For millions of Americans, March Madness is not so much about March as it is madness.
Take a former stockbroker from New York we'll call Fred (not his real name). For him, March Madness was about waking up, shirt soaked in sweat, already down $40,000 by Sunday morning of the first weekend. It was about taking 10 mg. of Ambien every night and still not being able to sleep. It was about tricking his parents into investing $30,000 into his "business," when the money really was going to bookies.
It was about juggling lies like chainsaws, not being able to work, staying inside on a perfect spring day to bet five ways on all 16 games Thursday, blowing through his seven-figure yearly income, and digging a hole so deep he wondered if light would ever find him.
It was about selling all of his stocks to gamble. Maxing out eight credit cards to gamble. Emptying his 401k and IRA accounts to gamble. Conning his friends into fake business deals. Sabotaging relationships.
What started in college with Fred's first bracket became an exhausting, inescapable second life. Like so many of America's estimated 15 million problem gamblers -- a fourth of them women -- he would bet to celebrate winning a bet and bet to chase a losing one. He ruined Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving for it. He'd bet the first NFL game, get behind, pretend to have to walk the dog at halftime, make a new bet, lose that, double down on the second game, lose that, walk the exhausted dog again, and bet again.
"When you've lost $3,000 already and everybody is just sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, you don't have much of an appetite."
He had one bent-nose buddy who went to one of his bookies and snarled, If you take one more bet from Fred, I'm going to have both your legs busted. Didn't matter. Fred just found another bookie.
If you go see him at his office in Florida today, Fred will open a drawer and show you a $5 bill.
"I was down to this at one point," he says. "Five dollars. That's all I had to my name. I'd sold everything. My two Mercedes. My house. Everything. And I still owed $150,000 to bookies."
The walls came crashing down during March Madness seven years ago, in 2006. At a party, a close friend said, "Fred, if you don't tell everybody you have a gambling problem, right now, I will."
So he did.
"Worst day of my life, telling my parents I'd lied to them."
He promised he'd go to the next Gamblers Anonymous meeting. He promised he'd made his last bet. But even then he was lying.
"I remember driving to that first meeting and saying to myself, 'This will get everybody off my back. Then, when the dust settles, I'll go back to gambling and get back what I'm down.' "
But 10 minutes into that first meeting, he was crying his shirt wet. "I thought, 'Oh, my god, what have I done?' I realized I was a compulsive gambler -- and a compulsive liar. I was no better than a criminal who goes into a store and robs people. I lied to people and stole their money."
When the meeting was over, he went home and blocked every major sports channel off his DirectTV. He called every friend and family member and promised he'd make good on his debts, no matter how long it took. He met with the IRS and asked to be put on a payment plan, with interest.
And when all of that was done, he did something else. He took his first deep breath in years.
"I was always trying to get to my break-even. But my real break-even was getting all the lies and all the secrets out. I felt like the weight of the world was lifted off me."
Today, he is debt-free and working as a marketing executive. He has paid everybody back, including the IRS. This March? You'll find him at the beach, working on his tan, free of the madness.
"My life is the best it's ever been," he says. "Turns out I've gotten everything I've ever wanted out of life without gambling."
I only tell this story because The Road to the Final Four is sometimes paved with people like Fred. People who didn't have friends who cared enough to save their lives. People who found the side of March Madness that isn't so shining.
"One out of every three calls I get now is from, or about, young people," says Arnie Wexler, a gambling addiction therapist.
For some young people, there is a thousand-watt bulb that goes off in their eyes when they realize they can have action on games four days out of seven, from noon to midnight, all unfolding on their dorm-room Sonys -- until one day they wake up with third-degree burns.
If you know one of them, call them on it. Ask them to take this quiz. Or guide them to a support group for compulsive gamblers. Their beach is out there. Help them find it.