At the height of his career operating an illegal lottery called "the numbers," Otis Ray was running four-digit bar tabs in his $70,000 Titans stadium suite and rubbing elbows with Nashville's elite.
Now, just months out of prison, Ray, 53, is working as night watchman at a local Comfort Inn and rebuilding his life on $6-an-hour wages.
Ray spent nearly 25 years working in the underground lottery. Just one month after he was sent to federal prison in December 2003, the Tennessee Lottery sold its first ticket.
The legal version of his old enterprise has players anticipating a Powerball jackpot drawing tonight estimated at $167 million.
The government "finally said, 'We can't control it, so we'll just take it over,' " Ray said in an interview. "Sort of like bootlegging and illegal liquor. They saw there was no controlling it."
Legalization of a lottery, for the state, has had a dramatic impact on numbers games like Ray used to run, authorities said. Arrests for illegal gambling have declined more than 25% since the state lottery started, according the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
"It's a way of putting illegal lottery operators out of the lottery business and allowing kids to go to college," said Bill Ford, professor of finance at Middle Tennessee State University.
Ray finds it ironic that Tennessee lottery CEO Rebecca Paul earns hundreds of thousands of dollars to coordinate the state's legalized gambling — sums very similar to what he once made by operating an illegal game.
Under terms of his release, Ray is not allowed to have anything to do with his past life — even buying a lottery ticket. Still, he speaks almost nostalgically about the underground trade that took him from rags to riches, then back to rags.
"We started out at the bottom going door-to-door, picking up numbers," Ray said. "Now you just go to a market and go through a computer, no work to it at all."
When he was 10, his mother moved him and his brothers to a two-room house in Columbia, Tenn., that lacked indoor plumbing.
"Finally we got to move into the projects and I thought we moved uptown since we had running water," Ray recalled.
He was oblivious to the illegal numbers games until his older sister began to date a city boy from Nashville, an up-and-coming numbers runner who eventually became a gambling kingpin.
The man's stylish leather suits and fancy Cadillacs always excited Ray.
In 1980, Ray hurt his arm working in a wrapping-paper factory in Franklin. Worker's compensation wasn't enough to pay the bills, he said. So he turned to the numbers as a way to make ends meet.
At first, Ray was asked by a friend to collect slips from the factory workers and hand them off to a runner who would come by to pick them up.
Once Ray saw how much money was involved, he quit the factory job and became a full-time runner. Ray was so eager for the extra $200 a week, he didn't even know who he was working for. It didn't matter. He just dropped the slips off in Nashville on Jefferson Street and received 10% of what he collected.
"When you first start, they're not going to let you know who you are reporting to," Ray said.
It would be two or three years later before a numbers house operator told him that he was working for Sam Sims, a Nashville numbers man who'd been in the business since the late 1940s. Sims became a mentor to Ray.
"He taught you the numbers game," Ray said. "Numbers is like football: You gotta learn the game."
For years, people played by placing bids on the last three digits of the closing Dow Jones industrial average in a game called the "DJ." Ray said people in the ghetto were subscribing to The Wall Street Journal so they would know what numbers fell.
In the early '80s, Ray, who often played the game himself in the beginning, hit for $35,000 on the DJ.
"To be truthful, that money lasted about three to six months," he said.
Ray spent the money to go to Super Bowl XVI in Michigan, when San Francisco topped Cincinnati; the Indianapolis 500; and the Kentucky Derby.
"I had always dreamed of going to places like that and I did it within a few months," he said. "Then I was right back at it trying to hit again."
And he did, this time for $50,000 in 1986.
Ray purchased a Corvette and opened a small store in Columbia that he would use as a front business. It was called O R Market. Even though Ray sold sardines, chips, sodas and candy, he didn't want people to shop. He didn't want to have to restock the store.
"Just come in and play the numbers," he told his customers.
He knew most of his customers by first names. Others he remembers only by the number combinations they frequently played.
"I got so good it amazed people," he said. "I got to where I was dealing with like a thousand people every day and I could almost tell their handwriting. I look at their ticket and say that's so-and-so."
At its height, Ray said, his business earned him more than $700,000 a year.
By 1986, Ray was being arrested and his numbers houses raided at least once a year. His big takedown by federal authorities came in 2001.
Frank Duncan, a retired Columbia police officer, led several investigations and raids on Ray. Although Duncan said Ray was responsible for his own demise, he described his former target as a decent guy.
"I couldn't say anything bad about him," Duncan said. "He was doing his job and I was doing mine."
In 1990, Ray was jailed and had a $500,000 bond. He was so liked in Maury County that councilmen, judges, lawyers, schoolteachers and others raised his bail.
Several of those people were interviewed for this story, but declined to be identified.
"He was pretty well-respected," Duncan said.
He says he admires the massive success of the legal state lottery and in wishful thinking hopes aloud that maybe he could lend the games a hand.
"I wouldn't mind getting involved in some phase of the legal lottery, like working for (Lottery CEO) Rebecca (Paul)," he said. "I could be her assistant. I could probably teach her a few things and let her know the history of the lottery from the ground up."
Lottery spokeswoman Kym Gerlock would not say whether Ray would be a good candidate for a job. She said that Paul doesn't have knowledge of the illegal games.
Ray lives with his 85-year-old father in Nashville while serving out the rest of his three years of supervised probation. He owes the government $60,000 in back taxes and $12,000 in fines, and he has liens on several of his properties in the Midstate. And he says he's content with his night watchman job.
The father of seven sees his new life as a chance to start over and make up for the moments he missed with his family.
He said he's considering trying to get a loan to start up a small business; something legitimate and recession-proof like a market, dry cleaner or even a McDonalds.
"Have you ever heard of a McDonald's going under," Ray said. "They may move locations, but they don't go under."