Al Dukes visited Craig Carton in prison last autumn, something he recalls as a "weird, very weird" experience. But what made the stark reality of his friend’s situation hit home were the snack-vending machines in the visiting area.
"Craig was always a guy who liked to be the head of the party when you went somewhere," said Dukes, Carton’s WFAN morning show producer from 2007-17. "He was going to take you to the best places for dinner. He was going to order for you, get you everything that you didn’t even know you wanted. He was going to pay. He was going to get the drinks. He thought everyone could try every dessert."
And now here he was, in the presence of machines Dukes could use to get him a snack, but that he was not permitted to use himself.
"So this guy that would take me and everybody on the show to all these great restaurants and order – God knows what the bills were for these meals – here I am buying him a ham sandwich from a vending machine," Dukes said.
Such was life for Carton until June, when he was released from a federal prison in Pennsylvania after serving 12 months of a 42-month sentence for fraudulently using money invested in a ticket brokerage to pay off gambling debts.
He will be in the national spotlight on Wednesday when HBO premieres a documentary about him called, "Wild Card: The Downfall of a Radio Loudmouth." And he could be back in the local spotlight soon, too.
WFAN has been discussing a return with Carton since shortly after his release, likely for afternoon drive time. But there are other suitors, including Philadelphia’s "97.5 The Fanatic," as first reported in the New York Post.
Dukes and other former colleagues speak candidly about Carton and his arrest on Sept. 6, 2017, in the HBO film. Dukes has seen it and considers it "a very fair" account of Carton’s rise and fall.
He would know, as he is the closest personally to Carton of the morning show members. In phone calls before Carton went to prison and emails thereafter, Dukes tried to tread lightly in asking questions or dwelling on negatives.
"I just wanted to be a friend to him," Dukes said. "He had pissed off his family, he was losing his job, and I figured he had been beaten up enough, albeit he caused it.
"I just thought, I’ll be somebody he can talk to that won’t argue with him or yell at him or question everything."
Dukes said the most upsetting thing about the public perception was a misunderstanding about the specifics of what Carton was convicted of doing.
"I kind of got sick of arguing with people on Twitter about it," Dukes said. "He wasn’t selling fake tickets to regular people going to concerts."
But what he was doing was illegal, something Carton acknowledges and details in the film. He also shares personal stories, including that he contemplated suicide while sitting on a ski lift in British Columbia, Canada, shortly before his arrest.
Dukes said Carton had told him about the ski lift incident, but in his usual "lighthearted" way.
He recalled a similar tone when before Super Bowl 50 in 2016, Dukes walked across the Golden Gate Bridge with Carton and Carton’s family.
"Halfway through, he said, ‘I can’t walk by the side, I have this really weird pull to jump over it,’" Dukes recalled. "Even that was said lightly, but he did move."
Reading Carton’s moods is a challenge. During Carton’s increasingly reckless gambling escapades in the mid-2010s, Dukes said he never noticed a change in personality or attitude.
"When he was winning, he was in the same good mood as when he evidently was losing," Dukes said. "There was no way to tell."
Colleagues knew he liked to gamble – as did WFAN listeners – but they were unaware of the depth of the problem.
"I was there [in Atlantic City] a couple of times when he won big, and it was fun," Dukes said. "Honestly, he was making our salaries in a couple of hours . . . And when he would lose in front of you – no change in personality. He was still as happy and fun with the dealer as when he was on a roll."
But by August of 2017, Dukes noticed Carton was not talking about Blackjack as much as usual and asked him whether he still played.
"He said, ‘Yeah, not as much, I went on a bit of a losing streak, so I’m cooling it for a little while,’" Dukes recalled.
Dukes believes the experience will change Carton for the better but also is confident it will not dull the on-air edge that made him a success. He laughed at the notion of it, saying, "No, I don’t. I really don’t."
Gregg Giannotti succeeded Carton in the morning in January of 2018, and the show generally has been a ratings success, so a return to his old job alongside Boomer Esiason is not in the cards.
Dukes, who still produces the morning show, did not say where he thinks Carton will land, only that he will land somewhere given his appeal as the sort of character who tends to be either loved or hated, with little in between.
"I don’t think there are a lot of guys who do that well, super well, so I think Craig will find a spot somewhere in sports talk," Dukes said. "So I hope to hear him on the radio soon."
That would be a long way from that visit in prison last year.
Dukes recalled another snacks-related moment that day that has stuck with him. At WFAN, Carton often would ask for a soda and say, "Surprise me," because he liked all flavors, from Mountain Dew to grape.
"I was going to get him a drink out of the vending machine in prison and said, ‘What do you want?’ He said, ‘Surprise me,’" Dukes said.
"It was weird, like, I can’t believe we’re here, getting you candy and a sandwich out of a vending machine, and we’re all surrounded by guys wearing jumpsuits. It was very strange."