By Mike Mooneyham

March 12, 2007

Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd, who made his mark in the worlds of professional football and professional wrestling, passed away Sunday after a three-year battle with cancer.

Ladd, 68, had battled cancer – first in his colon, then later in his stomach and bones – since 2004. He had worked through his final years as a lay pastor in the Louisiana town of Franklin. In recent years, due to knee problems, he’d largely been confined to a wheelchair.

Ladd was a star football player for Grambling University under the tutelage of legendary coach Eddie Robinson and went on to a successful pro career, playing for the San Diego Chargers, Houston Oilers and Kansas City Chiefs. At 6-9 and well over 300 pounds, Ladd was widely regarded as the biggest and toughest man in pro football during the ’60s when he played in the fledgling American Football League and was one of its top stars.

Ernie Ladd

Ernie Ladd

Boston Patriots Hall of Fame center Jon Morris once said Ladd was so big, he blocked out the sun. “It was dark. I couldn’t see the linebackers. I couldn’t see the goalposts. It was like being locked in a closet.”

Boasting a 52-inch chest, 39-inch waist, 20-inch biceps, 19-inch neck, 20-inch calf and size 18D shoes, Ladd played in three AFL championship games, helping the Chargers win the AFC league title in 1963 with linemate Earl Faison, both members of the original Fearsome Foursome.

Dubbed “Big Cat” for his size and catlike agility, Ladd was later recognized by the Chargers as their all-time greatest lineman.

The perennial All-Pro spent eight years on the gridiron.

“In 1961, I was one of the most publicized athletes in the United States,” said Ladd. But the Big Cat wanted to wrestle.

Ladd, who had wrestled during the off-season for several years until making the full-time transition in 1970, parlayed his football success into a lucrative career in the squared circle that lasted until 1984.

“I was a pretty good football player, but I really loved wrestling. I truly enjoyed it. If I had to do it all over again, I’d choose wrestling over football,” Ladd said in a 1997 interview.

Ladd enjoyed it even more when promoters told him how much money he could make in the profession. Despite being one of the few black athletes in a business in which racism still existed, Ladd was one of the highest-paid performers in pro wrestling during most of his career, never making less than a six-figure annual salary.

“It was truly a racist environment when I first started. A lot of people didn’t want black talent to come into the sport. I couldn’t have wrestled if I hadn’t played pro football. I couldn’t have afforded to stay out there. I quit football because I was making more money as a wrestler. I made a lot of money as a wrestler. My first year as a wrestler I made more money than I had ever made as a football player. I made over a hundred thousand dollars every year.”

After playing six seasons with the Chargers, he played out his option and signed with the Houston Oilers for a lucrative bonus.

“A couple of wrestlers told me I had a loud mouth on the football field. They invited me to come on out and try it in wrestling. I told them I’d hurt somebody out there. But those same guys ended up pushing my head into the mat all the way around. I was big and strong and I played football, but I knew nothing about wrestling. That’s what started me and gave me a competitive edge. Nobody was supposed to push me around like that.”

The more Ladd wrestled in the off-season, the more he wanted to make it his full-time livelihood. Surgery on his left knee sidelined the giant tackle during the 1969 season when his team, the Chiefs, defeated the Minnesota Vikings, 23-7 in the Super Bowl. It was to be Ladd’s final season in football.

“I started to focus on wrestling,” says Ladd. “I wanted to learn so bad. I wrestled for as little as $15 in the ’60s trying to learn the trade. I later made hundreds of thousands of dollars as a wrestler. But I had to pay dues in order to learn.”

Ladd was inducted into the WWF Hall of Fame in 1994.

Ladd’s career and life had come full circle from the days when he admittedly “had a lot of hell in me.”

He once related in an interview how the anger he exhibited in athletic competition manifested itself years later at a restaurant in a small Georgia town. It would forever change the direction of his life.

“I met a young white boy in the restaurant and he told me he wanted to go into my room and read the Bible with me,” Ladd recalled. “I was quite disturbed. The guy wanted me to get on my knees and pray with him. I told him he must have been strange. I just wanted to knock the guy out right there in the restaurant.”

But something happened on his way to thrashing the young man.

“I thought I was going to beat the guy up, but the Holy Spirit beat me up. I went upstairs to read the Bible with him. I ended up giving my life to the Lord. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. The Holy Spirit came up on me and changed my life in its entirety. I could never repay that.”

“Someone’s bigger and greater than you are, and you want to be the best there is, and you have no control of your destiny when the Holy Spirit comes up on you and the Lord comes into your life. All you can do is just be a good servant, a follower, a doer. I personally didn’t have any choice. I wasn’t going to do anything than give my life to the Lord. That’s the way it has gone down. That’s the way I live it, appreciate it. I put God first.”

“Ernie Ladd was a guy who thought he could do everything,” added Ladd. “He had great size, great talent, but he just didn’t have the Lord in his life. When the Lord came into my life, I became a new creature.” Ladd met his wife, Roslyn while both were attending Grambling. They have four children. He was a father of four and grandfather to more than a dozen more.

Ladd also had worked as a consultant for minority contractors since his retirement from the ring. He has remained politically active and was a member of former President George Bush’s steering committee.

“I’m a strong fan of the Bush family. I have a lot of respect for them. They’re all good friends.”

Ladd was part of the effort spearheaded by the elder Bush to minister to victims of Hurricane Katrina in September 2005.

“Everywhere I go I do my job, and that’s to spread the word of the Lord,” Ladd told The Post and Courier. “When a former president calls you and tells you he wants you to walk with him, I didn’t have any choice except to say, ‘Yes sir, Mr. President.’ Simple as that. It wasn’t too much left for me to say. My best thing I can do now is raise my hand to the Lord.”

Former pro wrestler Burrhead Jones said Sunday night that he and several other retired grapplers talked to Ladd last weekend while attending the annual Gulf Coast Wrestling Reunion in Mobile, Ala.The Big Cat, he says, spoke to them by phone from his home in Franklin.

“He was at peace,” said Jones. “He said everything was in the Master’s hands.”