Hokie Gajan, the beloved former Saints and LSU running back whose career included successful stints as a scout and popular radio broadcaster and color analyst for the team, has died. He was 56.
WWL Radio & the New Orleans Saints reported the news of his death, which came just hours after a report Monday that Gajan had been placed in intensive care as his condition had worsened and called for special care.
Gajan announced in November that he had cancer, though he initially did not elaborate on the specifics of his diagnosis. It turned out that it was a rare form of cancer called liposarcoma. The cancer forms in deep soft tissue cells, in the limbs or abdomen, and often spreads to other parts of the body.
Gajan received an outpouring of support from fans and friends who opened an account and held fundraisers to help raise money for his medical expenses. The hashtag #HokieTough was meant to capture his perseverance and winning spirit, both on and off the field.
“It was disturbing,” he told WWL-TV’s Bill Capo of his diagnosis in November 2015, “but with the number of advancements that they’ve made and the different types of medication and treatment, you hear of people beating cancer every day and I certainly hope I’m in that number as well.”
"I'm scared, I'm nervous, certainly uncertain, but I can promise you this, you know I'm not going to sit around here now and mope about it. Number one, because I don't really know where this thing is heading, number two, because hunting season just opened up, and I'm looking forward to doing some of that,” he said at the time.
As he underwent treatment, Gajan was sidelined from the radio booth, where he served as Saints color commentator since 2000, on WWL Radio and the Saints Radio Network.
According to The Times-Picayune, in addition to cancer, Gajan battled a number of health problems over the years, including a debilitating case of arthritic gout, as well as more than two dozen surgeries to repair a long list of injuries from his playing career.
The Saints selected Gajan in the 10th round of the 1981 NFL draft, along with classmates Rickey Jackson, George Rogers, Frank Warren, Hoby Brenner and Jim Wilks. Gajan went on to play for the black and gold from 1982 until 1985. He started 36 games as a running back-fullback from 1981 to 1985.
He led the NFL in rushing average in 1984 with six yards per carry. In 1984, he led the Saints with seven touchdowns and an average of 6.0 yards a carry, a season record which still stands for Saints rushers with 100 or more attempts. His 903 yards from scrimmage were second on the team to George Rogers. In four years with the Saints, Hokie carried the ball 252 times for 1,358. That's an average of 5.4 yards per carry. He also caught 63 passes for 515 yards, an average of 8.2 yards per catch. Hokie rushed for eleven touchdowns and caught two touchdown passes.
Injuries sidelined Gajan for three entire seasons and half of another one. Severe knee injuries ended his playing career in 1987. Soon after, Saints general manager Jim Finks gave Gajan a job as a scout, a job he held for nearly 20 years before moving into the radio broadcast booth in 2000.
A native of Baker, Louisiana, near Baton Rouge, and one of nine children, Howard Lee Gajan said he got the nickname “Hokie” as a child when he cut his forehead while dancing to the song “Hokey Pokey.” He told Times-Picayune columnist Jeff Duncan that the doctor who stitched the cut gave him the nickname, and it stuck.
Gajan was a standout running back at Baker High School and earned a full scholarship to LSU, before launching his professional football career.
He is survived by his wife, Judy, four daughters and nine grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.