Texas' Earl Campbell has gained more than 1,000 yards rushing, has led the Longhorns to seven straight victories and to No. 1 in the polls, and is a strong candidate for the Heisman Trophy. The first-string Texas defense has not allowed a touchdown run all season. But some people believe that the most potent weapon in burnt orange is the tall dude with the three shoes and the Martian surname Erxleben.
Actually the name is German, and Russell Erxleben does not have three feet. On his left foot he wears a regular white football shoe, and on his right, depending on the situation, a regular shoe for punting, or a square-toed one for place-kicking, both of which he does exceedingly well.
Last Saturday in Austin's packed Memorial Stadium, Texas beat 13th-ranked Texas Tech 26-0 and took another giant step toward the Cotton Bowl. Campbell rushed for 116 yards against a defense keyed to stop him; the defense, aided by a holding penalty in the second quarter and the fact that injured Tech Quarterback Rodney Allison was in for only four plays, got itself a shutout. And Erxleben, trotting into the game for just 15 plays, was devastating.
He punted five times for a 44-yard average. Two of his six kickoffs landed beyond the end zone. With Texas leading 7-0 near the end of the first half, a Long-horn drive stalled on the Tech 44. Coach Fred Akers sent in Erxleben wearing the placekicking shoe. In the first quarter he had missed a 56-yard field goal into the wind. This time he had the wind with him and he kicked it through the goalposts from 60 yards away.
It seems as if a fellow who can kick 60-yard field goals should be allowed to mail in his extra points, but Erxleben blew the try after Texas' second TD. He made up for it with a 35-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter.
"You know what that guy does to you?" asked Oklahoma Assistant Coach Larry Lacewell, whose Sooners lost to Texas 13-6 as Erxleben made good on attempts of 64 and 58 yards. "He puts you in a goal-line defense on the 50-yard line."
Meanwhile, over in College Station, Texas A&M's Tony Franklin was helping the Aggies beat SMU 38-21 by kicking a 54-yard field goal and five PATs (he has not missed an extra point this season). Like Erxleben, Franklin is a junior, but he uses only one shoe. His kicking foot he keeps bare.
And against Rice, senior Steve Little of Arkansas, a sidewinder, kicked field goals of 52, 44 and 29 yards, punted three times for an average of 52.3 yards, and six of his seven kickoffs could not be returned as the Razorbacks won 30-7. Little is a senior and the three field goals brought his career total to 46, five short of the NCAA record.
Just another typical Saturday in the Southwest Conference, which in the last two seasons has produced the five longest field goals in modern NCAA history.
In Texas and Arkansas these days "being in field-goal range" means a team has stepped off its bus outside the stadium. It is such a competitive league for kickers that Tech's Bill Adams, who made 47-and 52-yard field goals against Rice, and Baylor's Robert Bledsoe, who had a 47-yarder against SMU, are considered mere chip-shot specialists.
It was the barefoot booter, Franklin, who last year boomed the opening shot in the long-range barrage. Against Baylor, on a wet field with about a six-mph wind at his back, the Aggie sophomore followed his usual routine. He stared at the maroon spot painted on his white, hard-rubber tee. The holder placed the ball straight up on the tee with the laces facing the goalposts, and Franklin, approaching from the left side like a soccer sidewinder, kicked it through from 64 yards away, an NCAA record. But not for long. A while later Franklin kicked one from 65 yards out. (On the same afternoon, Abilene Christian's Swedish import, Ove Johansson, kicked an NAIA record 69-yarder.)
All told, Franklin made 17 of 26 field-goal attempts last year and 30 of 32 extra points to rank second in scoring in the SWC. This year he has hit on 11 three-pointers, including four in the final quarter against Texas Tech to give the Aggies a 33-17 come-from-behind win. He has also kicked a 76-yarder in practice.
Last summer Texas' Erxleben, a good friend of Franklin's, ran three or four miles before work and again after work every day, training to top Franklin's distance record. As he ran he kept repeating to himself, "I'm going to get Tony this year. I'm going to run and run until it hurts so bad, but I'm going to get him."
Get him he did five weeks ago, against Rice. With the score 54-7 in the third period and the ball on Texas' 49, Coach Fred Akers called for the punting team but Erxleben persuaded him to try a howitzer-range field goal. Erxleben took off his punting shoe and put on his square-toed placekicking shoe (the toe is tied up slightly to give his kicks more loft). He wanted to get a two-yard margin over Franklin, so he moved the tee one yard farther back than usual, to 67 yards. The ball sailed "dead through the middle" with the help of an eight-mph wind.
Two weeks later it was Little's turn. Against Texas, with a 20-mph wind to his back in the second quarter, he put his size-seven shoe and all his body whip and hip rotation into a kick from his 43 and made it, to tie Erxleben's record. That prompted Erxleben to send a note to Franklin: "Don't you think it's your turn to kick a 67-yarder? Remember, no farther!"
As of last week, all three of the SWC's mustachioed kicking stars were leading their teams in scoring despite such formidable rivals as Campbell at Texas, Ben Cowins at Arkansas and George Woodard at A&M, and all three teams were nationally ranked.
Interestingly, the three kickers took up their shared specialty as more or less a sideline. Little was the star quarterback and cornerback on a state championship team at South High in Shawnee Mission, Kans., a suburb of Kansas City.
"In my opinion, he would be our starting quarterback right now if we had let him do both," said Arkansas Assistant Athletic Director Lon Farrell. "He's a super athlete. You've never seen anything like the guy. You see him throwing on the practice field, you'd think that's our quarterback. Gosh, he can throw the football."
Arkansas' baseball coach tells of the time Little wandered by the campus ball park and stepped into the batting cage for a few cuts. He stunned the coach and everybody else by taking four swings and hitting four home runs.
Little's father, once a fine athlete at Western Illinois, is an oft-transferred sales manager for a tractor company, and Steve spent more than four years of his boyhood in Norway, but his soccer kicking style was not learned in Europe, or even on a soccer field. After his family moved to Kansas, he began watching Kicker Jan Stenerud of the Kansas City Chiefs on TV and identified with him because he was a Norwegian. Little went out and taught himself the sidewinding style.
Erxleben, whose father is the postmaster in Seguin, Texas, was a much-sought-after quarterback as well as kicker. In his freshman season at Texas he almost transferred to Baylor because he wasn't being tried at quarterback or tight end (he's 6'4", 218 pounds). "I didn't know you just kicked," he says. "Sure, I'd seen guys kick in college, but I just figured they played somewhere else, too.
"The first part of my freshman year I missed extra points, missed field goals, and it was terrible. My punting was all right. About halfway through the season I was leading the nation in punting [47.1 yards], but of my last 22 punts, 20 of 'em were into the wind. My average just dipped [down to 41.4].
"Sportswriters were always saying. 'Texas' field-goal kicking presents problems.' Then we played Oklahoma and I think that was the turning point. I made a 43-yarder into an ungodly wind, and when I made that, I just saw the light."
This is how strong his oak of a right leg is. Last year on a field-goal attempt against SMU, the center snap was low and the holder bobbled the ball a bit before getting it on the tee. Erxleben had already started his approach, had to stop, then just swung the leg when the ball was ready. Good—from 57 yards away.
"Russell has so much raw power and strength, it's unbelievable," says his buddy Franklin.
Franklin, at not quite 5'9" and "pushing it to get to 170," is the smallest of the three, but he is a compact package of muscle and confidence. Every summer he leads off and plays center field for a fast-pitch softball team, and he is a good enough golfer to have broken 70. As a freshman halfback at Arlington Heights High School in Fort Worth he gained more than 1,500 yards rushing, but his scatback career ended when he tore ligaments in his left ankle and it was in a cast for six weeks.
"My sophomore year I still couldn't run, and the kicker was having a hard time, so I just started kicking," he says. "My junior and senior years I played flanker and free safety, punted and kicked off and kicked extra points and field goals."
When he was a sophomore Franklin kicked a city-record 51-yard field goal. The record was broken two years later with a 52-yarder by the star kicker at rival Eastern Hills High School, a German immigrant named Uwe von Schamann, who now is Oklahoma's field-goal specialist.
"Von Schamann didn't kick anything farther than that during the year, and I didn't either," says Franklin. "Then in the playoffs our teams met. On the fourth play of the game I twisted my right ankle and kept it in an ice bucket. Right before halftime the coach said, 'Well, it's fourth down and we've got a little wind, you want to try it?' I said, 'Yes, sir, it's probably the last time I'll have a chance to get my record back.' "
With a sore ankle, Franklin went out and kicked a field goal from 58 yards, not only surpassing von Schamann but setting a state record as well. The Texas high school field-goal record is now 62 yards, held by Russell Wheatley from Odessa. "Tony could have kicked 60-yarders in high school," says one of the coaches at Arlington Heights. "Every Thursday at the end of workouts we'd finish up with field goals, and Tony would kick 50-and 60-yarders. It really gave the team a big lift to see the ball go through."
Franklin first removed his shoe as a 10th grader at Arlington Heights. "I was working out with a shoe and was kicking about 40 yards and I don't know why I did it, I just said, 'Well, I'm going to take my shoe off and see what happens.' Right away I started hitting the ball 50 yards and making the kicks. I stayed with that, wearing a sock, all through high school.
"I wore the sock because I thought it'd sting or my foot would get real cold on a cold day. Then when I came down to A&M it rained for about a week and a half straight, every day, and I got sick of changing socks. One day I said, 'To heck with this.' I took the sock off and started kicking without it and I've been kicking like that ever since. People ask me if I have calluses and all that junk, and I don't. The skin is just as soft on my right foot as it is on my left.
"I like it a lot better because on that slick AstroTurf I was slipping a little bit. Every time I'd take my first step I'd slip, and it would throw me off balance. Ever since I took the sock off I don't have that problem."
So far the foot has not been stepped on, bitten or otherwise harmed, even though Franklin, as the safety on kickoffs, does make an occasional tackle. He does not do the punting because the Aggies have sophomore David Appleby, who has a 43.7 average. But Franklin insists he will be able to punt in the pros and points out that he had a 40-yard average in high school.
NFL rules will oblige Franklin to wear at least a sock (shoes are not required), but he intends to wear a shoe anyway because placekicking tees are banned in the pros, and he will have to kick balls placed on the turf. If he wore just a sock he could stub or break a toe.
All the college kickers will need to make adjustments when they reach the pros. Without the placekicking tee, they will lose between 10 and 15 yards on their kicks. "It's just like hitting a golf ball," says Kansas City Chiefs Scout Tommy O'Boyle. "You can hit it a lot farther off a tee than off the ground." They also will be aiming at a smaller target. College goal-posts are 23'4" wide (they were widened about five feet in 1959), while in the NFL they are only 18'6" apart. Then, too, pro linemen are taller on the average than college linemen. Erxleben, along with all the other straight-ahead kickers, will not be able to tie up his toe or wear a square-toed shoe.
Probably the most important rule difference, however, is that in the NFL, after a failed field-goal attempt, the ball goes back to the line of scrimmage, thus discouraging long tries until the final seconds of a game. In college the ball comes out to the 20, and thus missed 60-yarders are the same as long punts—with the exception of coffin corner kicks. There is some sentiment, especially among college coaches who don't have a long-range kicker, to adopt the pro rule. Juniors Erxleben and Franklin are understandably against it, but Little is for it, perhaps because he will be in the pros next season.
There is also a Southwest Conference rule—or policy—that seems to give the kickers an edge. Some rivals would have you believe that they are kicking balls as plump as watermelons, fat balls that recall the day in 1899 when the legendary Pat O'Dea of Wisconsin drop-kicked a 62-yard field goal. These rivals claim kickers in most other leagues have to use the regular game ball that passers prefer. Indeed, the SWC does allow kickers to use a marginally fatter broken-in ball, but it has to be inspected before the game just like the regular ball and may not exceed an inflated pressure of 13½ pounds, a weight of 15 ounces and a circumference at the fattest part of 21¼ inches. Both Little and Erxleben prefer to kick the broken-in ball.
"Because it's been roughed up, the ball gives you a better 'grip' when you hit it," says Erxleben. "The managers put the ball into the game on kicks. They goofed it up once. I turned back to the ref and I said, 'Hey, that isn't the ball I want to kick.' And he said, 'Oh, I've seen you kick. You can make it with anything.' It was a 44-yarder. I'm not blaming the ball, but I missed it. It might have affected my concentration, but really there's no excuse on something that short."
That short? Well, maybe Erxleben is right. Fans in the Southwest may be getting a bit jaded. "The last few weeks I have seen Little, then Franklin, then Erxleben, then Erxleben and Little," said the Arkansas Gazette's Jim Bailey recently. "Anything short of 50 yards and I just don't pay any attention. Those are like extra points."
"Yes, people are getting spoiled," says Little. "They get used to seeing such great kickers. Once we're all gone, they'll have to go back to the old expectations."
Not necessarily. In Fort Worth, Franklin's little brother Eric, an eighth grader, has already kicked a 35-yard field goal in practice. Wearing a shoe.
Texas' Russell Erxleben ties up his toe, while his booming kicks keep Longhorn foes fit to be tied.
Steve Little of Arkansas used his self-taught soccer style to equal Erxleben's record of 67 yards.
In the SWC, kickers may use a battered ball.
The barefoot best of Texas A&M's Tony Franklin is 65 yards, but Erxleben has asked him to do better.