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 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. 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, 59, 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 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 Alworrth, 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 U.S.," 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 that I had ever made as a football player. I made over a hundred thousand dollars every year."
Ladd met his wife, Roslyn, 59, years ago when both were attending Grambling. They have four children - ages 35, 27, 25, 24.
"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. "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.