CLEVELAND, Ohio — During the 2012 MAC East Championship game, Luke Wollet picked off an attempted touchdown with seconds remaining on the clock. The play would clinch Kent State’s division title over Bowling Green State University and seemingly signaled Wollet’s promising future in the sport.
By 2014, the Youngstown native had signed with the New Orleans Saints as a free agent.
“Growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, there's only a couple things that we know, and it's hard work, football and gambling,” said Wollet. “And so it was second nature.”
Wollet’s NFL career was derailed before it began. He was prescribed painkillers for several injuries suffered during college and grew dependent on the drugs. But before drug and alcohol addiction took hold of his life, he said gambling had already become problematic.
“Sports were such a big part of my life that early on I never got into drugs or alcohol. But I was always gambling from the time I was young. It’s super popular in Northeast Ohio,” he said.
During college, he took trips to the casino in Cleveland and played poker. Even as a teen, he dabbled in sports betting before it was legal in Ohio. When he began abusing drugs and alcohol, the gambling habit also spiraled out of control.
“The three-headed monster in my life all kind of came crashing down at once,” he said. “[That’s] when I started lying about what I was doing, when I was spending money on gambling that I needed for living expenses, and when I started having to steal.”
Addiction specialists say they’re clear indicators of problem gambling.
“If they are experiencing some issues around control, they're not able to or limit how much money they're spending, how much time they're spending, maybe they're struggling with creating some balance within their life,” said Nabil Pervaiz, a prevention manager at Recovery Resources.
Pervaiz is planning a symposium on June 16 with other addiction and mental health professionals to discuss gambling addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery. He said many of those experts were bracing for increased demand for services when sports betting made its debut in Ohio.
“We were definitely trying to get the word out there, let people know that this is coming. We're gonna see more folks calling in,” Pervaiz said. “And, as expected, we did see those callers calling in January.”
In January 2023, the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio received 1,492 calls into their helpline. That’s compared to 456 in January 2022. Cleveland saw three times the amount of calls compared to both Columbus and Cincinnati. Nearly as many calls came from Cuyahoga County as the rest of the state combined. You can see more of the statistics here.
Daily fantasy sports were the most mentioned type of gambling. Most of the callers said they reached out for help because they were facing financial or family problems connected to gambling.
“On one hand, it’s great that we are seeing a lot more people calling in, looking for help,” said Pervaiz. “So we know people are getting the number, they’re finding there is help.”
Wollet said reaching out for help early is crucial.
“It saved my life. Gambling addiction has one of the highest suicide rates of any addiction and I was at that point in my life,” he said. “I've seen the other side of it, people that are trapped in it until they're in their 50s and 60s and 70s. I've seen people, unfortunately, lose their lives to this.”
Studies show problem gamblers have the highest rate of suicide of any addiction disorder, as News 5 has covered in the past.
On this side of recovery, Wollet has found a new purpose as an advocate for addiction treatment. He said seeking help was a pivotal decision.
“When I was gambling, I couldn’t imagine my life without gambling,” he said. “Now that I don’t gamble and I’m free from the insanity of it, I can’t imagine gambling again.”
If you or anyone you know is experiencing problem gambling, you can call the Problem Gambling Helpline 24/7 at 1-800-589-9966.
Watch live and local news any time:
Download the News 5 Cleveland app now for more stories from us, plus alerts on major news, the latest weather forecast, traffic information and much more. Download now on your Apple device here, and your Android device here.
You can also catch News 5 Cleveland on Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, YouTube TV, DIRECTV NOW, Hulu Live and more. We're also on Amazon Alexa devices. Learn more about our streaming options here.