When a Bourbon Street bouncer put a Smith and Wesson pistol in a San Diego Chargers’ lineman’s face on a warm Saturday night in January 1965 he could not have known he was kickstarting the biggest story in the world of sports in that august year.
The cream of the crop of the American Football League players were in New Orleans for some revelry in the run up to their big All Star game when Ladd nearly got shot dead.
It had been just six years since the US Supreme Court upheld a decision by a lower court that codified integrated sporting events in the state of Louisiana.
Bear in mind not even a decade had passed since Bill Keefe, the sports editor of the Times-Picayune wrote on baseball legend Jackie Robinson calling him a “persistently insolent and antagonistic trouble-making Negro” who should have been “muzzled long ago.”
In that era New Orleans was no hippie Bohemia where the races frolicked amongst one another to the chagrin of the rest of the less-enlightened Deep South.
It’s still not.Ernie Ladd’s path to a showdown outside a nightclub on Bourbon Street had been a long one in spite of his tender age of 27.
Ernest Lawrence Ladd was born in Rayville, Louisiana, November 28th, 1938, to Louada Boyette Ladd who stood six feet tall in her stocking feet, and tipped the scales at 245 pounds. Ladd did not meet his biological father until he was 18, and that was during visiting hours at the infamous Angola Penitentiary in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana.
His stepfather James Ford moved the family to Orange, Texas when Ernie was a child.
Young Ernie played for the Emma Wallace High School Dragons’ legendary coach Willie Ray Smith Sr who stalked the sidelines in spite of having a bad leg due to being shot during a gun battle between Bonnie and Clyde and a sheriff in Denton, Texas.
The best old football coaches always have a good backstory to their lives.
Ernie’s nickname in high school was ‘Redbone.’
He first made an impact on the hardwood basketball courts. His roundball acumen was so high that he received a scholarship offer from Grambling University to play hoops; it was only after he’d arrived on campus that gridiron coach Eddie Robinson saw the hulking teen and demanded he come out for his football team. To sweeten the deal Robinson offered Ladd his own personal key to the cafeteria that he could use whenever he wanted.It was at Grambling that Ernie met the love of his life, Roslyn Holmes, their marriage would last nearly a half-century.
Ladd would go on to lead his Grambling Tigers to their first Southwest Athletic championship in 1960, his senior year. The American Football League’s San Diego Chargers claimed him in the 15th round of their draft in 1961.
When the officials for the team took the measure of the man, Ernie was found to have a 52-inch chest, 39-inch waist, 20-inch biceps, and 19-inch neck. He wore size 18D shoes.
Jon Morris, who played center for the Boston Patriots, said, “Ladd was so big if it was dark. I couldn’t see the linebackers, I couldn’t see the goal posts, it was like being locked in a closet.”
A big man requires a lot of fuel to power his body and Ernie’s appetite was both outsize and legendary.
This ajax of a man competed in the 1961 Golden West Eating Classic while he played for the Chargers. Nearly 2,000 people were in attendance.He ate “lobster tails, tossed green salad with oil and vinegar dressing, spaghetti and meatballs, southern fried chicken, baked Virginia ham, roast prime rib of beef au jus, New York-cut sirloin steaks, assorted vegetables, mashed potatoes, rolls and butter, and a layer cake with ice cream.”
On a trip through Texas, Ernie spotted an “all you can eat” sign outside a breakfast house in Dallas. He promptly strolled inside and took down 124 pancakes. While he was eating the owner climbed up on the billboard and took the sign down.
Months later Ernie returned and a manager spotted him in the parking lot. Thinking fast he went outside and handed Ernie a five dollar bill to go eat elsewhere.
Later when he became a pro wrestler he would work his legendary appetite into his onscreen persona and bellow at the female fans: “Put another piece of steak on that plate because you’re feeding ‘The Big Cat’ Ernie Ladd and not that scrawny, little husband of yours at home.”
Ernie Ladd would play 112 consecutive pro football games in eight years, with the San Diego Chargers (1961-65), the Houston Oilers (1966) and the Kansas City Chiefs (1967-68) but it would be his short weekend in New Orleans that drew him the most attention, acclaim and media coverage.
The trouble began at the New Orleans airport when the arriving Black football stars could not get a taxi cab ride into downtown. Eventually a friendly porter informed the men that white cabbies were forbidden from carrying Black fares. When the men finally made their way downtown it only got worse.Player of the year Abner Haynes somehow managed to get a taxi man to pick him up to take him to a nightclub but he would later complain that the man instead delivered him to a “….a hangout for perverts.”
The near fatal contretemps between Ernie Ladd and the bouncer began when the big man was strolling down Bourbon Street with two fellow players when they heard James Brown on the Hi-Fi of a nightclub. Upon being barred from entering Ladd went berserk and bellowed “I’ll snatch these doors off [the hinges]. What do you mean I can’t come in?”
Cooler heads prevailed and the next morning an emergency meeting was called among the Black players who decided they could not and would not play football in New Orleans. The league sided with their stars and the game was hastily moved to Houston.
“There were no yellow-bellied cowards in the AFL.” Ladd would later reflect.
Every sporting journal of the day carried the tale of the affair and the power-brokers of New Orleans were suddenly terrified they would not be able to land a professional football team. Ernie Ladd didn’t give a damn and three years later he had quit the sport entirely.
He needed a new challenge and cracking skulls in a pro wrestling ring afforded him one.“I quit football at 28 and still had several good years left. That first year wrestling, I made $98,000, and after that never made less than a hundred grand a year. That was big money back in the ’60s.”
“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 ask. “My intention was to go back to football, but pro wrestling was so good to me.”
How good? Ladd would spend the next 15 years crisscrossing North America and stacking up golden heavyweight championships in every federation he competed in. Upon his return to Louisiana he was booked against a white opponent by Cowboy Bob Kelly marking the first interracial professional wrestling match in the state.
He would return hundreds of times before capturing the state’s Heavyweight title in 1980 and ’81.
Ernie was intense and violent in the ring and a lingering football injury proved to be a great asset in his chicanery. During his run in professional football he had injured his right thumb and the digit proved difficult to heal in spite of his visiting the best physicians in the US.
To solve the problem Ladd would tape up the thumb but not before secreting a steel rod in the bandage. When the going got tough and the referee’s back was turned all it took was a quick jab to his opponent’s throat and victory was once again secured.The fans lost their minds to see this monolithic villain cheat his way to victory. It was not uncommon for Ernie and his fellow heels to have to fight their way from the ring back to the dressing room when the fans had finally had enough and felt it was incumbent upon them to administer some rough justice to the wrestlers.
“Everyone in the building wanted to kill that bastard,” remembered fellow wrestler Jake ‘the snake’ Roberts.
One of Ladd’s crowning achievements was his defeat of Jose Lothario for the Texas Brass Knuckles Championship in 1981.
Ernie Ladd was more than happy to do any of those things to advance his career. His villainy was profound and glorious. When his knees finally started to give out and Ernie realized his time as a wrestler was nearing its natural end he became a manager and shepherded The Wild Samoans to the Mid-South Heavyweight belts.
The villainous Samoans, who spoke no English, and could only communicate via grunting in some ancient dialect would repay the sagacity of their veteran manager by turning on him and violently attacking him in the middle of the ring.The Big Cat did not suffer traitors lightly and returned heavy fire with his giant fists of lead; Ladd quickly had both of the Islanders on the ropes until the notorious Skandor Akbar sent the beastly, 450lb One Man Gang into the fracas. The three men proved too much for Ladd and One Man Gang finished Ernie off with a sickening dive off the top rope and onto his legs nearly breaking the ‘Big Cat’ in half.
This was but one episode in Ladd’s high stakes life in the world of professional wrestling.
Throughout his career Ladd would reprise his heel persona in the political sphere by politicking for the much-hated father son duo of George H.W. Bush and his son George W. This benefited Ernie greatly when he became an executive for Pro Set Inc., a Monroe, Louisiana, petroleum and chemical company with close ties to the Bush family.
And when the future president was rumored to have been busted for cocaine possession in Texas in 1972 it was Ernie Ladd who offered the most spirited defense of his old comrade saying “If this would have been true, John White would have told me, and John White has gone to his grave and he never told me about it.”
Bush’s father George H., Ladd and White had participated in the founding of Project P.U.L.L. (Professionals United For Leadership League) and were old friends and business associates. The scandal was quickly smoothed over when it erupted in 1999 and little of it has been mentioned since.
Kirbyjon Caldwell, the minister from Ernie’s one-time home of Houston’s Windsor Village United Methodist Church, introduced George W. Bush at the 2000 G.O.P. convention. Ladd would go on to book the choir from the church when Bush won the presidency, and needed a praise group for his inauguration in 2001.By that late date Ernie was long-retired from the ring and contented himself with a variety of business endeavors including opening a fabled smoked meat joint in New Orleans, Big Cat Ernie Ladd’s “Throwdown” BBQ Restaurant. People still talk about the food that came out of the kitchen and it’s been shuttered for over 15 years.
Kirbyjon was recently sentenced to 6 years in federal prison for conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
George W. Bush is spending his retirement as a hobbyist painter in Dallas.
Two years after Ernie Ladd watched his old friend move into the White House he was diagnosed with cancer, first in his colon, then later in his bones and stomach. Ladd had long since thrown his lot in with the lord so he was unsurprisingly sanguine about the diagnosis. He was given three months to live.
He died three years later, March 16, 2007, at the age of 68. I’m surprised that when Death came calling Ernie didn’t answer him with a quick jab of his steely right thumb to the throat followed with a crushing guillotine leg drop.
To this day Ernie Ladd’s name is spoken of with reverence in southern Louisiana. He was a towering figure on the basketball court, the football field and in the professional wrestling ring but his greatest contribution was his fight against Jim Crow in New Orleans.
“Someone had to take a stand and stop players from being treated as second-class citizens,” Ladd would recall.
“It’s a great story. Spike Lee should do a movie about it.” He later added.
Spike Lee and Ernie Ladd tag teaming a movie about Ladd’s battles with the old-guard white power structure of the Deep South?
Call it The Second Battle Of New Orleans.
https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3328&context=gradschool_dissertations here’s an excellent deep dive on the history of Mid-South Wrestling.