Ladd, Ernie

views updated

Ernie Ladd


Professional football player and wrestler

Most professional athletes would be thrilled to wind up in a single Hall of Fame dedicated to a single sport. Ernie Ladd was multitalented enough to be inducted into three of them—one for football and two for wrestling. Ladd left a successful professional football career while still in his prime to pursue a second career in professional wrestling, where he starred as one of the pseudo-sport's most charismatic "villains" for more than a decade.

Ernie Ladd was born on November 28, 1938, in Rayville, Louisiana, and raised in Orange, Texas. Ladd's ability to stand out in multiple sports was apparent even in high school. His high school football coach was Willie Ray Smith, the father of future gridiron star Bubba Smith. However, at 6 feet 9 inches, he was an imposing force on the basketball court as well, and in fact it was that sport that got him into college. While attending Grambling State University on a basketball scholarship in the late 1950s, Ladd quickly established himself as a star on Grambling's football team. One of the biggest players of his era, Ladd, a defensive lineman, had no problem overpowering most of the blockers he faced. In 1961, the San Diego Chargers selected Ladd as the 15th overall pick in the American Football League (AFL) draft.

As a professional football player, Ladd instantly became of the league's elite players. He was one of the Chargers' infamous "Fearsome Foursome" defensive line, along with Ron Nery, Earl Faison, and Richard Hudson. Ladd appeared in four straight AFL All-Star Games from 1962 and 1965 and helped the Chargers claim the AFL Championship in 1963. While NFL linemen today routinely tip the scales at over 300 pounds, Ladd, at 320 pounds, was a giant in the early 1960s, before the supersizing of athletes. In spite of his size, he was remarkably quick on his feet, a trait that earned him the nickname "Big Cat." Big indeed, in all dimensions. Ladd reportedly had a 52-inch chest, a 39-inch waist, 20-inch biceps, and a 19-inch neck. His shoes were size 18D.

Ladd's football career was still young when the ground-work was laid for his foray into professional wrestling. While he was still with the Chargers, he was lured by some San Diego-area wrestlers into participating in a private workout session in the wrestling ring as a publicity stunt. The stunt was a hit, and Ladd soon began making periodic appearances at wrestling events, at first as a guest referee, and eventually as a wrestler. Before long, Ladd was a regular on Los Angeles wrestling tickets during the football off-season. As in football, his size was a huge advantage, usually allowing him to overpower his much smaller opponents.

Meanwhile, Ladd's football career continued to thrive. In 1966 he left the Chargers for a better deal with the Houston Oilers, and he spent the 1967 and 1968 seasons playing for the Kansas City Chiefs. Figuring that it was time to decide between the two sports at which he excelled—in part because of the pounding his body was taking as a year-round gladiator-Ladd made his World Wide Wrestling Federation Debut in 1968.

"After a few years, I was making so much money wrestling in the off-season that I figured I could make a lot more by giving up football and wrestling full time," Ladd was quoted by the New York Times as saying. "I quit football at 28 and still had several good years left. That first year wrestling, I made $98,000, and after that never made less than a hundred grand a year. That was big money back in the '60s." Ladd was finished with football entirely by 1970, after becoming the highest-paid defensive lineman in the NFL. He was inducted into the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame in 1981.

Because he was already well known from football, Ladd quickly became one of the wrestling circuit's top attractions, and he was in great demand by promoters across the country. He became an even bigger draw by cultivating an image as one of wrestling's biggest villains. He fortified this image by adopting an arrogant attitude in interviews, and, perhaps more importantly, by making use of a heavily taped thumb, which he delighted in seemingly jabbing in opponents' eyes in the wring. Initially, promoters were wary of Ladd's bad-guy persona, since he was one of the sport's first African-American villains, and there was some fear that his presence during this racially charged period might spark violence. It did not prove to be a problem.

Ladd spent the next dozen years taking on such wrestling legends as Bruno Sammartino, Bobo Brazil, and Andre the Giant (whom Ladd liked to refer to as "Andre the Dummy"), often competing for, but never winning, the WWF championship. Along the way, he was part of countless good-guy vs. bad-guy storylines that played out in the ring.

By the mid-1980s, Ladd had made enough money and suffered from his share of nagging injuries. He retired from the pro wresting circuit in 1986 and was inducted into the WWF Hall of Fame a few years later. By the time he retired, Ladd's knees were badly damaged, to the point where he sometimes needed a wheelchair to get around. Because of his charisma, he remained in demand as a wresting announcer. He was also a manager, his star protégés being the spectacular tag team the Wild Samoans, who won several titles. Ladd retired to Louisiana, where he ran a prison ministry and operated a trucking business. His biggest passion, however, was politics. Ladd had long been active in the Republican Party, and he was close friends with his fellow ex-footballer Jack Kemp, the former Chargers quarterback turned Congressman and presidential candidate. He was also a longtime friend of the Bush family, and worked on the presidential campaigns of both George H. W. Bush and his son George W. Bush. The younger Bush made Ladd a special deputy to his Presidential Inaugural Committee.

In 2004 Ladd was diagnosed with colon cancer, which eventually spread to his stomach and his bones. Doctors initially gave him three to six months to live, but he battled the disease for nearly four years before finally succumbing on March 10, 2007, leaving his wife Roslyn, their four children, 16 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

At a Glance …

Born on November 28, 1938, in Rayville, LA; died on March 10, 2007; married Roslyn Ladd; children: Ernie, Rodney, Reginald, Erika. Education: Attended Grambling State University. Politics: Republican.

Career: San Diego Chargers, defensive lineman, 1961-65; Houston Oilers, defensive lineman, 1966; Kansas City Chiefs, defensive lineman, 1967-68; professional wrestler, 1968-86.

Awards: San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame, 1981; WWE Hall of Fame, 1995; Breitbard Hall of Fame, San Diego, 2005; numerous regional wrestling championships.



New York Times, March 14, 2007.

Orlando Sentinel, September 14, 2000.


"Big Cat Ernie Ladd: WWE Hall of Fame Superstar," World Wrestling Entertainment, (September 1, 2007).

"Former Football, Pro Wrestling Great Ernie ‘Big Cat’ Ladd Dead at 68," Fox News,,2993,258427,00.html (September 1, 2007).

"Remembering Ernie "The Big Cat" Ladd 1938-2007," BlackAthlete Sports Network, (September 1, 2007).

"The Stories Behind the Stars: Hall of Fame Inductee Ernie Ladd," Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, (September 1, 2007).