Eugene Lockhart, the former Dallas Cowboys linebacker, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for his role in a $20.5 million mortgage fraud that traded on his association with the National Football League.

U.S. District Judge Jorge A. Solis in Dallas handed down the punishment today. Lockhart, once known as “Mean Gene the Hitting Machine,” pleaded guilty last year to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, days before the scheduled start of his trial. Prosecutors had sought a five-year term.

Lockhart and eight other people were indicted in 2009 for allegedly running a scheme that used real estate entities incorporating references to the Cowboys or “America’s Team” into their names and that deployed straw borrowers to get inflated loans for distressed and pre-foreclosure homes in the Dallas area. “America’s Team” is a nickname for the Dallas football franchise. Two more defendants were indicted in 2010.

“I wasn’t raised up to do anything like that,” the former football player told the judge today.

Four people, including William Randolph Tisdale Jr. -- whom prosecutors said led the fraud with Lockhart -- were found guilty after a trial in February. Lockhart today disputed the notion that he was a leader of the scheme.

‘Looked Good’

“I stepped into a ring I didn’t know anything about,” he told the judge. “It looked good. The money looked good, and I fell into it.”

The judge rejected this assertion.

“He’s more involved in this than he would like to claim,” Solis said. “You defrauded and hurt a lot of people,” the judge told Lockhart.

The jury in February returned no verdict against co-defendant Suzette Switzer Hinds, who was named in only one of four counts in the indictment. Solis dismissed that charge today. Six other people entered guilty pleas and testified at the trial.

“The scope of the conspiracy involved approximately 54 fraudulent residential property loan closings resulting in the funding of approximately $20.5 million in fraudulent loans,” then-U.S. Attorney James T. Jacks of Dallas said when announcing the charges.

Lockhart, 51, played nine years as a linebacker in the NFL, including seven with the Cowboys, who drafted him in the sixth round in 1984 out of the University of Houston. He finished his career with 16 sacks, six interceptions and a touchdown. He retired after the 1992 season, after two years with the New England Patriots.

The case is U.S. v.  Lockhart, 09-CR-00247, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Texas.