The most important NFL game in my lifetime was the Cleveland Browns visiting the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day, 1989.
Yep. The 7-3-1 Browns, led by Bernie Kosar, taking their turkey to the Pontiac Silverdome to face the 2-9 Lions, featuring rookie running back Barry Sanders. I was a senior in high school, and I had broken the golden rule of bookmaking: Don’t take too much on one side.
Every single bet I took was on the Browns, laying a touchdown. I was exposed to well over $500 in action.
A few things here: 1) I was 18 years old. 2) My City Federal savings account had nowhere near $500 in it. 3) This was the first time I ever booked a bet. 4) The ride out to Long Island and Aunt Elaine’s house for Thanksgiving was a little intense. I may have punched my younger brother 43 times in the “all the way back” section of my parents’ Country Squire station wagon (with faux wood trim).
One billion dollars (cue Dr. Evil)
I couldn’t help but think of this story the other day when New Jersey, my home state, came so very close to breaking a billion dollars in handle in the sports betting market in December. Came in at $996,300,794 to be exact. Nearly a billion bucks in bets. Now I know all about PASPA and I know how New Jersey is siphoning New York betting money and I know sports betting is quickly becoming as American as mom, apple pie, and Country Squire station wagons, but still: almost a billion dollars. In legal bets. It would’ve blown my 18-year-old mind.
Never mind my 14-year-old mind, which is how old I was when the bricks to my short-lived bookie career — and long-lived gambling career — were first laid down …
My buddy Matt was a San Francisco 49ers front-runner before “front running” was even a thing, and I thought I knew more about the NFL than he did (despite my drafting Tony Franklin — a kicker! — with my first round pick in our inaugural FFL draft that same year). As a result, we kept betting on NFL games, and I kept losing. We’re not talking about dangerous money. The stakes were only about $5 or so. But still: It pained me to fork over the cash, especially considering my allowance was something like $5 a week.
My losses to Matt piled up, culminating with that spring’s Marvin Hagler-Sugar Ray Leonard fight. I was a huge Hagler guy, he was a huge Sugar Ray guy, and so when they met, we bumped up the stakes. My memory fails me as to exactly how much I lost, but it stung, especially because Hagler wuz robbed.
My betting exploits rose and fell as more of my friends got involved, and part-time jobs allowed for a little more action. Are you old enough to remember the “blue sheets”? Or whatever they were called? Do they even exist anymore? Anyway. I’d ride my bike to Baldwin Stationary to read these blue-printed, broadsheet-ratio’d four-page looks at the NFL gambling week ahead. Can’t for the life of me remember what they were called, but the light blue hue is imprinted in my brain. They were expensive and so I’d try to read them on the sly before the owner of the store gave me the boot.
They didn’t help. I lost, I won, nothing big.
Enter the bookie
Then on the first day of senior year, another friend who knew of our exploits but wasn’t part of the gang — he was a junior — made an announcement that changed the world: He had a bookie. Minimum bet was $25. Vig was 10%. I didn’t know what a “vig” was.
All NFL season long, my friends and I and countless others bet with the “bookie.” A few of us washed out quick. Some of us made a few bucks. Most lost a few bucks. Others floated around. I was one of the floaters. Overall, we got hammered.
And then, week 13, it dawned on me: Maybe this other guy didn’t have a bookie. Maybe he was the bookie. Maybe I should be the bookie!
So I made the announcement to those same core 10 or so of us: I would now take bets, and guess what? A 5% vig. (I had since learned what the vig is.)
The week was quiet. Then Thanksgiving morning, my phone rang. And rang again. And again. And again.
And next thing I knew, I was trying to figure out just what, exactly, I was going to say to my dad when I asked to borrow hundreds of dollars to pay off my bookmaking debts.
Moot point, as it turned out. Lions, 13-10. I was a wildly successful bookie. Now that I’m thinking about it, I should probably apologize to my brother.
Sunday night, I was up around $750 total on the weekend. That evening I took a bet from my friend’s older brother. He wanted to put $250 down on the Saints, pick’em, against the Rams to get the $250 he was down to me back. I let him.
Famous game, as it turns out. Flipper Anderson had 336 receiving yards, a record that stands to this day. Oh yeah, and the Rams won. In overtime.
After four days of being a bookie, I was up over $1,000. I was paid off in study hall Monday morning by one friend. There was $240 in the envelope.
I was an overnight success.
Pass the Tums
It was also the most stressful experience in my sunny suburban life up until that point, and as a result I immediately quit my bookmaking side hustle. Figured I’d let the other fella get the kickbacks with his bookie, or book it himself, or whatever. I was out. And $1,000 richer.
I’d like to say I learned a lesson from the experience, that my still-forming 18-year-old brain got the message.
Yep. I’d like to say that.
I bet it all on the Eagles in the wild card round and lost, which really sucked, because I had a plan to win that week and then keep rolling it over on those same damn 49ers that got me into sports betting in the first place (and that part would’ve worked, as they romped their way to the Super Bowl) and I was going to buy myself a Mustang convertible with the proceeds.
Today, I drive a 2004 Acura, which should give you some idea on how little progress I’ve made as an NFL bettor.
At least these days I’m helping out my fellow taxpaying New Jersey brothers and sisters on our march to one billion dollars. What a world. Who would’ve ever thought it possible. And Hagler won that fight. Zero question. Still bitter.
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