By Mike Mooneyham

March 18, 2007

There’ll never be another “Big Cat.”

Ernie Ladd, who passed away last weekend at the age of 68 following a three-year bout with cancer, leaves a larger-than-life legacy that is one for the ages, among both football and wrestling fans.

When Ladd completed his distinguished eight-year pro football career, he had played in 112 consecutive American Football League games, four straight AFC All-Star games (1962-65), and appeared on the roster for both Super Bowls I and IV with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Ladd, a ferocious defensive behemoth who led Eddie Robinson’s Grambling Tigers squad to its first-ever Southwestern Athletic Conference championship, helped form the nucleus of the 1963 AFL championship team at San Diego, playing on one of the first integrated teams, with black players and white players as roommates.

“Ernie spoke of coming to Grambling to play basketball,” recalled an acquaintance, “but Eddie saw him, walked alongside of him and said, ‘Big Red, you look hungry. Here are the keys to the kitchen. If you get too hungry, fix yourself a sandwich.’ And Ernie filled out to 315 pounds, and the rest is history.”

Ernie Ladd

Ernie Ladd

There are plenty of tales about Ladd’s legendary appetite. He once ate 124 pancakes topped with six containers of syrup at one sitting. Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson, commenting on Ladd’s voracious consumption of food, once noted Ladd never “quit eating because he wasn’t hungry any more. He quit because his jaw got tired.”

Ladd, who had a 52-inch chest, a 19-inch neck, 20-inch biceps, wore size-18D shoes and was the largest player of his time, played for the Chargers from 1961-65. With the late Ron Nery, Earl Faison and Richard Hudson, he was a member of what was known as the team’s “Fearsome Foursome” defensive front. He holds the unique distinction of being enshrined in both the American Football League Hall of Fame and the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame.

The Big Cat, whom one football rival joked as being so big he “blocked out the sun,” had a heart as big as his body.

While he spent the majority of his wrestling career as one of the ring’s most feared villains, Ladd was a well-liked and respected veteran outside the ring who spent the last portion of his life as a pastor in the small Louisiana town of Franklin, participating in prison outreach ministries and helping everyone whose path he crossed.

Few knew him better than Cowboy Bill Watts.

Watts, whose pro football rookie year coincided with Ladd’s, worked with him on both sides of the ring during their wrestling careers and hired Ladd as his booker, matchmaker and overall right-hand man in the Mid-South territory during the ’80s.

“We shared so much together,” said Watts. “He blessed my life. He touched my heart.”

Watts said Ladd, whose career transcended cultural barriers, taught him about being a real man and about coming up in a world where things weren’t always equal and even-handed.

“He taught me so much about being black. As he explained, no white man can understand, because we cannot walk in a black man’s shoes,” said Watts. “He told me of growing up in the heart of racism, of his father in jail in Baton Rouge, of the rules in Louisiana and in Texas in certain communities of no blacks after a certain time of day. So many horrible racist things that this giant of a man had to deal with. And I got to see him rise above them.”

Watts recounted a time in the mid-1960s when he and Ladd were in the World Wide Wrestling Federation, and Don McClarity, Watts’ tag-team partner, hurled a series of racial epithets at Ladd.

“I was there the day Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and in the dressing room for wrestling matches in Baltimore, when my tag-team partner made a complete (butt) of himself as he addressed Ernie racially, in anger, in front of everyone. Ernie did not knock him out because he was a bigger man inside, too, and knew it would only inflame things more.”

There was little doubt among onlookers that Ladd, every bit of 6-9 with hands the size of oven mittens, could have easily manhandled McClarity had he so chosen.

“He was so big and strong, he didn’t have to be mean,” Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame guard Billy Shaw once said about Ladd.

One of Watts’ favorite stories was following a world heavyweight boxing title match at the Louisiana Superdome between Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks. Watts attended the event with Ladd and his college sweetheart and wife of 45 years, Roslyn, and took the two out to dinner. He even rented a Lincoln Town Car for the affair.

“Ernie got in the back seat with Ros and I said, ‘Big fella, why don’t you sit up front here with me, there is so much more room in the front seat.'”

Ladd looked at his wife and replied: “Ros, I told you when we met in college, that if you married me, one day I would have us a big, fat, white, honky chauffeur! Well, we have one now!”

Watts said that he’d talked to Ladd recently about his illness. Ladd, he noted, never lost his distinctive flair for humor.

“Ernie, I am afraid the Lord will call you home before He does me,” Watts said. “And I’m concerned, because the way you eat, there may not be enough food left in Heaven for a banquet when I get there.”

Ladd was an ultimate optimist who spread hope wherever he went and put his faith to work. Even at the end, when the odds were heavily stacked against him, the gentle giant told friends that he had no fear. “It’s going to be OK,” he confided shortly before his death, with the same confidence and indomitable spirit that punctuated his days on the gridiron and in the ring. “I’m in the Master’s hands now.”

– WWE Hall of Famer “Golden Boy” Arnold Skaaland passed away Tuesday at the age of 82.

Skaaland, a fixture in the Northeast where he worked as a trusted lieutenant in the WWE front office for years, is perhaps best remembered by veteran fans as a longtime prelim wrestler who served as the babyface manager for company champs such as Bruno Sammartino and Bob Backlund. Probably his most controversial moment in the ring was when he threw in the towel for Backlund after The Iron Sheik had trapped him in the camel clutch, ending Backlund’s long reign as WWE champ and paving the way for Hulk Hogan to win the title from Sheik in January 1984.

Skaaland, who was inducted into the WWE’s first Hall of Fame class in 1994, was a partner to Vince McMahon Sr. and stockholder of Capitol Wrestling Corporation, the parent company of the World Wide Wrestling Federation, and a promoter at the Westchester County Center in White Plains, N.Y. He also served as a handler for Andre The Giant when the worldwide attraction worked in the Northeast.

The 5-11, 205-pounder’s in-ring career was less distinguished, although he and Spiros Arion held the U.S. tag-team title in 1967, and he served as the referee for a famous 1962 match in Japan between Freddie Blassie and Rikidozan.

– WWE announced last week that all future pay-per-view events will feature wrestlers from all three brands. The new policy will begin with the Backlash PPV.

– MTV has pulled the season finale of Wrestling Society X that was scheduled to run Tuesday night. WSX talent contracts reportedly expire 90 days after the initial airing of the finale.

The long-awaited Four Horsemen DVD will be released April 10.

Not many folks in the wrestling community were surprised when the 60-year-old Sylvester Stallone was busted recently in Australia for allegedly carrying “prohibited” substances believed to be a type of human growth hormone.

“I guess (trainer) Mickey was giving him the juice all that time,” said one crestfallen Rocky fan.

– Ashley Massaro, WWE’s latest contribution to Playboy, recently confided to the Miami Herald that her mother would not be happy with her daughter gracing the cover of the April issue.

”I knew she was going to freak out,” said Massaro, who said her mom found out on an edition of Smackdown. ‘She always said, `If you do Playboy, I’ll disown you.’ That was in the back of my brain before I made my decision to do it, but she came around. I knew she would.”

“Being on the cover of Playboy, the same magazine that Marilyn Monroe was on the cover of, is an honor,” added Massaro, who faces Melina for the WWE women’s title at Wrestlemania.

– John Cena is filming an ABC racing reality series called “Fast Cars and Superstars: Gillette Young Guns Celebrity Race.”

The seven-episode series, which debuts on June 7 and ends on June 23 with an 8 p.m. time slot, will show celebrities taking race car driving lessons and competing as race car drivers with weekly elimination.

Celebrities include William Shatner, Serena Williams, Jewel, Ty Williams and John Elway. The series filmed this past week at the Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte.