Howard “Hokie” Gajan, a football presence in Louisiana for more than 40 years, died Monday. He was 56.
For the past 15 years, Gajan was the analyst of New Orleans Saints broadcasts on WWL-AM, but he was an all-state back at Baker High School and later a productive back at LSU under Charlie McClendon and Jerry Stovall. He went from being a 10th-round draft choice — the 249th pick in 1981 — to a prominent runner with the Saints under Bum Phillips and Jim Mora.
Gajan was diagnosed with cancer last year, and his daughter Kristin Gajan Sell told WWL Radio on Monday morning that Gajan had been moved to intensive care.
After his playing days, Gajan became a scout for the Saints for 13 years before joining Jim Henderson on the team’s broadcasts in the 2000 season. He also appeared on other programs and became a pitchman on radio and television.
“I’ll say this,” Henderson once said, “as much as anyone, Hokie was always prepared. He was an astute observer of the game and usually threw in one of those country sayings he became famous for in describing whatever was going on. His descriptions could be on target and hilarious at the same time.
“I remember once in 2000, the first year we worked together, and Aaron Brooks was the Saints quarterback. Brooks rolled out to one side, pulled up and ran to the other side before repeating the original path. When it was over, Hokie said it all looked like a roach being sprayed in a corner of the house. I told him not to show me his house-keeping routine. But he was as good at dissecting what was happening on the field and transmitting it to the listeners as anybody.”
In four seasons as a Saint, Gajan had a career rushing average of 5.4 yards per carry, running the ball 252 times for 1,358 yards. He also caught 63 passes for 515 yards, an 8.2-yard average.
In 1984, Gajan led the NFL with a 6.03-yard average on 103 rushes. The yards-per-carry record is held by Miami’s Mercury Morris, who had a 6.40-yard average in 1973.
“He wasn’t the kind of player who could line up and beat someone with his speed on one play, like (LSU teammate) Charles Alexander,” said Stovall, who was LSU’s running backs coach before succeeding McClendon in 1980. “But if you had a ways to go and needed someone to pound it out and safeguard the ball, Hokie was the man. He could do that. Hokie simply didn’t make many mistakes. He was a man you could count on.”
Gajan finished his LSU career with 1,563 rushing yards along with 31 receptions for 283 yards. He also had 896 yards in kickoff returns and led the Southeastern Conference in that category (third in the NCAA) in 1978, when his 99-yard return against Wyoming was the difference in a 24-17 victory.
When injuries caused Gajan to retire from the Saints, he eventually accepted a position with the team in scouting — and he had a talent for it, said draft guru Mike Detillier, who also lends his expertise to WWL-AM. The reason Hall of Fame lineman Willie Roaf found a spot with New Orleans in 1999 was at least in part thanks to Gajan, Detillier said.
The Saints were enamored with the prospect of Lincoln Kennedy of Washington on their offensive line, Detillier said. “(Kennedy) was a West Coast guy, and at the time the club was infatuated with guys from that part of the country.
“I remember Hokie telling them at one meeting that this guy from Louisiana Tech was a better fit than Kennedy, who wasn’t bad by a long shot. Gajan’s description of the prospect was, ‘Roaf looks funny, kind of like a table, and walks on the top of his toes but is a real player. He’s from a little school, but he’s always where he’s supposed to be, and he doesn’t make mistakes. This is a guy who can help us.’ ”
Roaf was taken with the eighth pick and went on to an illustrious career. Kennedy was taken by Atlanta with the next pick, then was a three-time All-Pro later with Oakland. Roaf was a nine-time All-Pro and inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012.
On the opposite end, despite coach Mike Ditka’s infatuation with Texas running back Ricky Williams, Gajan went against conventional wisdom, warning against using a first-round pick on him. Gajan, who not only scouted Williams but interviewed him, felt the Heisman Trophy recipient was aloof, seemingly almost detached, and immature. Gajan was left with a bad impression and, according to Detillier, came under a lot of pressure from the organization for his views.
Famously, Ditka traded all of the Saints’ draft picks to the Washington Redskins to get Williams with the fifth selection. After he had moderate success, the team traded Williams to the Dolphins after three seasons.
“Hokie was dead right,” Detillier said.
Gajan is survived by his wife, Judy, and daughters Jennifer, Kristin, Megan and Alexis (Peanut).