An article by Mike Mooneyham
Few men ever cast a more imposing figure on a football field or in a wrestling ring than Ernie Ladd.
At 6-9 and well over 300 pounds, Ladd was widely regarded as the biggest and toughest man in professional football during the ’60s when he played in the fledgling American Football League and was one of its top stars. Dubbed “Big Cat” for his size and catlike agility, Ladd was recognized by the San Diego Chargers as their all-time greatest lineman. The perennial All-Pro defensive tackle also played for the Houston Oilers and the Kansas City Chiefs during his eight years on the pro gridiron.
Professional wrestling, however, was Ladd’s first love. 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,” says Ladd. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d choose wrestling over football.”
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.
But Ladd admits he was an angry man. That anger was expressed on the field, in the ring, on interviews. He admits that when he changed professions, his primary mission of seek-and-destroy merely changed from a quarterback to his opponent.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]That same anger manifested itself 16 years ago at a restaurant in a small Georgia town. It was to forever change the direction of Ernie Ladd’s 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 recalls. “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.”
Ladd, 58, says he did most of his talking on the field or in the ring. But he admits something was missing in his life. “In the early years, I wasn’t a guy who did a lot of cursing and a lot of drinking. But I was probably rotten and no good for myself or anybody else. I was so independent. I thought I was a self-made man, which was nothing, until I was witnessed to by a young white guy who changed my life completely. He said that was the Holy Spirit speaking to me through him, and it turned out to be true.”
Ladd hasn’t looked back in 16 years.
“Ernie Ladd was a guy who thought he could do everything. 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.”
Ernie Ladd had enjoyed phenomenal success in a sports career that began on the playing fields of Orange, Texas, and took him to collegiate stardom at Grambling under the tutelage of legendary coach Eddie Robinson. Ladd went on to play pro football for Sid Luckman’s San Diego Chargers and alongside such stars as Lance Alworth, Keith Lincoln and Paul Lowe. After playing six seasons with the Chargers, he played out his option and signed with the Houston Oilers for a lucrative bonus.
“In 1961, I was one of the most publicized athletes in the United States,” says Ladd. But the Big Cat wanted to wrestle.
“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, who was one of the few black wrestlers on top during the ’60s and early ’70s, said had it not been for his football career, he could never have afforded to go into wrestling.
“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. Not because I was a big talent, because I had money, but I could pay my bills and stay on the road. 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.”
Ladd met his wife, Roslyn, 38 years ago while both were attending Grambling. They have four children – ages 34, 26, 24, 23.
“I’ve been with the same girl since the first time I saw her in college,” says Ladd. “My wife tried to get me saved for 15 years. She finally had to give up on me. She eventually gave it to the Lord, and that’s when I became saved. As long as she was trying to be a part of it and do it herself, it wasn’t working out.”
Ladd, who spent most of his mat career as a heel going up against the likes of such world champions as Lou Thesz, Bruno Sammartino, Verne Gagne and Dory Funk Jr., was noted for his menacing interviews and once wore a crown proclaiming himself as “the king of wrestling.”
“I can relate to when you’re thinking you’re so macho and you’re the biggest thing around, and the Lord takes charge of your life,” he says. “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.
“I’ve been saved about 16 years. I thank God. That’s the best thing that ever happened to me in my life. The second best was meeting my wife.”
Ladd, who lives in Franklin, La., has 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’s work takes him on the road a couple of days a week, but it’s a far cry from the grueling grind he was used to on the wrestling circuit.
“There was a lot of wear and tear from restling,” says Ladd. “Nowadays I play dominoes, play chess, stay home. Church is first. That’s the bottom line. My best thing I can do now is raise my hand to the Lord.”
Ladd has been retired since 1984. He’s not involved in the business at all and rarely watches wrestling on television. He was inducted into the WWF Hall of Fame two years ago.
“I thought it (the induction) was great. Vince (McMahon) is the greatest wrestling promoter who ever lived. I worked for his dad. Vince knows a great deal about marketing. That’s what the business is today. He’s made more money for wrestlers than any promoter ever.”
Ladd talks little about his illustrious wrestling career, but admits he has fond memories of a sport which afforded him the opportunity to travel the world and work with some of the top names in the business.
“I had great times with Ron Pritchard of the Houston Oilers and Cincinnati Bengals,” says Ladd. “Guys like Johnny Valentine, Boris Malenko, Dick Beyer (The Destroyer). I watched the great talents work. Those were the great moments for me. I have very fond memories of matches with guys like Fritz Von Erich in St. Louis. It was great to watch a young talent like Ric Flair grow
to watch him in his early stages going to the gym to train and work out. He had a loud mouth, but he was a hard worker. And it paid off for him. A guy like Johnny Weaver might not have gotten the recognition he should have gotten, but he was a great piece of talent. I will always have memories of Johnny’s wife Penny Banner. She was a great athlete and the greatest female wrestler I ever saw in my life.”
Ladd’s has simple advice for those wishing to pursue a career in pro wrestling:
“Learn your trade. Don’t go out there and get a crazy haircut and a slick pair of duds and look the part but not be able to work the part. The first thing is to put Christ in your life. If you don’t put Christ in your life, nothing else matters. Nothing else matters.”
What advice would he give fellow football legend O.J. Simpson?
“I don’t know what happened, but I do know this much. The Lord knows. O.J. can lie to the people on earth, or tell the truth to the people on earth. But he has to make sure his life is right with God, not so much with man. I’m not a judge. I don’t have the right to judge. When I start judging, I can play God almighty. I don’t think I could play that role very well.”