The career and life of Russell Erxleben is one of the saddest and most tragic stories in the history of the National Football League.
After rising to stardom in high school and being a standout in college, Erxleben became one of the biggest flops in NFL history, and the fans of his own team didn’t let him off easy.
If that wasn’t enough, his life after football became even more tragic, as what could’ve been a successful second career that may have given his soul solace instead turned into a massive failure.
Where did it all go wrong for Erxleben?
Big Fish In A Small Pond
On Jan. 13, 1957, Russell Allen Erxleben was born in Seguin, Texas, a small town that is situated in between the major cities of San Antonio and Austin.
Often times, people who grow up in a small town in Middle America grow up in a bubble, only surrounded by modest trappings and people who did no better than average, resulting in them only hoping to live an average and humble life, with no knowledge or ambition of anything higher or better.
Sometimes, however, people from small towns or humble beginnings will get a taste of something grand early on, and it will whet their appetite enough to change the direction their life is heading in, or at least their hopes and dreams.
For young Erxleben, that taste came one day when he was just nine years old.
He and his best friend, Barry Dietert, and their families got into an old Ford Crown Victoria and headed down the highway to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas for the NFL Punt, Pass and Kick, a national competition for kids ages six to 15.
Erxleben made it to the semifinals of the event, and he even got to meet some players from the Dallas Cowboys, who were one of the NFL’s better teams. It was a seminal experience that gave him a clear vision of who and what he wanted to be in life. He wanted to be an NFL player.
Sure, many kids across the nation dream of being an NFL player, but Erxleben not only wanted more than others, he had a different mindset about it than others.
“It wasn’t just a dream,” he wrote. “I expected it. Everything I did was to prepare.”
As he made his way to Seguin High School, he was a standout not just in football, but also in basketball, baseball and golf. On the gridiron, he was an outstanding kicker and punter, and although he was also the starting quarterback for the Seguin Matadors, it was his leg, and its power, that caught the eyes of college scouts.
A Star Longhorn
Erxleben moved on to the University of Texas, one of the most storied football programs in the NCAA, on a scholarship. It would allow him to not only hone his skills but also gain greater exposure as a serious prospect.
By now, he had grown into a stubbornly confident man. He had the guts of a bandit, and he stoutly believed in his own destiny, no matter how lofty it seemed.
As Erxleben arrived at the school in the fall of 1975, Billy Schott, a Longhorns coach who had just finished a career with the team as a placekicker, found that he was rough around the edges and perhaps not the most coachable player.
“‘You see that tall son of buck down there?’ ” Schott recalled assistant coach Spike Dykes telling him before one of his first encounters with the freshman in 1975. “I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ I recognized him as Russell, and he said, ‘He’s all yours.’
“And I said, ‘Well, what’s the deal?’
“He goes, ‘You’ll find out,’ as he just waved over his shoulder and walked off.”
Erxleben was not fond of preparing, practicing or even stretching. Another issue was his kicking style.
He was what is known as a “straight on” kicker, where a player approaches the ball from directly behind it and hits it with his toe. This is in contrast to “soccer-style” kickers, who take several steps from behind and to the side, then boots the ball with the instep of their foot.
During football’s embryonic years in the first half of the 20th century, straight-on kickers were common. But by the 1970s, they were starting to be seen as dinosaurs, as soccer-style kickers had become predominant in both the college and pro ranks.
Soccer-style kicking is seen as better because it offers players better control and power over the ball. But Erxleben would become wildly successful at UT despite his antiquated kicking method.
As a freshman, Erxleben and his team made it to the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl versus the University of Colorado. Early on, he struggled, missing a field goal and allowing an extra point attempt to get blocked.
But in the third quarter, with the game tied, he knocked down a field goal to help UT glide to a 38-21 win.
From there, he became considered one of the best kickers and punters in college, as evidenced by his three selections to the All-America team in 1976, ’77 and ’78.
In ’77, the Longhorns were perhaps the best team in college football. Led on offense by standout running back Earl Campbell, who would go on to become a Hall of Fame running back for the Houston Oilers, UT went 11-0 in the regular season and advanced to the Cotton Bowl, where it lost to Notre Dame.
That same season, Erxleben made history while making himself a desired prospect. Against Rice University on Oct. 2, he converted a 67-yard field goal, the longest one in NCAA football history.
Even by modern standards, it was an incredible accomplishment, but back then, kickers did not have the extended range that their contemporary counterparts possess.
To this day, no NCAA college football player has made a field goal from further out than Erxleben. As if to prove it was no fluke, he made two other field goals that year from more than 60 yards out.
But thanks to that 67-yard kick, NFL scouts took notice of him and were seriously interested in him.
A Curious Draft Pick
One team in particular that took notice of Erxleben was the New Orleans Saints. In the late 1970s, they had been an NFL franchise for a full decade, yet they hadn’t experienced any success.
In 1978, the team finished 7-9, which had been, by far, the best record in its short history. It also experienced some misfortune that year when Rich Szaro, its starting kicker, injured his kicking foot and was only able to play four games.
Without him, the Saints had to make do with a patchwork rotation of kickers, which included Tony Galbreath, its starting fullback. On the season, they made only 48.0 percent of their field goal attempts, a very poor mark that likely resulted in multiple losses.
The Saints were very close to clinching a wild card playoff spot, and therefore head coach Dick Nolan badly wanted to take a reliable placekicker in the 1979 NFL Draft.
New Orleans’ highest pick that year was the 11th overall selection, and they used it to nab Erxleben. Only one other kicker had been taken earlier in any draft than him, and not that many kickers in general are taken in the first round of the draft.
The NFL community was befuddled. Why, oh why, did the Saints select a kicker with such a high draft pick?
Why, they could’ve gone for Kellen Winslow, who was taken two slots afterward by the San Diego Chargers and would end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Saints starting TE Henry Childs was solid, but nothing special.
Why, the Saints could’ve had a modestly-regarded QB out of Notre Dame named Joe Montana, who was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers and became the greatest signal-caller ever this side of Tom Brady. Saints QB Archie Manning was pretty good, but he had only a couple more serviceable years left.
Even if the Saints didn’t want a future Hall of Famer, they could’ve opted to improve their defense by drafting Fred Smerlas or Mark Gastineau, both of whom would become All-Pro defensive linemen.
Saints fans turned their ire to Erxleben. They had no idea why Nolan and general manager Steve Rosenbloom went with him instead of someone more impactful, and they took it out on the rookie.
Erxleben’s first pro game would be painful, and it would set the precedent for all that would follow for him.
Floundering In New Orleans
Week 1 of the 1979 season pitted the Saints against their divisional rivals, the Atlanta Falcons, at the Louisiana Superdome. It was a much-hyped game, as both teams had played two barnburners against each other the year before.
This contest looked like it was living up to its hype. New Orleans charged ahead 14-0 in the second quarter, and although the Falcons fought back, it held a 28-20 lead at halftime.
Erxleben opened up the third quarter with a field goal to boost the Saints’ lead to 11, and although the Falcons rallied to take a late 34-31 lead, Erxleben made a 38-yard field goal to tie the game at 34 and force overtime. On the day, he was perfect on field goal and extra-point attempts.
Back in those days, overtime periods in the NFL during the regular season were played under sudden-death rules, and midway through the extra period, the Saints faced a fourth down on their own 22-yard line.
Looking to punt, long snapper John Watson fielded the ball, but his snap was bad. It was way too long and high, and it flew several feet over Erxleben, then landed and started to wobble towards New Orleans’ own end zone.
Erxleben hurried towards the ball and picked it up just short of the goal line, and in his haste to prevent being tackled for a safety, he made a half-hearted two-handed pass, to no one in particular.
The Falcons’ James Mayberry, a rookie running back who moonlighted on special teams, caught the ball and easily ran it in for the game-winning touchdown.
came across the story of Russell Erxleben last night, the punter who went #11 overall in the 1979 draft to the Saints. Turns out in his very first game for them he threw a pick 6 on a botched punt against the Falcons in overtime and lost them the game pic.twitter.com/ArN52Y7rR3
— The Tao Of Drunk Driving (@PintOfJack) October 7, 2020
The Superdome crowd was aghast. This was the guy the Saints had used a first-round draft pick on? Was this a joke?
Of course not. In fact, it was only the beginning of a nightmare, not just for Saints fans, but especially for Erxleben.
Just days later during a practice session, he suffered a groin injury and was forced to watch the rest of the season from the sideline.
But the Saints were forgiving enough, and they kept him around for the 1980 season in order to give him another chance to prove that he was worth the draft pick they used to select him.
The campaign opened with a contest at the Superdome against the San Francisco 49ers, who had finished 2-14 the previous year. This was just before Montana became their starting QB, and thus it was a winnable game for New Orleans.
The Niners got out to a 20-7 lead just after halftime, but Manning helped lead a comeback, and when he found wideout Wes Chandler for a fourth-quarter touchdown, the Saints had pulled to within three points.
With 9:51 left in the game, Erxleben lined up to kick a 37-yard field goal. It was good, the game was tied, and it looked like perhaps he was starting to redeem himself.
After 49ers Ray Wersching hit a field goal of his own, Erxleben went back on the field with three seconds left to tie the game and force overtime.
But instead of calmly converting the field goal, he misfired, and the ball hooked to the left and badly missed the uprights.
Erxleben fell face first on the field in agony, and once again Saints fans were crestfallen. If they already hated him, their venom towards him had just grown much thicker.
After the game, Erxleben addressed the high expectations for him and the resulting criticism.
“This is a football-crazy town and they love their football, but people ask the dumbest questions,” Erxleben said in a local TV news interview following the 49ers loss. “They’d ask, ‘Why did you miss it? I’d say the coach told me to….’
“Another one asked me if I had tried to commit suicide. I said ‘Yes, but I missed to the left.’
“They’re always putting ‘million dollar kicker’ in front of my name. I mean, why can’t I just be the kicker in New Orleans?”
The following week, the Saints got demolished by the Chicago Bears, 22-3, and Erxleben was fed up. He went into Nolan’s office and told him that he was done being their kicker.
He was replaced by Benny Ricardo for the rest of the season. In two games, Erxleben made just two of five field goal attempts, and Ricardo wasn’t a whole lot better.
The Saints lost their first 14 contests that year and finished just 1-15, their worst record to this day.
After giving up his kicking gig, Erxleben stayed on as a punter for the next few years, and he wasn’t too bad at it.
But alas, he would have to endure one more moment of indignity, and it would perhaps be his worst one yet.
After continuing to sputter in 1981 and 1982, the Saints finally started to look like a respectable team in 1983. By now, they had Morton Anderson, a young kicker who proved to be very reliable at converting field goals.
After a Week 15 overtime win in Philadelphia, the final wild card playoff spot in the NFC came down to a game between the Saints and Los Angeles Rams in New Orleans. Both teams came into the contest with identical 8-7 records.
In the second quarter, with the Saints leading 7-2, Erxleben executed what seemed like a routine punt. Rams wideout Henry Ellard fielded it and started downfield, and he saw daylight.
Erxleben tried to tackle Ellard and stop the play, but even though Erxleben at 6-foot-4 and about 220 pounds was the stronger physical specimen, he failed, and instead got injured. Meanwhile, Ellard took the ball all the way for a touchdown.
Erxleben had to be carted off the field, and the Saints ended up losing 26-24 on a late field goal by the Rams’ Mike Lansford. The Rams moved on to the playoffs, while the Saints’ season was over.
So was Erxleben’s career, for all intents and purposes. He would make a comeback attempt a few years later with the Detroit Lions, but he only lasted one game before being released.
Perhaps his struggles weren’t all his fault, but it was still a very sad outcome for a man who had done so well in the college ranks and seemed to have true NFL potential.
Rising And Falling In Finance
Someone may fail at one venture in life, but it doesn’t mean that he or she is a failure in general. The solution is to learn from one’s mistakes, move onto a new venture and be better as a result, a process that life coaches call “failing forward.”
That’s what Erxleben apparently looked to do once his NFL career ended. He made his way into the business realm, starting multiple businesses, something that many former pro athletes try their hand at.
But just as he did on the gridiron with the Saints, he found nothing but failure. He ended up filing for personal bankruptcy due to substantial debt, and he was even indicted for writing bad checks.
Yet Erxleben kept pressing on. He didn’t want a modest, respectable lifestyle – he wanted to live large and make the big bucks, as one of his employers in college, an insurance agent, enjoyed.
In 1996, the former kicker started Austin Forex, a company that did business in the foreign currency exchange field. Before long, Erxleben and his associates were rolling in dough, as the entity was managing eight-figure sums of money.
The former Saint was certainly living large now. He and the company’s executives were hitting up the hottest clubs and driving ostentatious cars, and they even had their own skybox at Royal-Memorial Stadium, from which they watched Texas Longhorns games.
But those big bucks would soon turn into whammies for Erxleben.
The company got shut down in September 1998, as the feds found that it was lying about its profits. Even worse, it was covering its losses with a Ponzi scheme, a setup where investors in a firm receive funds from the investments that new investors make instead of getting returns from the existing equity.
Erxleben pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud, mail fraud and money laundering and another count of securities fraud related to misleading statements about the company’s revenue. He was sentenced to 84 months in federal prison, as well as a $28 million bill for restitution and a $1 million fine.
He and his colleagues would lose even more millions of dollars in subsequent lawsuits that were filed against them.
Erxleben served nearly five years of the sentence, and in June 2005, he walked out of the federal prison in Beaumont, Texas where he had served his time. He was now a free man.
Surely, he thought that chapter of his life was firmly behind him.
He and his wife Kim met Fred Gladle, a former California security broker who wanted to build a family-friendly entertainment venue that would have bowling alleys and an arcade.
Erxleben went to work to help Gladle with the development of the complex, but he had other ideas for the ex-NFL player. He wanted to sell Erxleben some pre-World War II bonds that were held by the German government and use them to create a trust.
But once again, whether he orchestrated it or was simply a naive participant, Erxleben was helping to run a fraudulent entity.
The United States Securities and Exchanges shut down the operation in 2006, and before long, he was the subject of another criminal investigation.
The investigation found that he had more than 50 bank accounts under the names of other people and that even when he was in prison, he was recruiting other inmates to invest in a day trading entity.
Even worse, dabbling in stocks or securities was against the rules of his supervised release from prison in ’05.
In late 2013, Erxleben pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering and was given 90 months in prison. He was released in the summer of 2019.
Now in his 60s, hopefully he will find a way to salvage his remaining years and stay out of trouble.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DR6R6pHaejA (San Francisco 49ers vs New Orleans Saints 1980 Week 1)