If you knew “The Big Cat,” who died at 68 in March of 2006 after a nearly four-year battle with cancer, then you knew that everybody — and I do mean, everybody — knew Ernie Ladd, too.
Old and young, black and white, presidents and quarterbacks, professors and machinists.
Ladd was, after all, one of the most famous Grambling products ever – with a level of fame matched or bested only by his former coach Eddie Robinson and Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams.
This was a guy who helped the Tigers to their first-ever Southwestern Athletic Conference title in 1960 under Robinson, earning first-team all-SWAC honors the same season, then became only the fourth GSU product to be drafted into the pros — helping shove the door open for dozens and dozens more who would follow.
He was just getting started.
Ladd later played a key role in an American Football League title with the Chargers, was elected to four straight AFL All-Star Games from 1962-1965, appeared 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 as well as induction in the AFL, World Westling Entertainment, San Diego and Louisiana Sports halls of fame.
A man as big as the world, Ladd actually belonged to it, too. His was an outsized character so large too that it still demands a brush stroke just as wide.
At one legendary AFL press junket, the 6-9 Ladd consumed — in order — two shrimp cocktails, three dishes of cole slaw, three servings of spinach, three baked potatoes, eight rolls and a half pound of butter, four 16-ounce steaks, three desserts and washed it down with a half gallon of milk.
Later asked if there was any food he didn’t like, Ladd thought for nearly five minutes before answering: “Squash.”
The Chargers said at the time that it cost the club $50 a day (big money in the early 1960s) to keep Ladd sated while on the road.
He fought cancer — first in his colon, then later in his stomach and bones — with the same ferocious attitude.
“The doctor told me I had three-to-six months to live,” Ladd, then at the mid-way point in his struggle with the disease, said in a 2005 interview with TheDerisoReport.com. “I told him Dr. Jesus has the verdict on me.”
In the end, I’d call Ladd the iconoclast’s iconoclast.
A fierce, even brutal football competitor who used to answer his phone by saying “Jesus loves you!” 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 ministered to prison inmates and Katrina evacuees, but had played a stereotypical towering black villain in the ring. A Republican when that might have fit neither the Grambling ror wrestling demographics.
He was all of that, and more: “A great, great human being — beyond the football and the wrestling,” as former longtime Grambling baseball coach Wilbert Ellis rightly noted.
Ladd’s love for his alma mater, through it all, stretched longer than his own considerable shadow: “Ladd had such a varied career after he left Grambling, but yet Grambling was always foremost in his thoughts and actions,” former GSU football assistant Doug Porter told me. “When I worked there, he always came back every year to work (as a volunteer coach) with the team. ‘Mr. Grambling’ was a way to describe him.”
Ladd’s was a personality that wasn’t just out-of-the-box. It was too expansive, 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 AFL 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 would say. “I have a lot of respect for them. They’re all good friends.”
He was a bit of a riddle, 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 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.”
The younger Bush, I learned, had installed Ladd as a special deputy to his inaugural committee. Ladd then advised George H.W. Bush’s administration on diversity issues.
And “The Big Cat” had done it all, one imagined, with his thumb bandaged up.
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For more on the Grambling Legends’ Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, to be held July 18 at the Civic Center in Monroe, visit http://www.gramlingsportshof.com.