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Barry Hirstius

The Messed Up Life of “The Most Hated Man in Saints History”

In Beaumont, Texas, approximately 85 miles east of Houston, "The Most Hated Man in New Orleans Saints History" sits all alone in his jail cell, at the Federal Corrections Institute of Beaumont Low Security Facility.

Clad in an orange jumpsuit to distinguish his status as an inmate, Prisoner # 04048-180 has a distinction unlike most of his fellow inmates.

That's because once upon a time, Russell Erxleben was an NFL football player --- as the former #1 draft pick (1979) of the New Orleans Saints.

Now age 60, Erxleben's tale of self-inflicted torture upon himself and the people closest to him, is unlike that of any other player in the Saints' entire 51-year history.

From being the local hero of his small town in Sequin, Texas, to a former high school QB at Sequin High School and then an All-American kicker and punter at the University of Texas, all the way now to serving his 2nd term in Federal Prison on fraud charges, Erxleben has run the gamut on living the "ups and downs" that one person can experience in a life of 6 decades.

Photo courtesy of The Austin American-Statesman

Erxleben's legal troubles began in 1998, after federal investigators determined that he had conned hundreds of investors (an estimated 500 of them to be exact) as the head of his foreign currency exchange firm, named Austin Forex International; out of nearly $35 million in college tuition, retirement plans and other savings --- in what the Texas State Securities Board labeled a massive "Ponzi scheme".

Known among financial investment experts as one of the oldest scams in the foreign currency exchange industry, a "Ponzi scheme" is where earlier investors are paid off with money from new investors, rather than supported returns from investments.

Erxleben was sentenced to federal prison the first time in the year 2000, and was handed a punishment of 7 years in custody, two of which he served under supervised release. He was subsequently allowed to go and live in a halfway house on June 3, 2005.

However, since he was now an ex-con with a felony record, his chances of getting a job -- especially one paying as much as he was making previously as the head of his own company -- were essentially slim to none.

So, what do you suppose he did to survive and make money to support himself and his family?

You guessed it: he got involved running another "Ponzi scheme".

In her story a few years ago on Erxleben for the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, reporter / writer Jazmine Ulloa says that Erxleben didn't act alone this time around, but instead had the help of at least 4 other men to cheat hundreds of investors across the country.

Photo courtesy of The Austin American-Statesman

Ulloa wrote that law enforcement officials said that there was no question Erxleben belonged in the "con man" category. He should not have been dealing in securities or stock, which went against the conditions of his supervised release from his first offense.

As a result, Erxleben was again convicted of investment fraud in 2014 and sentenced to 90 months (seven and one-half years) in federal prison --- and now finds himself serving the remainder of his term in the very same prison where he originally began serving his first one nearly 20 years ago.

If one were watching an ESPN "30 For 30" documentary, you probably wouldn't even believe someone could have had such led such a messed up life.

As it was, no one would have ever believed that the Saints franchise would have used their top pick (#11 overall) in that 1979 NFL Draft, on a kicker of all things.

That moment in time on May 3rd, 1979 would change Erxleben's life forever. 

It also made him one of the more despised players in Saints history, even before he had a chance to set foot inside the Superdome for what would be an unforgettable professional debut later that September in the season opener against the hated arch-rival Atlanta Falcons.

The question still is asked to this day:

WHY did the Saints take a kicker, especially when they clearly needed to upgrade their defense that year, and even passed on future All-Pro defensive linemen Fred Smerlas (taken by Buffalo) and Mark Gastineau (taken by the Jets and became part of the famous "New York Sack Exchange")?

Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

Not to mention, the Saints in hindsight also passed on 2 eventual future 1st-ballot Hall of Famers on offense as well: University of Missouri tight end Kellen Winslow and Notre Dame QB Joe Montana.

Which is exactly why for older Saints fans, the selection of Erxleben is a decision that almost 40 years later, continues to live in infamy.

Actually, a case could be made that Erxleben was a pretty good all-around football player. 

As a youngster growing up in Sequin -- approximately 35 miles east of San Antonio -- Erxleben was an excellent player at many sports including basketball, baseball and golf; but became serious about football after making it to the semifinals of the NFL Punt, Pass and Kick competition, a national skills competition for grade school and high school students.

He went to become the starting QB for the Cougars of Sequin High School, where he also was the team's kicker and punter. But it was his incredible leg strength, and not his skills as a passer, that got the attention of college recruiters.

Not long after, Erxleben landed a scholarship offer with the then-national powerhouse University of Texas Longhorns, where he found himself teammates with legendary RB Earl Campbell. He would go on to become an All-American as a punter, earning 1st team honors in 1976, 1977, and again in 1978.

But it was his exploits as a kicker that put him "on the map" -- and ironically would become a part of his downfall as a professional player just a few short years later.

In his junior season in a game against Rice University on October 2nd, 1977; Erxleben booted a 67-yard field goal, the longest in NCAA history.

Photo courtesy of The Daily Texan

It was that kick that sent shock waves through the NFL scouting community at that time, so much so that the Saints -- who had some notable struggles with the kicking position during the 1978 season -- placed Erxleben as one of the names at the top of their Draft board during the 1979 NFL Draft, since he was an All-American as both a punter and a place-kicker.

In 1978, the Saints had the unbelievably bad luck of losing starting kicker Rich Szaro, who was limited to four games that season because of a freak injury that occurred during a Week #2 game against the Green Bay Packers in Milwaukee (at Milwaukee County Stadium) in which Szaro, a left-footed kicker, hurt his kicking foot.

Fullback Tony Galbreath -- who was the team's "emergency kicker" (because he had been the kicker on his high school football team) -- kicked off for the remainder of the game and then the Saints were forced to use a litany of different kickers (Steve Mike-Mayer, John Leypoldt, and Tom Jurich) from Week #3 through Week #14, until Szaro eventually returned for the final 2 games of the season.

Saints head coach Dick Nolan had remembered the direct impact that the team's kicking situation had upon that season (they finished 7-9 in 1978, the team's best year ever at that time and were in Wild Card contention near the end of the season), and so when the team's turn to pick came up at #11 overall, Nolan (with the blessing of GM Steve Rosenbloom) "pulled the trigger" on the pick of Erxleben.

Photo courtesy of the University of Texas

NFL analysts and observers were completely stunned that the Saints had taken a kicker with their top pick, and it was a move that the team not only wasn't able to live down, but would also be one that they'd come to regret months later.

The 1979 season opener was memorable for many reasons, mainly because it was the "showdown" between the Saints and their arch-rival Atlanta Falcons after their two close games from the year before in which both games ended in controversial fashion.

But it was Erxleben who unwittingly became involved with the rivalry's storied history, when on 4th down at their own 22-yard line, the Saints sent the rookie punter / kicker out on the field to stand in punt formation.

But center / deep snapper John Watson snapped the ball too high and it sailed completely over Erxleben's head, by some 4 feet (and maybe more). 

The rookie panicked, and quickly tried to chase after the ball; which by this time had bounced and then rolled inside the 5-yard line toward the goal line, where Erxleben grabbed it and tried to toss a two-handed pass to avoid a possible safety.

Falcons special teams "ace" and rookie RB James Mayberry, who was bearing down fast on Erxleben, picked off the pass attempt out of the air and ran 6 yards untouched into the end zone for the unbelievable (and very unlikley) winning score.  

Atlanta came away with yet another thrilling win over the Saints by a score of 40-34, which then set off a near-riot in the Superdome's concourses after the game, when angry Saints fans reacted to "trash talking" by Falcons fans (another different story for another time, since I was there to witness it).

Unfortunately for both Erxleben and the Saints (and their fans), the bad luck didn't end there.

He was injured during practice the week following the Atlanta game, when he tore his groin and was placed on injured reserve, and ended up not playing again the entire season.

Amazingly (and trust me: you can't even make this stuff up), fullback Tony Galbreath found himself kicking once again as the "emergency kicker" for a 2nd straight year against the Green Bay Packers at Milwaukee County Stadium (exactly where he did it the year before); but this time went 2-for-3 on FG attempts along with a missed extra point in a 28-19 loss. WR Wes Chandler handled the punting duties, in that very same game.

The Saints would then bring in veteran kicker Garo Yepremian, who had been released by the Dolphins late in the preseason; and punter Rick Partridge, to handle Erxleben's dual roles after the loss to the Packers.

The Saints then were willing to give Erxleben a clean slate heading into the 1980 season, and as the team headed into the Week #1 season opener against the San Francisco 49ers (and 2nd year QB Joe Montana), it appeared that he was finally going to get the opportunity to show that his being the team's top pick from the year before, wasn't a mistake.

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

However, the opposite happened.

With the 49ers and the talented young QB Joe Montana playing way above their overall talent level, San Francisco pulled ahead late to take a 26-23 lead with less than 2 minutes remaining.

But Saints QB Archie Manning was able to lead the offense down the field quickly, and got the Saints and Erxleben into field goal range with 3 seconds remaining on the clock.

On came Erxleben, for the tying kick and a chance to send the game into overtime.

But like a novice golfer teeing off on a Par-5 hole, Erxleben badly hooked the kick to the left of the uprights, and the Saints lost their season opener for a 2nd straight year as a result of Erxleben's direct involvement.

After the missed kick, Erxleben fall face first to the turf in exasperation, as a very loud audible moan came up from the seats of a sold-out Superdome home crowd.

It was at that very point in time that the Saints fan-base slowly began to turn on the 23-year old Erxleben.

"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?

Not long after following the team's 22-3 road loss to the Bears at Chicago in Week #2, Erxleben walked into Nolan's office and told him he didn't want to be the team's kicker anymore.

Erxleben's confidence was totally shot, perhaps due in part to the fact that he could no longer kick off a tee as he was allowed to do in college.

Whatever the case, Erxleben was never the same again.

Not ever.

Erxleben did manage to last four years with the Saints, almost exclusively as a reliable punter for new head coach Bum Phillips starting in the 1981 season. But even that ended up being short-lived.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Erxleben's final game in a Saints uniform was almost nearly as bad as his first one had been.

In the 1983 season finale, with the team on the verge of its first-ever Playoff appearance, Los Angeles Rams WR Henry Ellard escaped Erxleben's grasp and returned a punt 72 yards for a TD. Erxleben was hurt as he clumsily tried to make the tackle, and was carted off the field after the play --- with a cascade of boos reigning down upon him from the rafters high above the Superdome.

The Saints' eventual 26-24 loss to the Rams knocked them out of an NFC Wild Card spot.

Erxleben was mercifully done with his NFL career essentially at that point, although he would attempt a come back one last time to punt for Detroit in 1987; but was cut by the Lions at the end of the Pre-Season that year.

From kid prodigy, to high school and college football star, and NFL 1st Round Draft pick, Erxleben simply was never able to live up to the hype that surrounded him for nearly 2 decades worth of his life.

Sadly, he has now spent the last 30 plus years trying to find his life's purpose, only to see the inside of a prison cell in Beaumont for the majority of that time.

Erxleben's son, Ryan, a former punter at Texas Tech and now age 26; told Ulloa of his not-so-fondly remembered Dad:

"God is working on him. Hopefully, my dad can learn from this and come out a better man."

When Prisoner # 04048-180 leaves the the Federal Corrections Institute of Beaumont Low Security Facility in another 3 and a half years from now, he will be pushing age 64.

And with it, will end another chapter in the messed up life of "The Most Hated Man in Saints History"......... 

Big Easy Magazine contributing writer and Saints News Network columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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