Considering the Texas tales about Russell Erxleben's kicking, it's a wonder that Francis Ford Coppola didn't purchase the movie rights to his first professional placekick, then hire Marlon Brando to hold the ball and the entire Chinese army to rush the kicker. After all, when Erxleben (pronounced IRK-slay-ben) played at Texas, where he tied the NCAA record for longest field goal with a 67-yarder and also led the nation in punting, he was called "the greatest kicker in the history of college football" by SMU Coach Ron Meyer. Apparently the pros agreed. In May, New Orleans, picking 11th, made Erxleben the fourth kicker ever selected in the first round of the NFL draft, then signed him to a long-term contract that reportedly made him the first million-dollar kicker.
Come with us now as we recreate that historic first kick. The date: July 28. The site: Dodgertown, the Vero Beach, Fla. training complex used by the Saints, who this day are scrimmaging Miami. With a fourth down at the Dolphins' 28-yard line, New Orleans Coach Dick Nolan calls for a field goal. The distance: 45 yards. A fairly prodigious kick for most, but certainly a mere chip shot for the rookie they call "Thunderfoot." Blare of trumpets. Roll of drums.
The crowd quiets. Center Mark Meseroll crouches over the football. The snap darts back to the holder, Ed Burns, who places it carefully on the turf, laces pointing toward the distant goalpost. Erxleben steps forward. For a split second he seems to hesitate, then his powerful right leg swings toward the football. Surely somewhere out there a representative of the Hall of Fame is waiting to claim this pigskin for posterity. The ball soars upward. Then, like a wounded duck, it flutters helplessly and dives back to the ground, not 15 yards from the line of scrimmage. Cut. CUT!
Such was the inauspicious debut of Russell Erxleben, kicking star. Afterward, he described it as "the most embarrassing moment of my life." And, much to his chagrin, the embarrassing moments have not stopped. Erxleben has often said that the hallmark of a great kicker is consistency. Well, this summer he has been consistently horrible.
In the Saints' first exhibition, also against the Dolphins, Erxleben, who placekicks in the old-fashioned straight-ahead style, missed his two field-goal tries, from 32 and 35 yards. And he shanked a punt 19 yards to set up the deciding touchdown in Miami's 14-7 win. In New Orleans' second exhibition, a 13-6 loss to the Chicago Bears, Erxleben had an extra-point attempt blocked and punted three times for a measly 32-yard average. He also kicked off once, but only to the 11-yard line. Still, that was a seven-yard improvement over his lone kickoff the previous week.
Despite Erxleben's difficulties, the Saints have not lost faith in him. He is still battling incumbent Rich Szaro for the placekicking job he was supposed to win summarily, and last week he inherited the punting duties when veteran Tom Blanchard, who ranked fifth in the NFL in 1978 with a 42-yard average, was traded to Tampa Bay.
On Saturday night in Tampa, two days after the trade, Blanchard badly out-kicked Erxleben as the Buccaneers handed the Saints another 14-7 loss. Erxleben averaged 35.7 yards on nine punts, including another shank that needed a good roll to cover 32 yards. Blanchard punted seven times for a 42.2-yard average and received standing ovations after two extra-long kicks. One New Orleans sportswriter grumbled, "Maybe we should see if we can trade away next year's first-draft choice to get our old kicker back."
So people are beginning to wonder if the team has wasted its first-round draft pick on a flop. Erxleben himself says the pressure on him to kick well is not as severe as the pressure Nolan must be feeling. "A lot of people told Coach Nolan not to use a first-draft choice for a kicker," he says. "They felt the Saints needed a linebacker and that the team could pick up a kicker in a nearby bar."
Erxleben's woes have been well publicized in a summer when rookie kickers have been in the spotlight all over the NFL. In Philadelphia, the Eagles, unable to draft Erxleben themselves, have entrusted their placekicking to third-round pick Tony Franklin of Texas A&M, who set 18 NCAA records and once booted field goals of 64 and 65 yards in a game against Baylor.
Franklin kicked barefoot in college and is kicking barefoot in the pros—although that may change when the Eagles play at Green Bay on Nov. 25. He was sidelined for two weeks this summer by a wart on his kicking foot and so far has missed on three of four field-goal chances in preseason games. On occasion, Franklin swings his leg a fraction of an inch too low, catching his toe and causing a blood vessel to pop. The blood mixes with the green fuzz of the artificial turf and gives Franklin what he calls "a Christmas toe."
In Oakland, Errol Mann, who missed extra points in five consecutive games last year, has already been cut loose by the Raiders, and his successor—for the moment—is Jimmy Breech, who was working in a Bay Area cardboard factory when the Raiders signed him late last season.
Another veteran who had difficulty last year is Pittsburgh's Roy Gerela; he never signed a contract, missed 14 of 26 field-goal attempts and then claimed that playing out his option had ruined his concentration. To light a fire under Gerela, the Steelers drafted Penn State Placekicker Matt Bahr, whose brother Chris kicks for the Bengals. Bahr quickly put pressure on Gerela by converting field-goal attempts of 41,39 and 25 yards in the Steelers' opening exhibition. Gerela, who now has signed a new contract, responded to the competition last Friday by connecting for two 48-yard field goals in the Steelers' 27-14 win over the Jets. After the second one, Bahr turned to teammate Tony Dungy and said grimly, "I guess I'll see you when Pittsburgh comes to town." Bahr didn't say what town.
Miami's Garo Yepremian had no trouble with field goals last year, converting 19 of his 23 attempts, including his last 16 straight to tie an NFL record. His kickoffs were so short, though, that Coach Don Shula used his seventh-round draft pick for Oklahoma's Uwe von Schamann, who set an NCAA record by converting 125 straight extra points. Von Schamann's big problem is that no one can pronounce his first name. "The logical way to pronounce my name is 'YOU-we,' because that's the way it's spelled," he says. "But in German the 'w' is pronounced like 'v,' so my name is really pronounced 'OO-va.'
"During the four years I was at Oklahoma, my coach, Barry Switzer, never once pronounced my name correctly. Coach Switzer always called me 'You-va.' Every week on TV, on the Barry Switzer Show, he'd call me 'You-va von Shoeman.' He never got it right. I got to thinking that maybe Coach Switzer has one of those Arkansas speech defects." Von Schamann has made two of four field-goal attempts and has so impressed Shula with his deep kickoffs that, as the kicker says, "Some of the coaches now are calling me 'von Foot.' But the players call me all sorts of names. Tim Foley calls me 'You-glow.' I ask him, 'How come you call me You-glow?' He tells me, 'It's easier to pronounce.' Other guys call me 'You-ee' and 'You-vo.' At least Coach Shula knows how to pronounce my name. That's impressive. That makes me feel real good."
Strangely enough, Erxleben feels real good—about his kicking. Though his statistics don't show it, he believes he has kicked well enough in his month with the Saints and expects to improve. "It's just a matter of being all glassy-eyed, excited and nervous," he says.
Nevertheless, Erxleben is so confident about his future that he almost enjoys the ribbing he has been getting. When one of his practice punts fluttered 25 yards, there was a sideline chorus of "Quack, quack, quack. Shoot that duck." Guard Conrad Dobler turned to Harry Hulmes, the Saints' director of player personnel, and said, "Great No. 1 pick, Harry. When he goes, you're going with him."
Erxleben is not the first collegiate Super Foot to encounter difficulties in his rookie pro season. One problem confronting placekickers is that they cannot use their college kicking tees for field-goal or extra-point tries in the NFL; they must kick the ball off the ground. Steve Little, the record-setting Arkansas kicker who was drafted in the first round by St. Louis in 1978, has made only one field goal in an NFL game; his kicks—sans tee—don't get high enough.
Nolan hoped that Erxleben would be able to handle both the punting and placekicking. However, Szaro has spent the preseason suggesting that two jobs for Erxleben are one too many. Says Erxleben, "Szaro will come up to me and say, 'Why don't you just concentrate on punting? You'll get paid the same and you can work into placekicking more gradually.' He's trying to mess with my mind. He thinks I'm a dumb rookie. I'm a rookie, but I'm not dumb."