Ernie Ladd was dealing the cards in his suite at Houston's Shamrock Hilton Hotel one afternoon last week when he was asked how much he thinks he is worth as a football player. "A million dollars," Ladd replied, goatee wagging. That put Ladd and Sid Gillman, the coach and general manager of the San Diego Chargers, roughly $970,000 apart in their appraisals of the big tackle's value. Although Ladd did not know it at the time, Gillman already had done something to put them even farther apart. He had traded Ladd and Defensive End Earl Faison, both of whom were playing out their options with San Diego, to the Houston Oilers in a move that alarmed many professional football front offices and no doubt inspired a number of veterans to do some careful thinking about their own worth.
That Ladd and Faison had refused to sign new contracts with the Chargers and thus were traded would not have been unusual except for two things: they are superstars of the American Football League, and they had demanded bonuses. Every season dozens of pro football players finish the option year on their contracts and become free agents—legally free to negotiate new contracts with any team in either league. R. C. Owens did it when he moved from San Francisco to Baltimore and Ron Kramer did it when he moved from Green Bay to Detroit. What frightened pro football management, then, was not that Ladd and Faison were lawfully escaping from their San Diego contracts but that they used as their reason the vast sums currently being paid to rookies by both leagues.
If Oiler Owner Bud Adams could offer $887,000 to rookie Donny Anderson—as Adams says he did—Ladd and Faison thought they should earn comparable paychecks. They asked Gillman for bonuses to sign new contracts. Gillman refused. "A bonus is something you should get once, the first time you sign," said Gillman. "If we started giving bonuses to all the veterans, we could be in trouble."
Ladd and Faison would have been given raises of about $5,000 to $8,000 in San Diego, but that did not satisfy them. In Houston they probably will have to settle for a good deal less than $1 million. Adams and his new general manager, the very capable and popular young Don Klosterman, are quite aware that AFL owners—not to mention those in the NFL—feel it would be a dangerous precedent to upgrade veterans, who are simply victims of the times, to the pay scale of rookies.
"If Ladd and Faison get what they want," said one general manager, "every team in both leagues will be full of veterans playing out their options and wanting to bargain." Klosterman admits Ladd and Faison are a test case, but the Oilers found them too tempting to turn down.
On Klosterman's first day as Oiler general manager last week, he was approached by half a dozen members of the AFL All-Star team—in Houston to play the Buffalo Bills in what the AFL now calls the All-Star Bowl—who asked to be traded to the Oilers. "We want to play for the Duke," said one, referring to Klosterman.
Two of those who asked Klosterman to trade for them were Ladd and Faison, who did not know they already had been traded by Gillman the first week in January. When the announcement was made on the public-address system in the fourth quarter of the All-Star Bowl, Faison raised an arm in triumph, Ladd whooped with delight and their teammate, Paul Lowe, slammed down his helmet, kicked a towel and said, "I want to go, too."
Gillman was furious that the announcement was not held up until after the AFL's expansion draft. He accused Bud Adams of tampering and said the reason the Chargers had not been able to sign Ladd and Faison was because Adams had been quoted as saying he would pay them a million dollars to play for him.
"I did not say that, and I would take a lie detector test to prove it," Adams said. "I'd like for Gillman and I both to take lie detector tests, but I'm sure Gillman wouldn't do it. What makes his complaint so ridiculous is that he offered to trade me Ladd and Faison even up for Charlie Hennigan [Oiler flanker] last July and I turned him down. The only time I mentioned money was a few weeks ago when I said I would be willing to put together a package that included George Blanda [quarterback] and $100,000 for Ladd and Faison. But there is no cash involved in this deal."
Several AFL officials believe there must be an under-the-table payment to the Chargers, because trading Ladd and Faison—even in their uncertain condition—for Defensive End Gary Cutsinger, Corner Back Pete Jacquess and Linebacker Johnny Baker makes no sense otherwise. Charger Owner Barron Hilton does not agree that the trade was lopsided. "I never interfere with Sid's decisions on personnel," said Hilton. "He felt this was best for our team, trading two players who had a bad attitude toward us for three who can help us." The Chargers will keep the three whether or not Klosterman can persuade Ladd and Faison to sign.
Ladd and Faison are not yet free agents and will not be until their San Diego contracts expire on May 1. "On May 1, if they haven't signed with Houston by then, these birds will be free to deal with either league," said AFL Commissioner Joe Foss. "Contrary to what most people believe, there is no agreement between the leagues not to take each other's players. We're approached every year by NFL players who want to play out their options and come with us. We just don't take them." It is the same in the NFL, although Ladd and Faison might be as tempting to some-NFL clubs as they were to Houston. "I really don't believe the NFL will get into this," said Klosterman. "If they did, they'd be starting another war. We're already warring over rookies. If we began warring over veterans, too, it would wreck the game."