while Jim Beam-flavored sweat poured out.
“Dude, why you freaking out over $50?” a friend asked.
“Well,” I said. “I kinda fibbed. You see, $50 is just the juice. So. I really lost $550.”
My friend-bookie didn’t even want to take my money.
“Come on, kid,” he had said, in un-bookie like fashion. “You got a kid. You really don’t have $500 to bet. If you lose, you gotta pay the $50 juice, too.”
“It’s fine, tax money comes soon,” I said.
“Besides, no way Tom Brady loses twice to Eli. … It’s a sure thing.”
She get it from her Daddy
I used to choke on smoke and stick to the floors at Silver Lanes. Like all normal Dads do, Charlie Walker, my Dad, used to take me to that dive bar/bowling alley in Garden City, where I grew up, for quality time.
I remember watching his hots slowly crawl up each Newport Light, morphing into gray ash that inevitably would float down onto his shirt. Sometimes, he’d remember in time to take a quick puff and knock the rest into an ashtray before lighting another.
Dad would smoke his cigs and talk to his friend. I drank Shirley Temples, the cutesy “grown” drink for a 6-year-old.
Decades later I learned we were really meeting Dad’s bookie.
Not that he tried to hide it or his habits. I just didn’t question it. Once I got older, Dad trained me to bet in such a way it felt as normal as learning to ride a bike.
When I was about 12, Dad bet me $20 on a Chargers-Raiders game. Easy money. Based off records, I picked the visiting Chargers. New to NFL lore, though, I hadn’t researched enough.
“Rivalry games bring out heart in even the worst teams, Julie,” Dad said. “You gotta know that stuff. You gotta know everything, from the weather to how the stadium may affect each team.”
Then he took my cash.
But, there’s always tomorrow
Shirley Walker, my mom, says Dad and his friends planned to get rich. They were always one parlay away from the big payout. THEE payout, the one where nobody would have to work again. As we talked this week by phone, I realized how naïve young Julie lived.
I knew we were poor. I knew Dad spoiled me at Christmas because he felt guilty about that one year they had to return/sell all my toys. I remember stuff like slipping out of our Tampa Bay apartment by the moonlight. We’d lasted six months with Mom serving tables at Red Lobster and Dad taking pay-by-day construction jobs.
So when I asked Mom about Dad’s biggest loss, I expected big money. Like $40,000 on a Lions bet or something. (Actually, Dad’s rule is don’t bet on the Lions. “If you bet with them, you lose. If you bet against them, you lose.”)
“A big loss is hard for me to remember now,” Mom said. “I wanna say like, $3,000?”
“That doesn’t sound like that much,” I said. (Disclosure: I cannot afford a $3,000 bet).
“Yeah, maybe not now. But this was nearly 30 years ago. We had a kid, two car payments, a mortgage. What we didn’t have was money for him to lose.”
Mom says Dad stuck to football during his bookie years.
“He didn’t bet every single game,” she said. “But he bet on most of them. Thursday Night Football, college on Saturdays, Sunday parlays…”
“Then he’d always try to bail himself out on Monday.”
‘It was just getting some money back that he lost’
I reminded Mom that football betting does take some skill, and that I remembered him winning often-ish?
“Yes, he had weeks that he won, and that’s what kept him doing it. … But he wasn’t really winning, it was just getting some money back that he lost.
“The house always wins. You’re never gonna win gambling.”
Mom said Dad, who had ADHD and a pile of other mental health issues, including addiction battles, never paid much mind to money.
“As long as he was working, he thought we had enough,” she said. “There’s always tomorrow.”
Week after week, she’d tell him we couldn’t afford it. Beg him to take a week off.
“Then he’d call the f-ing bookie while I was at work, then call me and say, ‘Hey, root for San Fran and the over; I got $1,200 on it,'” she said.
Mom says she doesn’t remember one specific incident that stopped him from betting with bookies. She said one huge blow never came, just small debts that during my lifetime resulted in two bankruptcy filings, a botched truck lease, a lost apartment lease and some school money.
Mom does remember what she said the last time they met the bookie, before he vowed to (mostly) only bet on squares, pools and fantasy football.
“See, Charlie?! We’re here to give this guy your whole f-ing paycheck and he’s driving around in a gold Cadillac.”
Seventies friends are forever friends
Mom, a four-year cancer survivor as of this week, said she’s blocked so much out from those days that she struggles to remember. I just remember fantasy football stuff.
I remember “uncles” “Kyle” (names changed for privacy) and “Tim” watching football, especially after a work-related injury garnered a settlement for Dad. It’s how we got our first house the summer before I started fifth grade.
Dad built a football mecca in our basement. He’d run a fantasy football league before we even had internet. The Invitational Fantasy Football League, or I.F.F.L. was born around 1987.
Kyle and Tim would drop by to prep for the draft. They talked lovingly about the players and their stories. On Sundays, they came to watch the games. Dad would sit in the center of the basement.
He had the DirecTV package wired to all four of the downstairs TVs, each blaring a different game in addition to whatever debacle the Lions had tumbled into.
It all seemed like harmless fun. Dad and his friends were funny and charming. They shared stories about being mischievous punks who graduated in 1971.
They glamorized everything: the cigarettes, the weed, the concerts. They always used to joke that they’d never make it out of their 60s.
None of them did.
The school of hard knocks and half-truths
Better clarification of my childhood came with age. Journalism training had me checking up on some of Dad’s stories (like the time he swears he got mistaken for Ted Bundy).
Dad told me to take out college loans so he and my Mom could pay them back in one swoop with an account he and my grandparents had set up. He said they had enough to cover an extra loan I had taken out for car repairs, a loan my former roommate had co-signed. He had me change my address in the school system so that loan correspondence would go to them.
Dad told me they were making payments, and I never received notice to the contrary.
Until I woke up one day, about eight months pregnant, to a raging voicemail from my former roommate. To his knowledge, he had perfect credit. When he and his fiancé applied for a mortgage, though, they were denied. He had a $4,000 loan in default, now costing a whopping $9,000.
My $9,000 loan.
Hell hath no fury like a pregnant woman. I called Dad immediately, but I couldn’t get a straight answer. Something about needing the money for a bankruptcy, though the story kept changing.
The loan sharks wouldn’t update my friend’s credit rating unless we paid $6,000 and went on a payment plan. We used all our wedding money, our down payment for our own house, to make it right.
I’m typing this story today from a basement apartment where radiators live on the ceiling and we don’t control our own heat. I have lived in this same complex since college.
Eleven years have gone by, so it’s not all my Dad’s fault that we still live here. We’ve had hardships, and of course, the pandemic.
I always wonder how much better off we had been if Dad had just told me the truth. I know, in his mind, that he felt he was just one more big win away. I knew if he had the money, he’d give it to me.
He had big problems, yes, but he also had a big heart. He coached me in softball. He threw birthday parties with steaks for our Dachshunds. He drove from Goodrich every weekend to watch my boy, his only grandson, never taking money, “on account of the school thing.”
Mom: You are *exactly* like him
I am a Daddy’s girl and exactly like him. He raised me that way, after all. And since he had so many, umm, oopsies, in life, he didn’t usually judge me.
So when I decided to bet our rent on Super Bowl XLVI in February of 2012, as a new Mom to a 1-year-old, I went to Dad to whine. After all, I was trying to scrape up money for a down payment on a house.
I did not expect him to yell at me, but he did. Told me to not repeat his mistakes. Reminded me that I’m his little mini, that if he had an addictive personality, then I had an addictive personality.
True. This happened before I stopped smoking cigarettes, guzzling diet pop by the gallon, etc. This time, Dad’s hold on my brain worked out. I never bet with a bookie again.
I now stick to fantasy leagues and an annual pool. If I do wager more, it’s never more than $50 or $100, and the amount is determined beforehand. And it’s legal.
Mom, though she detests most gambling, said she felt better when Dad quit the bookie and stuck to fantasy, squares and so on.
“That’s fine because that’s controllable,” Mom says. “You have to come up with the money first, so there is some control.”
Dad tried to get better. After he survived a suicide attempt on Father’s Day in 2009, and the ensuing, state-mandated stay in a Flint hospital, he even started therapy. Worried about my wiring mirroring his, he often suggested I do the same. Funny thing is, I never did.
Until I lost him.
Charlie Walker’s death came in-between those of his best friends, on Jan. 6, 2018, after a two-month battle to recover from a stroke. He was 64.
Tim died less than a year later from a heart attack, the same thing that took Kyle from them in 2005.
None of them hit the big one.
(If you or someone you know needs help, call the Michigan Problem Gambling Helpline at 1-800-270-7117.)