Brian Allee-Walsh

Saints' Hokie Gajan leaves behind family, friends and constant pain

By BRIAN ALLEE-WALSH

Columnist

COURTESY THE NEW ORLEANS ADVOCATEHokie Gajan, left, died Monday at the age of 56. He was a football presence in Louisiana for more than 40 years.
COURTESY THE NEW ORLEANS ADVOCATEHokie Gajan, left, died Monday at the age of 56. He was a football presence in Louisiana for more than 40 years.

NEW ORLEANS

As family members and close friends gathered at the bedside of Howard Lee Gajan inside an intensive care unit Monday at Ochsner Hospital, others stood outside the room sharing their remembrances of the man best known as "Hokie."

All had come to pay their last respects, to say one last goodbye to the former New Orleans Saints and LSU fullback, the former Saints personnel scout and the team's colorful radio analyst alongside play-by-play man Jim Henderson for the last 16 years.

"I don't know if Hokie heard anything that any of us said to him ... he essentially was on his death bed," Henderson said softly in measured words Tuesday. "But, if you had been outside that door you would have thought there was a party going on. We were telling stories about him and all the laughter that we shared with him. We were remembering the good times, the funny times, not the sad ones.

"If Hokie heard anything, I hope he heard that."

For Gajan, finally, mercifully, the pain and suffering have ceased. The beloved husband, father, Cajun football icon, avid hunter and special human being died Monday night after a lengthy battle with a rare, horrific form of cancer called liposarcoma.

He was 56.

But he was so much more.

Gajan's death came approximately 48 hours after the fatal shooting of former Saints defensive end Will Smith, who was fired upon multiple times moments after a minor three-car accident in New Orleans' Lower Garden District. A 28-year-old man remains in jail in lieu of $1 million bail after being charged with second degree murder.

Ironically, both Smith and Gajan were recently elected to the Saints Hall of Fame and are scheduled to be inducted during ceremonies next season. Both will be inducted posthumously: Smith for his standout 10-year career with the Black and Gold; Gajan as the 2016 recipient of the coveted Joe Gemelli Award for his many contributions to the organization.

Gajan had been battling cancer since first being alerted of a possible problem while going through a routine airport X-ray screening system last year. Originally diagnosed as testicular cancer, it later was identified as liposarcoma and eventually sealed his fate.

"He had so many physical problems and he was in so much pain from any number of things that I wonder if maybe he didn't know what those symptoms were from," Henderson said. "Because he was in pain constantly. He once told me he had 26 surgeries ... 26 surgeries. But you'd never know it. He never once talked about the pain.

"That was Hokie."

Anyone who knew Gajan knew he had been dealing with old, painful football injuries and genetic issues for decades, never once complaining or opining "why me?"

Every time our paths across, I reflect on the day his NFL playing career with the Saints came to a screeching halt prior to the 1987 season. It happened during a non-contact punting drill at a training camp practice inside the Superdome. He went one way and his left knee went another.

After practice, I sat with Gajan near the Girod Street end zone as he waited to board a team bus for the ride back to their training facility off David Drive. He feared the worst, sensing the end of his career was at hand.

"Hey, what are you going to do? (Bleep) happens," Gajan said.

On Sept. 21, 1987, Howard Lee "Hokie" Gajan announced his retirement after five productive NFL seasons, ending a comeback attempt from a surgical procedure to his right knee in 1985. On that day, he turned the page on one amazing chapter in his storied football life and braced himself for a new, exciting challenge outside the lines.

On April 11, 2016, Howard Lee "Hokie" Gajan retired for good, leaving this earth for a better place.

"It brings to focus how short and fragile life is," Henderson said.

First Will Smith, now Hokie Gajan.

Rest in peace. Who Dat!

Brian Allee-Walsh, is a long-time Saints reporter based in New Orleans. He can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.

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