Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd, who passed on this date back in 2007, helped Grambling to its initial SWAC crown, saw his Tigers win nine of 10 games as a senior, was recognized with induction into the old AFL Hall of Fame, and earned similar recognition in his subsequent career as a wrestler.
But a character so large as the late Ladd, former longtime Grambling baseball coach Wilbert Ellis has rightly noted, demands a larger brush stroke. Ladd, Ellis once said, was “a great, great human being — beyond the football and the wrestling.”
He was. I’d call Ladd the iconoclast’s iconoclast.
Ernie Ladd was a fierce, even brutal football competitor who used to answer his phone by saying “Jesus loves you!” Also, a bone-deep team player who once staged a walkout among blacks at the 1965 AFL All-Star game after they endured a few days of pre-game racial bias in the city of New Orleans.
A loving man who played a stereotypical towering black villain in the ring. A Republican when that might have fit neither the Grambling or wrestling demographic.
Ernie Ladd’s was a personality that wasn’t just out-of-the-box. It was too big, like Ladd himself, for a box of any kind.
For some, his involvement with national conservative politics, campaigning for George H.W. Bush – whose secret personal cell number Ladd carried around on a tattered piece of paper – might be the most surprising.
Ladd then supported George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in a celebrated talk at the 2000 convention.
Ladd would tell you that they went way back, and they did: Ladd first worked with W. in the 1960s at a non-profit effort by fellow Oilers alum John L. White called Project P.U.L.L., or Professionals United for Leadership League. The mentoring program for underprivileged kids ministered to the poorest neighborhoods of Houston.
“I’m a strong fan of the Bush family,” Ladd often said. “I have a lot of respect for them. They’re all good friends.”
The younger Bush installed Ladd as a special deputy to his inaugural committee. Ladd then advised the subsequent Bush administration on diversity issues.
And Ladd did it all, one imagined, with his thumb bandaged up.
He was a character, never completely knowable and always engaging.
When that cell number for Bush Senior fell out of Ladd’s briefcase a few years ago, I didn’t immediately put the Grambling product’s next comment in context. Misjudging something he said about “the president,” I figured Ladd was talking about Horace Judson, the then-newly elected leader at Grambling.
“No,” Ladd helpfully reminded, “THE president.”
You never knew with Ernie Ladd. That was the best thing about him.
I’m not saying I wasn’t aware that Ladd’s fame almost equalled his towering, nearly seven-foot height.
If you knew Ladd, you knew that everybody – and I do mean, everybody – knew Ladd, too. Old and young, black and white, presidents and quarterbacks, professors and machinists.
It was no surprise, then, that Web sites devoted to his former teams — GoGrambling.com, Chargers.com and ChiefsPlanet.com — were hot spots in the immediate aftermath of his 2007 death for talk on Ladd’s legacy and his humor. So were forums devoted to his second career, too, like OldSchool-Wrestling.com.
Ladd was, after all, one of a trio of the most very famous Grambling products ever — along with his former coach Eddie Robinson and Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams.
What was nice was seeing the international community rally around the Big Cat’s memory, too. That provided a welcome jolt for locals more used to talking about Ladd’s contributions to GSU’s first-ever 1960 Southwestern Athletic Conference football title than his later exploits away from home.
Ladd’s passing attracted tributes from Germany (“Dass ‘Big Cat’ Ernie Ladd im Alter von 68 Jahren verstorben ist. Dies sind die Folgen seines Jahre langen Kampfes gegen den Krebs”) as well as from France, and even an Asian site called TeaCup.com that crashed my computer.
Somehow Ernie Ladd’s familiar bio sounds even more impressive (if that’s possible) when it’s said like this: Apres une belle carriere dans les rangs collegiaux ou’ il avait aide’ l’universite’ de Grambling a remporter le championnat de la conference sud-est, il a aide’ les Chargers a remporter le championnat de l’AFL en 1963. Il e’tait avec les Chiefs quand ils ont atteint le Super Bowl en 1967 et 1970.
A man as big as the world, Ladd actually belonged to it, too.
Later in 2007, San Diego paid tribute to Ladd before a regular-season NFL game against Oakland.
I’m still waiting for Grambling to do the same.
Ladd died at 68 in March of ’07 after a three-year battle with cancer, marking the second in what would be a trio of staggering losses for the Grambling family over just nine months: Collie J. Nicholson passed in the fall of 2006, then Eddie Robinson the following spring.
Robinson and Nicholson have received appropriate local memorials, including the official renaming of the stadium press box for Collie J., a jersey patch for Coach Rob and tastefully done layouts dedicated to each in subsequent Grambling football media guides.
Nowhere, however, is there mention of “The Big Cat,” later known as a professional wrestler and then as a pastor.
It’s a shame.
Ladd was there was Grambling established itself as the SWAC’s most dominant football team (the program has won a league-leading 21 subsequent championships), then he became just the fourth GSU product to be drafted into the pros — helping shove the door open for dozens and dozens more who would follow.
He later played a key role in an American Football League title with the Chargers, was on the Kansas City team that won a Super Bowl after the merger and then helped popularize grappling in the 1970s. That led to sweeping recognition the world over — and induction into the AFL, World Westling Entertainment, San Diego and Louisiana Sports halls of fame.
I wish he was still that famous back home.