Facing Ernie Ladd was a fearsome experience and an onerous task best described by six-time All-AFL center Jon Morris, who too often had to wrestle with Ladd when he was one of the most dominating defensive tackles in professional football.
“It was dark,’’ Morris once said about facing Ladd. “I couldn’t see the linebackers. I couldn’t see the goalposts. It was like being locked in a closet.”
At 6-foot-4, 242 pounds, Morris was no midget. He was also no match for the 6-foot-9 ¾, 300-pound Ladd, who possessed not only remarkable size but quickness so unusual he was nicknamed “The Big Cat.”
Ladd was literally kidnapped by the AFL’s San Diego Chargers in 1961 after both they and the NFL’s Chicago Bears drafted him out of Grambling. Bears’ owner George Halas told Ladd he should consider it an honor to play in the NFL. He then offered him $2,500 less than the Chargers to play in the upstart AFL, which in 1961 was in its second season.
San Diego decided to take no chances that the added money was enough to sign Ladd. They invited him to a game and then put him on a plane and flew him to the West Coast. He didn’t leave for five years, teaming with Earl Faison, Bill Hudson and Ron Nery to form the original “Fearsome Foursome” defensive line.
Ladd was named All-AFL three times and an AFL All-Star four straight season (1962-1965). What is odd about that is that in 1961, his rookie season, he was named All-AFL but not an AFL All-Star (which was akin to making the NFL’s Pro Bowl). Go figure.
With Ladd and Faison anchoring one of the most overpowering pass rushes in pro football, the Chargers reached the AFL championship game four times in his five seasons in San Diego, winning the title in 1963. During that stretch Ladd once claimed he saw the greatest lineman in football. He said it in his own unique way.
“Earl was the greatest defensive lineman I ever saw… because I never saw myself,” Ladd joked. Not many would have argued with him, including his friend Faison.
Despite his ability and production, Ladd was often in conflict with head coach Sid Gillman, who also served as the team’s general manager and contract negotiator. Gillman treated the team’s budget as if the money was coming out of his own pocket, a circumstance that following the 1965 season led Ladd and Faison to threaten to play out their options and become free agents by accepting 10 per cent pay cuts and refusing to sign extensions.
Gillman tried to trade them to the Houston Oilers but AFL commissioner Joe Foss nullified the trade, claiming Gillman had acted illegally. Ladd ended up signing a two-year deal with the Oilers and then moved on to Kansas City, where he would form what was then the largest defensive tackle-tandem in pro football history alongside 6-foot-7, 286-pound Buck Buchanan.
The Big Cat left pro football following the 1968 season despite never having missed a game. Ladd played in 112 consecutive games between his 1961 rookie season and his retirement from the Chiefs, hanging up his cleats in part because of a balky knee but primarily because he could make more money as a professional wrestler than as a pro football player.
Ladd’s career in wrestling led him to become one of the first African-American wrestling “heels,” a bad guy in a sport that paid its bad guys well. He wrestled for nearly 20 years and ended up in the WWF Hall of Fame. He is also in the Chargers Hall of Fame and the Grambling University Hall of Fame.
Does his dominating five years at the center of the original Fearsome Foursome warrant a bust in Canton, too? It’s certainly worth debating The Big Cat’s credentials because for more than half his professional football career Ernie Ladd was not only the biggest but one of the best pass rushers in pro football.