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Saints legend Hokie Gajan, fan favorite on field and in broadcast booth, dead at 56
Saints radio analysts Jim Henderson (left) and Hokie Gajan in the booth for a Nov. 14, 2004, game between the Saints and the Kansas City Chiefs in the Louisiana Superdome. (NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune archive)
Jennifer Armstrong, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Print Email Evan Woodbery, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune By Evan Woodbery, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
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on April 11, 2016 at 11:58 PM, updated April 12, 2016 at 12:30 AM
Hokie Gajan, a hard-nosed, Louisiana-bred running back who later became a cherished New Orleans Saints radio announcer, passed away Monday night, WWL radio announced. He was 56.
Gajan was diagnosed last fall with a rare form of cancer called liposarcoma that forced him to step back from his familiar place in the Superdome broadcast booth.
While Gajan battled the disease, fans and friends rallied around him. Hundreds turned out two weeks ago for a fundraiser, although Gajan was in the hospital and unable to attend.
Gajan took pride in the fact that his football playing career was distinctively Louisiana, spanning Baker High School, LSU and finally the Saints. Nicknamed the "Bayou Bowling Ball" by quarterback Ken Stabler, Gajan often poked fun at his own lack of speed, but still managed to be one of the NFL's most productive fullbacks as a rusher. In 1984, he led the league with six yards per carry, overshadowing the two Heisman winners -- George Rogers and Earl Campbell -- with whom he shared the backfield.
His football career was halted by injuries, but he enjoyed a successful second career as a Saints scout and, starting in 2000, a third act as a radio color commentator.
Gajan combined his colorful wit with deep football knowledge in the booth, endearing himself to a new generation of Saints fans. He once said his only requirements on game day were "a good pair of binoculars, a media guide and a bottle of Jack Daniels."
Howard Lee "Hokie" Gajan was born Sept. 6, 1959 in Baker, La., near Baton Rouge. The middle child of nine kids, he acquired the nickname after hitting his forehead while spinning around to the "Hokie Pokie" as a 2-year-old. The doctor who stitched him up gave him the moniker that would last the rest of his life.
He attended college close to home, playing four seasons for LSU, where he rushed for 1,536 yards and played in three bowl games. In Charlie McClendon's final year at the helm in 1979, Gajan was ninth in the SEC in rushing.
Gajan was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the 10th round of the 1981 NFL Draft, part of a class that included Rogers, the No. 1 overall pick; Hall-of-Fame linebacker Rickey Jackson; defensive end Frank Warren; tight end Hoby Brenner; and cornerback Johnnie Poe.
Gajan faced long odds to make the team, but he impressed coach Bum Phillips.
''The best way I've found to look good is just to play as hard as I can," he told reporters at his first training camp in Vero Beach, Fla. "Even if we're just going through dummy plays, I get the ball and try and sprint 30 or 40 yards down field. That shows the coaches that I want to hustle."
Gajan was injured in a car accident just before the end of training camp, so he spent his rookie season on the reserve list.
In the strike-shortened 1982 season, Gajan was the beneficiary of someone else's bad fortune. He was cut at the end of training camp, but then re-signed two days later when another Saints running back suffered an injury.
Gajan made the most of his opportunity. In four seasons with the Saints, Gajan rushed for 1,358 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also caught 63 passes for 515 yards and two touchdowns.
His best year was in 1984, when he opened the season as the Saints' starting fullback and finished with 615 yards on 102 carries.
In Week 2, Gajan caught a short pass from Richard Todd and turned it into a 51-yard reception to lead the Saints to a 17-13 win over Tampa Bay. Afterwards Gajan joked to reporters that the entire Buccaneers secondary must have pulled their hamstrings for him to be able to make it that far.
Two weeks later, Gajan threw a 34-yard touchdown on a halfback pass as the Saints rallied to beat the St. Louis Cardinals.
Gajan was known for his toughness. When trainers told Phillips that Gajan would have to miss two weeks with a pulled calf muscle, Phillips said, "Knowing him, it'll probably be two days. People who really want to play, like he does, get over it quicker."
But a serious knee injury late in the 1985 season would wreck his playing career. He initially hoped to return to the field by October under new coach Jim Mora in 1986.
But he never could get healthy enough to play, and he spent the year on the IR. Even so, he helped out on the scout team and endeared himself to Mora.
"That guy's a tough nut," Mora said."I hope he's OK, because I want him on our football team. He's the kind of guy we like."
Gajan's long comeback continued into training camp in 1987, when he suffered a new injury in his left knee.
Arthroscopic surgery revealed it wasn't a torn ligament as feared, but there was no way Gajan would be able to start the season in time. The Saints had other options at fullback and general manager Jim Finks presented him with an option that made his retirement decision easier.
Gajan could remain on the injured reserve in 1987, collecting benefits and salary, while he trained for a new career as a scout.
He welcomed the challenge of scouting: "About the only scouting I've ever done was for deer and ducks," he said.
Gajan thrived despite that lack of experience, spending 14 years as a Saints scout before moving into the team's broadcast booth in 2000. He replaced former teammate and Saints great Stan Brock, who had recommended that he apply for the job.
Gajan was a natural in the booth, delivering his football knowledge in a frank and colorful style. When asked once in an interview how much prep time he spent before a broadcast, Gajan replied with a laugh, "About 10 minutes before the game." Gajan's partner and longtime Saints play-by-play man Jim Henderson said Gajan never needed reams of notes and statistics. His knowledge of the game and the Saints was what made him an outstanding commentator.
"He has a gift of gab," Henderson said of Gajan in a profile in the Times-Picayune in 2004. "The last thing you want in a broadcast is two guys who sound the same. Hopefully, we're a yin and yang."
Gajan put it more succinctly: "He's the lead singer. I'm just the doo-wop guy."
Gajan was also willing to let his emotions show at times. When John Carney missed an extra point after the famous River City Relay play in 2003, Gajan cried out, "Noooo!" as Henderson yelled, "How could he DO that?!" Gajan once described a poor call by an official as "chicken crap" on the air.
Upon his early retirement from the NFL, Gajan said "I want to be able to still wade the swamps, jog a little, play a little golf." But his injury-filled career took its toll later in life. His feet and hands swelled; he contended with arthritic gout and a bad back; a finger and a toe were amputated.
Gajan deflected his medical woes with self-deprecating humor, so many fans never knew the extent of his physical decline.
"I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me," Gajan said in 2013. "A lot of people have it worse than I do. I'd have to be in a wheelchair before I'd get a handicapped sticker."
Gajan improved his diet, quit drinking, lost weight and started to feel better, but was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of cancer last November. He began chemotherapy in December and missed the final games of the Saints 2015 season.
Gajan witnessed plenty of bad football in his years with the Saints, but he kept a sense of humor about it.
"A 10-minute trip to the grocery store always turns into 35 minutes," Gajan said of curious Saints fans. "They ask you, 'What's wrong with the Saints?' Hell if I know. The players don't know. The coaches don't know. The owner doesn't know. How the hell am I supposed to know?"
The losing years made the Saints' recent success even more sweet. Gajan once remarked that if the Saints ever made the Super Bowl, it would make Mardi Gras seem like a church social. In 2009, he got to see his prediction come true.
Gajan lived in Mandeville for last 35 years. He is survived by his wife Judy and daughters Jennifer, Kristin, Megan and Alexis. Arrangements are pending.