It almost didn’t happen. All the honor and fame and glory bestowed on Ernie Ladd during his career on the gridiron and in the ring almost went up in a puff of smoke early in his football career.

Ladd was having one of his frequent spats with the San Diego Chargers’ front office in the early 1960s, even before started wrestling seriously, and he was ready to bag the whole endeavor. His wife, Roslyn, had a good job, and if the Chargers of the old American Football League were not going to treat him with due respect, he’d use that fine Grambling College education in some other form.

“The Big Cat” Ernie Ladd. Photo by Terry Dart

“I was serious,” he said in an interview with SLAM! Wrestling in 2006. “I had other things that I could do. To me, it was a matter of principle and a matter of the proper way in which someone should be treated.”

Ladd and the Chargers eventually reached an uneasy accommodation — he later played out his option to jump to the Houston Oilers and Kansas City Chiefs and never had much love for the San Diego brass that chose him in the 15th round of the 1961 college draft.

But in understanding the phenomenon that was “The Big Cat,” the incident speaks volumes. Ladd was a proud man from humble beginnings, not afraid in the least to stay up for what he believed was right, whether it instigating a walkout of an AFL all-star game because of racial injustice, or pulling rank on mat promoters who salivated for his services.

“At first, I disliked him strongly, enough that I wanted to beat the heck out of him,” said Johnny Powers, who had a memorable feud with Ladd in promoter Pedro Martinez’ National Wrestling Federation in the early 1970s. “But Pedro said, ‘We making money?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Don’t hit him, then, with the bat.’ I ended up totally respecting him because he was very unique, very creative, would give to the business and would put people over. He actually had his ego under management very well.”

Born in Rayville, Louisiana, in 1938, and raised in Orange, Texas, Ladd was a football and basketball star in high school. At 6-9 and 300 pounds, he was simply bigger and quicker than anyone of his era, earning the nickname “Little Samson.” As a star for the Chargers, “he was so big and strong, he didn’t have to be mean,” Buffalo Bills guard Billy Shaw said in Jeff Miller’s AFL remembrance, Going Long. “I’m 6-foot-3, but Ladd is 6-foot-fantastic,” sportswriter Kent Nixon once famously cracked.

The league hastily arranged a substitute game in Houston, but Ladd had become known for his willingness to take a stand. When AFL officials pressured Ladd to cut off his trademark goatee, you had another case of respect splashed across the sports pages. “I was going to cut it off a long time ago, but when they started talking about it, and ordered me to take it off, I purposely didn’t,” he told the Associated Press in 1966. “I could care less. The commissioner can’t tell me how to do my face.” Ladd played in four AFL All-Star games, though a series of devastating knee injuries dating back to his college days probably prevented him from becoming as dominant as he might have been. But his biggest all-star role came after the 1964 season, when he couldn’t even get a cab ride during the all-star game prelude in New Orleans. After talking with other discrimination victims, Ladd explained of the decision of 22 black players, “We chose to go.”

Yet, as Powers suggested, Ladd was more measured than militant, and he exemplified that in his wrestling career, launched during his tenure with the Chargers after the 1961 season with Fred Blassie’s help. His close friend Bill Watts recounted a time in the mid-1960s when he and Ladd were in the World Wide Wrestling Federation, and Don McClarity, Watts’ tag team partner, aimed a series of racial taunts at Ladd, then a fan favorite.

Ernie Ladd plays poker backstage in 1971. Photo by Mike Lano,

As Watts recalled McClarity’s words: “‘I want you to tell you one thing, to me you’re a nigger, you’re still a nigger and you’ll always be a nigger.” Ladd’s reaction? To pay no mind and continue a card game with Bobo Brazil. “In my mind, in my heart of hearts back then, in my total ignorance of the situation and the times, I thought, ‘Gee, Ernie, you’re not too tough,'” Watts said. “I didn’t realize that it took so much more courage on his part just to take that, to sit there at the table and continue playing cards with Bobo.”

Ladd entered the business full-time in 1969 after his knees gave out — he missed out on the Chiefs’ win in Super Bowl IV. His great motivation was still to make a good living for his wife and family and he never regretted it. “This is a great business. You can earn a fantastic dollar in it. And because you can, and I have, it’s made me a complete man. Football isn’t like that. The money is just fair, and for six months out of the year, you’re not your own man,” he said, though acknowledging he’d be worth a lot more in today’s NFL.

Still, you never found Ladd taking wild broadsides at football — after all, it was his gateway to the manic world of wrestling. “The value of playing professional sports is what you can do after,” he said. “Pro sports should be a steppingstone to security, a better job. I have the greatest admiration for someone who does that.”

Ernie Ladd. Photo by Steven Johnson

Though he initially worked mostly as a good guy — Cowboy Bob Kelly booked him as the first black man to wrestle white man in a tag bout in Louisiana — Ladd always credited Martinez with allowing him to use his monstrous size as a heel. “That’s where the money was,” he said. An attraction from coast to coast in the 1970s, Ladd had huge runs in Japan, California, Indiana, Georgia, the Northeast, the Buffalo-Cleveland territory, Florida, and the Mid-South area around his adopted home of Franklin, La. He held more than two dozen titles, including the NWF World title, the Southern title, the Florida belt, and assorted tag championships. Less important than gold, though, was his role as a unique ex-football crossover star who could put fannies in the seats.

“He always called me ‘Ace.’ He dressed the part and he had everything going for him. He was really the first big man in the business,” said manager Bobby Heenan, who worked with him a lot in Dick the Bruiser’s Indianapolis-area promotion.

Jake “The Snake” Roberts knew him well toward the end of Ladd’s run in the Mid-South promotion in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and was entranced with the way such a big man could plead for mercy as a way of incensing a crowd. “The Cat, he was too much, man. I got him at the end of his career. But still, he had that sneaky … I mean it’s hard not to hate a big man that begs off. ‘You big, sorry, @&%*, how dare you beg off, after you just kicked the @&%* out of this guy for 20 minutes. Now that the tables are turned, you beg and ask for mercy?’ God, you’ve got to hate that guy. How could you not? Everyone in the building wanted to kill that bastard.”

As a wrestler, Ladd was never considered a great and fluid worker, but he never pretended that was his strength. A nonstop talker, he invariably referred to microphone holders as “Mr. TV Announcer,” and launched his verbal bombs regardless of race, color, or creed. “He was not seen as black. He was seen as Ernie Ladd,” said Tony Atlas, whom Ladd helped bring into the WWF. The Cat demeaned every aspect of what he called Dominic Denucci’s “spaghetti-bending” Italian heritage, though he said Denucci was probably his favorite opponent. He did most of his damage with a taped thumb he lifted from Luke Graham, his massive boots — billed as size 18 — and his ability to sell even to smaller opponents. Powers called him “maybe the smartest heel,” in the sense that he mastered a sport that did not come naturally to him.

“He was a smart man. He’d on the mat thinking right there, adjusting,” Powers said. “Some people are naturally weird … like [Abdullah the] Butcher is, kind of, and Sheik was and all that. Ladd was thought-out weird. In other words, he thought it out first and then executed. In my opinion, that’s tougher to do than if it’s naturally you.” Case in point — to convince Los Angeles fans that diminutive Ruben Juarez was his equal, he popped Alka-Seltzer tablets into his mouth before a fracas to convince fans Juarez had so battered him that he was foaming at the mouth.

Ladd at the 2005 Cauliflower Alley Club reunion.

Sir Oliver Humperdink managed Ladd in Florida on several occasions during the ’70s and visited again with him at the 2005 Cauliflower Alley Club reunion. Humperdink called his old friend “a manager’s dream.”

“By that, I mean he could talk on promos, and I never had to worry about his performance in the ring. I could go out there and do my thing knowing that Big Cat was doing his. Sometimes a manager had to worry about his protégé ‘hitting all his marks.’ Not so with Ernie,” said Humperdink. “I don’t know anyone who didn’t love Ernie … It was a pure pleasure to accompany him into battle. I will miss him greatly.”

In addition to being the first truly nationally recognized black heel, Ladd became the first man of color to walk into a front office as a booker working for Watts and Carolina promoter Jim Crockett. “I broke a lot of color barriers, particularly in the Deep South,” he said. “It was important to end that injustice so other wrestlers could come in and earn a livelihood.”

In recent years, Ladd continued his work with a variety of charitable causes and his beloved Grambling. He also had a close relationship with former president George H.W. Bush, the product of a meeting 40 years ago when Bush was trying to round up support for a U.S. Senate bid. In 2005, he accompanied Bush on a visit to see victims of Hurricane Katrina.

A member of the WWE Hall of Fame, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, and the San Diego Hall of Champions, Ladd was beset by colon cancer during the winter of 2003-04. But, displaying both the faith and the conviction for which he was so well known, he refused to meet his maker on anything other than his own terms. “The doctor told me I had three to six months to live,” he told SLAM! Wrestling in a 2004 interview. “I told the doctor that he’s a liar and that Dr. Jesus has got the verdict on me! I also told him, ‘You’re working with a miracle when you work with me.'”

His condition worsened in recent months and his last major appearance was at promoter Greg Price’s fan festival in Rockville, Md., last August, when friends were disturbed at his loss of weight and mobility.

“‘The Big Cat’ answered my first phone call with ‘Jesus Loves You,’ which I’d later discover was his standard telephone greeting instead of ‘Hello.’ In my phone conversations that followed, I would have never known that he was losing his battle with cancer. He was always very positive and upbeat,” said Price, who said his time with Ladd created memories for a lifetime.

Ladd had been booked to appear at a fan show in New Jersey next month, but his family reported that the cancer, which had spread to his bones, claimed him overnight on March 10. Pedro Martinez’ son Ron, a booker and announcer who also worked with Ladd in the International Wrestling Association, called his passing “a tremendous loss for both the wrestling business and for his family as well. He was a true prince of the business. I am sure that he and my father are shooting the breeze in the dressing room right next to heaven.”

He is survived by his wife of more than 45 years, Roslyn, and four children. Funeral arrangements were pending.