Remembering Ernie “The Big Cat” Ladd 1938-2007

By Jerry Magee
Updated: March 15, 2007

SAN DIEGO — Ernie Ladd, the 6-foot-9, 325-pound colossus of the Chargers’ defensive line of the early 1960s, died Sunday in Franklin, La., where he was serving as a pastor. He was 68.

His death was attributed to cancer, which he had been battling since 2004. The cancer first was detected in his colon and then spread to his stomach and bones, according to his widow, Roslyn.

Ladd played for the Chargers from 1961-65. With the late Ron Nery, Earl Faison and Richard Hudson, he was a member of what was known as the team’s “Fearsome Foursome” defensive front. Ladd, indeed, could be fearsome, including vocally.

“He was second to none,” said Paul Lowe, a Chargers contemporary as the club’s stellar running back. “No one could block him when he wanted to really play, and he was a motivator for the defense. He would growl at you and talk bad to you. That was ‘Red.’ That was his nickname to us.”

His football and subsequent wrestling careers concluding, Ladd became active in Republican politics. “He was with me on every campaign I ever ran,” said Jack Kemp. “He was a dear, dear personal friend. A wonderful man.”

Kemp, the Chargers’ quarterback during the team’s first season in San Diego in 1961 and later a congressman from a Buffalo, N.Y., district and a vice presidential candidate, said he has advised President Bush of Ladd’s death and that Bush intends to send a letter to Ladd’s widow.

Kemp, in Vail, Colo., said he plans to attend Ladd’s funeral Saturday in Franklin.

When he was in Congress, Kemp said he had a picture in his office of Ladd when he was playing for the Chargers and Kemp was the quarterback of the Buffalo Bills. “All 6-foot-9 of Ernie, and he is about to land all of it on a Jack Kemp who is wearing no thigh pads and no knee pads,” said Kemp.

Kemp’s intention, he said, is to present this picture to Ladd’s widow at the funeral. Kemp remembered that Ladd accompanied him on a flight to New Orleans when Kemp was campaigning for the vice presidency.

Normally, Kemp said, members of the press and others accompanying a political candidate would debark from a plane through the rear, which would leave the candidate and his family to leave from the front.

On this flight, though, Kemp said he invited Ladd to join him in leaving from the front of the plane. “The next morning, very early, Ernie was at my door,” Kemp said, “and he had a tear in his eye.”

“The New Orleans newspaper had published his picture with my wife and me. He said it was the first time he had been pictured with a candidate. For me, it was a striking moment.”

For all his ferocity, Ladd in his time with the Chargers delighted in playing games. Chess was among his favorites. Playing, he would loom up over the board, seeking to intimidate the other player, which for him was not difficult. He had a 52-inch chest, a 19-inch neck, 20-inch biceps and wore size-18D shoes.

Ladd four times was an American Football League all-star, from 1962-65. This, though when he was on the field, he had a tether attached to one of his arms that made it impossible for him to extend his arm fully.

Even with this handicap, he was a powerful pass rusher who would pick up a rival center and cast him aside, then wade through anybody else attempting to impede him.

The Chargers chose Ladd, then attending Grambling, in the 15th round of the AFL’s 1961 draft as a “future” – a player with remaining eligibility. Ladd later would contend that he was kidnapped, that representatives of the team transported him to Southern California on a private plane and signed him for considerably less than he merited.

Ladd played for the Houston Oilers in 1966-67 and for the Kansas City Chiefs in 1967-68.

In 1961, Ladd had agreed as a publicity stunt to participate in a wrestling show in Los Angeles. His appearance was so well-received that his football career concluding, he began wrestling professionally. He took the role of a bad guy and became a hated figure on the wrestling circuit.

Ladd had many matches against wrestling champions Bruno Samartino, Pedro Morales and Bob Backlund and opposed Andre the Giant, whom Ladd referred to as “Andre the Dummy.”

Ladd retired as a wrestler in 1986. He subsequently was voted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.

Funeral arrangements are pending, according to Ladd’s widow.