Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Grambling greats: Ernie Ladd


Monday, May 23, 2005

This story, unusual in that I've got Ernie Ladd in my old Volks, won first place in the 2006 Louisiana Sports Writers Association contest for pro sports features.

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — He still blocks out the sun.

Yes, Ernie Ladd, the former Grambling great, is every bit of 6-9 — unbowed by age, a damaging career in football and wrestling, even colon cancer.

He smiles wide and then folds himself into my Beetle, and without complaint.

"I find Volkswagens," says the always-literate Ladd, "to be surprisingly spacious."

Still, German engineering, it's safe to say, couldn't have accounted for passengers like the Big Cat — who one former competitor once said was so enormous that "it was dark. I couldn't see the linebackers. I couldn't see the goalposts."

I can't see the side mirror.

Crossed over a 52-inch chest are 20-inch biceps, with similarly proportioned calves leading to size 18D shoes. Ladd's knees, crisscrossed by surgery scars, push high against the dashboard, like a parenthesis around his face.

Yet, he couldn't be more animated, as the mileposts shotgun by.

"I'm committed to Grambling, to the new president," Ladd says. "And not just in words, but also in deed. When it comes to supporting this school, I will attack it like a hungry wolf."

We're on the way to the town where he played college ball for Eddie Robinson. And Ladd is on a roll, riffing like a jazz musician in spurts then floods of enthusiasm and intellect.

He had been, really, from the start: "You're not asleep, are you?" Ladd bellowed, cold-calling my cell phone at 10:30 a.m. last Monday, while I sat waiting for the first group to make the turn at Doug Pederson's Celebrity Gold Tournament in nearby Choudrant.

I laughed, not the first time that day.

"Ernie Ladd," he exclaimed, "is on his way!"

When he gets out, the passenger seat is so far back that my 3-year-old would have had to cross his legs in the back.

Large and in charge
That sturdy frame propelled Ernie "Big Cat" Ladd into the old American Football League and later to wrestling. More importantly, and this is how Ladd got that timeless nickname, he was just lickety-split quick.

"The first year he was here, he taught me a lesson," Robinson once said. "He told me how good he was. Sure, I'd say. Then he hurt somebody. I'd feel sorry for the people he was tackling."

Given the chance to talk about all of that, however, Ladd prefers to focus on the here and now.
He's ready to push, he says, for school president Horace Judson with the same insistence that earned Ladd first-team all-conference honors in 1960 as a Grambling defensive tackle.

"I believe you can work with him," says Ladd, who met Judson in person for the first time the Friday before Pederson's event. "The new president wants to establish a new identity for Grambling. I'm impressed with his master plan. If you don't know about those plans, don't criticize."

Ladd's support for Judson, who took over a year ago this summer, is all the more notable because of what came before.

Ladd spoke with emotion and candor during the presidential search at GSU. Judson was not his candidate.

Too, Ladd has been noticeably absent from Grambling fund-raising for years, a signature alum who spoke often about GSU but clearly didn't feel comfortable with the direction that the institution was headed in the years leading up to Judson's appointment.

No more.

"My president," Ladd says, with typical candor, "was not my first choice. But I was impressed with him and his vision for my school. I didn't know anything about him — and I was concerned. But I had the chance to visit, and we talked about our school. He impressed me very, very much."

Ladd intends to meet again with school leaders, after working to align donors and possible grant money. He plans, Ladd loudly insists, to be relentless.

All that was missing was a wag of his infamous taped thumb.

Legacy to match stature
Ron Mix, a Pro Football Hall of Famer as an offensive lineman with San Diego Chargers and then the Oakland Raiders, also had a memorable quip about Ladd: "He wasn't a fat big, he was just big big."

Still is. A scary truth writ large this week was that Ladd is more massive, even, than any member of the current line at Grambling.

Ladd actually got bigger, at least in pop culture, when he left football.

But first came a stellar career with San Diego, after being selected 15th in the AFL draft. Ladd would appear in three of the league's championship games, winning the 1963 title.

Ladd remembers those Chargers teams for their football prowess, but also for their groundbreaking sensibility.

"We were like a family," he says. "We were one of the first integrated teams, with black players and white players as roommates."

Elected to four straight AFL All-Star Games from 1962-1965, he later played with the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Oilers. While with the Chiefs, he reunited with Junious "Buck" Buchanan, another legendary fellow Gramblinite.

An amazing quickness to match that big-bigness earned him the nickname "The Cat" — then, more appropriately, "The Big Cat." That would perhaps serve him even better in pro wrestling.

Surgery again sidelined Ladd during the 1969 season, even as the Chiefs ultimately defeated the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl. Buy then Ladd had already plotted his next move: He'd begun wrestling as a sideline during his rookie season, and found the payday and fame so alluring that he was ready to give up pro football.

Ladd's storylines resonated during wrestling's earliest flowering as a national attraction, not to mention signature moves that included the "guillotine drop" and a boot to the face. Rivalries with Andre the Giant and Dusty Rhodes helped shape wrestling's 1970s persona.

Today, he's the only person in both the American Football League and World Wrestling Federation halls of fame. Ladd is also a 1994 inductee into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, and joined the San Diego Hall of Champions last year.

Even so, a warm welcome in Long-Jones Hall, home to most of Grambling's administrators, seems more important to him. He keeps coming around to that.

The Big Cat's full weight
Ladd's knees are so damaged — his first surgery came while still in college — that he walks down long staircases backward. I offered to carry Ladd's briefcase, which I put behind my seat. It wouldn't fit on the Big Cat's side.

Inside are scrawled numbers for the nation's most important powerbrokers — and a warm bottle of cola, since cold drinks have begun to bother Ladd since he started radiation treatment. The resulting disorientation is also why Ladd doesn't drive.

He often mentions the Bush family, with whom he has been a friend since the 1960s — campaigning for a father and son who would both sit in the oval office.

At one point, Ladd references the president, and I mistake that for GSU's Judson.
"No," Ladd says, with a twinkle in his eye. "THE president."

Ladd first worked with George W. Bush in the 1960s at a non-profit effort by fellow Oilers alum John L. White's 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.

Bush has since installed Ladd as a special deputy to his inaugural committee and Ladd has advised the administration on diversity issues.

That influence as political insider, along with Ladd's universal profile and tireless drive, are all sorely needed for a school still emerging from the swirling catastrophe of accounting irregularities and accreditation questions.

"I know the right people in the right places," says Ladd. "The first thing we've got to do is stop criticizing and start uniting. I don't care who your favorite was, that candidate is not our president now. You may not agree with everything the new president does, but he's got good ideas."

An abiding faith
I've followed along as the Big Cat has chatted up Brett Favre at a golf tournament, signed dozens of autographs, dropped in on friends both old and new, surveyed his alma mater — sharply criticizing an obviously overflowing dumpster — and called countless friends to visit.

I keep saying to myself: The man has cancer.

"I'm taking chemo right now," he admits, "but you wouldn't know it."

Ladd's intention concerning the disease — about being listed, quite literally, at one point as day-to-day — is to stare it down. Ladd has steadfastly insisted that his religion spurred an undiagnosed recovery.

That spot was found more than a year ago on his colon. Further tests showed the cancer had spread through his stomach and into his bones.

They called Ladd terminal, but he called their bluff.

"The doctor told me I had three-to-six months to live," Ladd says. "I told him Dr. Jesus has the verdict on me."

This born-again Christian, a father of four and grandfather to another 13, then roars with laughter once more.

He also answers his phone, time and time again while I drive, by saying "Jesus Loves You." He means it.

"I'm here right now because of my faith," says Ladd, a pastor in his current hometown of Franklin. "The Lord comes first in my life. I trust God."

Old friends, new connections
Ladd won't leave without stopping in to see GSU basketball coach Larry Wright — perhaps a surprise to football fans.

Yet Ladd references a "frustrated passion" for basketball, and old heads remember his skill on the court — as well as his role in recruiting a young Wright to play for the late hoops legend Fred Hobdy at Grambling.

Ladd and Wright don't talk basketball, though. Or even football.

They talk about fishing.

All the while, Ladd continues to take a series of calls where he sets up a domino game in Monroe, each time offering to "give you your medicine tonight."

Wright laughs loudly, then adds: "The doctor is in."

Born Nov. 28, 1938, in Rayville — but raised in Orange, Texas — Ladd was, even as a kid, an astonishing athlete. Ladd lettered in both prep football and basketball — and, ironically enough, was brought in to Grambling on a basketball scholarship.

His life was forever transformed, both by the tutelage of Robinson and his serendipitous meeting of future wife Roslyn while at Grambling.

"I've enjoyed 44 years of marriage," Ladd says, "and watched my children grow up. All my children went to Grambling. My sister and brother, too."

That gets him to thinking: "We need to start sending our kids," Ladd says firmly, "to Grambling."

Throughout the day, he often touches upon this idea of a new tradition. He notes that the school's most important architects — people like Charles Adams, Robinson and R.W.E. Jones — came from elsewhere.

"Those are names that are synonymous with greatness," says Ladd. President Judson "doesn't have to be from Grambling to know about our heritage. ... We need to create a new legacy, and we can do that with this new president."

By then clutching one enormous paw for emphasis, Ladd finishes: "If each and every Gramblinite lets bygones be bygones, we could make this thing work."

Ladd, the once and future big man on campus, seems intent on making that happen.

Yes, Ernie Ladd is on his way.

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Grambling State legend Ernie Ladd passes away from cancer at age 68
March 12, 2007

By Nick Deriso
GRAMBLING — Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd, remembered as both literally and figuratively larger than life, died Saturday night after a long bout with cancer. The former football and wrestling star was 68.

“It’s a personal loss not just to our family, but to the whole community,” said Eddie Robinson Jr., whose ailing father coached Ladd at Grambling State. “I was fortunate enough to be in high school when he was here, so my football heroes growing up were people like Ernie Ladd.”

A talented 6-9 3/4 defender both at GSU and then with the San Diego Chargers, Ladd left the gridiron at age 30 to mount a second career as a well-known villain during wrestling’s earliest days as a national attraction.

His passing was first reported nationally in a copyrighted story published on Sunday at

Born Nov. 28, 1938, in Rayville, but raised in Orange, Texas, he had battled cancer — first in his colon, then later in his stomach and bones — since 2004. Funeral arrangements were still pending on Sunday, according to Roslyn, his wife of more than 45 years.

“I always thought he would beat that thing,” said former Grambling teammate A. Lane Howell, a Monroe native and resident. “He was always the ultimate optimist, a true warrior. He will certainly be missed.”

Ladd, a father of four and grandfather to over a dozen more, remains the only person in both the American Football League and World Wrestling Federation halls of fame. He was also a 1994 inductee into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, recognition for a college career that included 1960 first-team all-conference honors under GSU legend Eddie Robinson.

It was for those local exploits that Ladd was honored over the public-address system during Sunday afternoon’s Grambling baseball game.

“It just brought a shock over the crowd,” said longtime former GSU baseball coach Wilbert “Dean” Ellis. “He loved Grambling. It’s so sad to lose one of our own, one of our greats.”

Ladd once said he never met his biological father until he was 18, and that was during visiting hours at Angola. But Ladd was happily raised, he said, by a loving mother and stepfather in Orange.

Ladd actually played tight end at Wallace High, but that position was never considered once he arrived at GSU — even then, weighing a robust 218. He’d gained 80 pounds by the time he finished school.

“I got too heavy,” Ladd liked to say. “It would look funny, a 300-pound tight end.”

Ladd would become a defensive stalwart on GSU’s first-ever Southwestern Athletic Conference championship football squad.

He then helped form the nucleus of the 1963 AFL championship team at San Diego, which selected him in the 15th round of the ’61 draft.

“We were like a family,” Ladd said in May 2005. “We were one of the first integrated teams, with black players and white players as roommates.”

Ladd — who played pro football at 317 pounds and, in his late 60s, set his “normal weight” at 380 — needed a lot of fuel to keep going. The legend of his appetite casts a shadow almost as long as his own.

“When Ernie was drafted by San Diego, there used to be a place the players passed by each day to go to camp and eat breakfast,” late former GSU sports information director Collie J. Nicholson once told The News-Star. “It was $3 all you can eat. Ladd stopped by a couple of times, and one day the guy who owned the place was standing outside waiting for Ladd. He gave him $5 to go eat somewhere else.”

At one legendary AFL press junket, 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.

The expense, in the end, was worth it: San Diego eventually advanced to four AFL title games in five years with Ladd, and won that ’63 crown by crushing the Boston (later New England) Patriots 51-10. Ladd would play in four straight AFL All-Star games, as well.

Ladd, one of more than 200 of Robinson’s former players to play professional football, was named to the San Diego Hall of Champions in 2004.

He never forgot Grambling, friends say.

“Ladd had such a varied career after he left Grambling, but yet Grambling was always foremost in his thoughts and actions,” said former GSU football assistant Doug Porter. “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.”

Contract disputes eventually led Ladd to sign with Houston, where he played for two seasons, and then with Kansas City — where he reunited with future Pro Football Hall of Famer Junious “Buck” Buchanan, a former Grambling teammate on that 1960 SWAC title team.

When Ladd completed his eight-year pro career, he had played in 112 consecutive AFL games, and appeared on the roster for both Super Bowl I and IV with the Chiefs.

As big as he was, Ladd was known for his cat-like quickness, something that later inspired his lifelong nickname.

Ladd began wrestling as a sideline during his rookie pro season, and found the payday and fame so alluring that he eventually gave up football.

“In what other sport can you pick up a $14 pair of boots, 59-cent socks — spend maybe a total of $50 — and convert it into $100,000 a year, if you are sharp and train?” Ladd would rhetorically ask. “My intention was to go back to football, but pro wrestling was so good to me.”

Ladd’s bad-guy storylines, not to mention signature moves that included the “guillotine drop” and a boot to the face, resonated with the next generation of sports fans. Rivalries with Andre the Giant and Dusty Rhodes helped shape wrestling’s 1970s persona.

Eventually, the battering he took on the field and in the ring began to take its toll.

Ladd’s knees were so damaged — his first surgery came while still in college — that he was eventually forced to walk backward down long staircases.

“He was just some kind of athlete,” Robinson once said of Ladd, noting that he actually came to Grambling to play basketball. “Then he got hurt and had to have a knee operation.”

But Ladd’s boundless spirit was unbowed by his body’s failures. He even displayed a distinctive flair for humor after his cancer diagnosis.

“The doctor told me I had three-to-six months to live,” Ladd said in 2005, then at the mid-way point in his nearly four-year battle with the disease. “I told him Dr. Jesus has the verdict on me.”

Ladd put that faith to work through his final illness, serving as a pastor in the Louisiana town of Franklin. For years, he was also involved in prison ministry work and community service projects, as well as local and national political campaigns.

Ladd even briefly owned a New Orleans restaurant — it was named, memorably, Ernie Ladd’s Big Cat Throw-Down BBQ — and followed that commitment to Houston where, in 2005, he ministered to Katrina evacuees at the Astrodome.

“He had gotten involved in developing communities,” Ellis said. “He represented us well. He made an outstanding contribution to society after his sports exploits.”

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With the 'Big Cat,' you never knew
March 11, 2007

By Nick Deriso
Ernie "Big Cat" Ladd was remembered locally on Sunday for helping Grambling win nine of 10 games as a senior, and as a nephew and teammate of GSU standout Garland Boyette.

But a character so large as the late Ladd, former longtime baseball coach Wilbert Ellis rightly noted, demands a larger brush stroke.

Ladd, he said, was "a great, great human being - beyond the football and the wrestling."

He was. 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 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 current 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.

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A legend in any language
March 12, 2007

By Nick Deriso
I'm not saying we weren't aware that the late Ernie 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 -- including, and -- were hot spots for talk today on Ladd's legacy and his humor. So were forums devoted to his second career, too, like And, of course, Wikipedia.

Some powerful memories -- including remarks from Mid-South Wrestling legend Cowboy Bill Watts -- were sparked on The News-Star's Web site by yesterday's blog, too.

Ladd was, after all, one of America's two best-known Grambling products ever - along with Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams.

What was nice was seeing the international community rally around the Big Cat's memory. That provided a welcome jolt for locals more used to talking about his contributions to GSU's first-ever 1960 SWAC title for Coach Eddie Robinson than Ladd's later exploits away from home.

Ladd's passing attracted tributes from Germany (There, you'll find this update: "So eben meldet, 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 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.

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