New Orleans Saints Legends of the Fall: Hokie Gajan
As a young man growing up in the state of Louisiana, if you play football, then chances are the very heights of your aspirations would be to represent the Fighting Tigers of LSU, and maybe, dare you hope, to wear the black and gold of the New Orleans Saints.
For Howard Lee “Hokie” Gajan, that dream was not only realized, but lived out to the fullest. Coming from the Baton Rouge suburb of Baker, and playing high school football at Baker High School, Hokie would receive a scholarship to play for Louisiana State University as a fullback.
As a Tiger, Gajan began to develop a reputation as a hard-nosed, ultra tough competitor. Playing hurt was just another day at the office for Hokie. And nobody played harder than Gajan.
(Photo via SportsNola.com)
The New Orleans Saints would see something in the local prospect, and in the 1981 NFL Draft, the Saints would use the 249th overall pick (10th round) to make Gajan a Saint.
Playing for the franchise at a less than successful period, Gajan made the most of it. During the 1984 season, as Eric Dickerson was setting the single season record for yardage gained from scrimmage, Gajan set a record of his own. In that season, Gajan led all rushers with 100 or more carries in average yards gained per attempt (102 carries, 615 yards; an incredible 6.03 ypc average for the season. Through last year’s 2015 season, Hokie remains one of only 19 running backs in the history of the league to average more than six yards per carry for the season.
But everything has its limits sometimes. Hokie would miss the entire 1986 season due to a devastating knee injury. Two seasons later, in 1987, after injuring the opposite knee, and after an ever-so-brief five year career, Gajan announced his retirement. But at a point where most players’ careers would be ending, Hokie’s career for the Saints had only just begun.
With no prior experience, Hokie would spend the next 14 years as a scout for the Saints before beginning the job which would further endear him to Saints fans, joining Jim Henderson on the team broadcasts, in 2000.
As a color commentator, Gajan was absolutely in his element. His incredible knowledge of the game was delivered in his unique and ‘down home’ style for which he was well known. I always asserted that listening to Hokie do a broadcast was like sitting on the porch, cracking open a cold beer, and just discussing the game with friends, like we all always do. He had a unique way of being able to communicate what was happening on the field to anyone, from a 10 year veteran to a completely oblivious bystander, with equal effectiveness.
(Photo credit: NewOrleansSaints.com)
But “Hokie Tough” would come at a severe price for the well-beloved guy who had received his nickname as a two-year-old after a Hokie Pokie accident left him with a bumped head. The doctor would provide the moniker that he would carry for the rest of his life. His hands and feet were often swollen, and he would have to endure constant pain from a bad back and arthritic gout, and would eventually have to have both a finger and a toe amputated.
Hokie, however, never let on to anyone the type of medical hardships he had to endure, so most of his countless fans never remotely had a clue to how far he had fallen physically.
“I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. A lot of people have it so much worse than I do,” Gajan said in a 2013 interview. This was so very typical of the way that Gajan carried himself, and a testament to exactly why he was so beloved among this fanbase.
Gajan would change his diet, stop drinking, and make other lifestyle changes that would improve his overall health. But in November of 2015, Gajan was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called liposarcoma, which attacks the fat cells of the body. Much to his dismay, the impending chemotherapy treatments would mean that his broadcasting career would be put on hold. He missed the final half of the 2015 season in the booth and was replaced by another Saints legend, Deuce McAllister.
But on April 11, 2016, less than 48 hours after the Saints fanbase had been forced to deal with the tragic loss of Will Smith, Hokie would ultimately lose his battle with cancer. He was 56 years old. Hokie is survived by his wife Judy, and four daughters.
(Photo credit: NewOrleansSaints.com)
I’ve been asked “How can a five year career make a legend?” In my mind, and the minds of most Saints followers, the career of Hokie Gajan began in 1981, and never ended, until his untimely death in April. It is very rare that a player transcends that role to become what Gajan was to this organization, this team, and these fans. His tag line on the radio about “…turn down down the tv, and turn up the radio” for Saints broadcasts became a tradition on game day.
Hokie once said, “If the Saints ever get to the Super Bowl, it will make Mardi Gras look like a church social.” And one of the really cool things about that whole Super Bowl run for the Saints in 2009 was not only that Hokie got to see it, but he was able to be a part of it. His child-like excitement as that game drew to a close was the result of a career spent in service to an organization, a team, and a city that he genuinely loved more than anything. And a 35-year career dedicated to the Saints. That is the stuff that legends are made of.