- By Tom Shanahan, San Diego Hall of Champions
Ernie Ladd likes to say the Chargers defensive line in the American Football League’s fledgling day of the early 1960s was the “The Original Fearsome Foursome.” Yes, the Los Angeles Rams of the established National Football League gained more recognition for the moniker that they took as their own in the late 1960s, but the Rams didn’t have anyone the size of Ladd. No one in football did.
Ernie “Giant Cat” Ladd was the original “Giant Cat,” too. He was a “giant” for standing 6-foot-9 and weighing anywhere between his listed weight of 295 to 320 pounds. He was a “cat” for his remarkable agility for a man his size.
Ladd, a Chargers defensive tackle from 1961-65, is inducted tonight into the Breitbard Hall of Fame as one of the city of San Diego’s largest sports figures, literally and figuratively.
Those were the days when the Chargers were annual participants in the AFL Championship game and called Balboa Stadium their home. The Chargers of pro football’s pre-Super Bowl era – before the AFL and NFL ended their battles for talent and merged into today’s sporting goliath — won the 1963 AFL title. They believed they were better than the 1963 NFL champion Chicago Bears.
“I played with some great football players in those days,” said Ladd, now 66, from his home in Louisiana. “Lance Alworth, Earl Faison, Keith Lincoln, Paul Lowe, Ron Mix, John Hadl … they were great players and great individuals. We were like a family. We were one of the first integrated teams, with black players and white players as roommates.”
Ladd came to the Chargers as a rookie in 1961 from Grambling, a historically black college in Louisiana that produced so many NFL legends before segregation in the south ended and Alabama and other southern college football powers began recruiting African-American athletes.
The Fearsome Foursome of the Chargers in 1961 was Ladd and Bill Hudson as the defensive tackles and Earl Faison and Ron Neary as the defensive ends. The NFL didn’t record sacks as an official statistic until 1982, and in those days teams didn’t generally list even routine individual defensive statistics such as tackles or interceptions.
But San Diego sports historian Rick Smith went through the old play-by-play statistics books during the time he was serving the Chargers as their public relations director from 1977-87. His research revealed that in the 1961 season the Chargers had 44 tackles for a loss and the foursome’s fierce pass rush forced 42 interceptions. The interception total still ranks as an NFL season record for a team.
Ladd and the Chargers’ Fearsome Foursome gave the AFL an identity while competing in the shadow of the NFL. In those days, the Chargers would stay three weeks at a resort in Bear Mountain, New York, when they traveled east to play games against the Buffalo Bills, the New York Titans (now the Jets) and the Boston Patriots (now New England).
“The Chargers were a glamorous team, and Ladd gained a lot of attention for his size,” Smith said. “The NFL was way ahead of the AFL in those days, but the Chargers got a lot of exposure for the AFL from the New York media when they back in New York for three weeks.”
Ladd would still be a big man if he played in today’s NFL. But comparing his height and weight alongside today’s generation of football players doesn’t do justice at portraying just how large of a man Ladd was for his time.
There are men in today’s NFL the size of Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden (6-9, 345) and St. Louis Rams offensive tackle Orlando Pace (6-7, 320). They are big men, but they are only a couple inches taller and 20 to 40 pounds heavier than other large men of their era, and it’s no longer rare for an NFL teams have a man of that size. But Ladd stood six to seven inches taller and weighed 50 to 60 pounds more than men trying to block him, and he was as quick or quicker.
Ladd, whose contract battles prematurely ended his days with the Chargers, still follows the Bolts closely and looks back on his days in San Diego as some of his best years.
“San Diego is a great city, and the fans in are beautiful people,” Ladd said. “I loved my time in San Diego, and wish I never had to leave. We were a close team, and we would have kept winning the rest of the 1960s if they team had stayed together. It’s a great honor for me to be going into the Breitbard Hall of Fame in San Diego.”