Hokie Gajan: The Saints and all of us have lost an original
Archie Manning was a 10-year veteran with the New Orleans Saints when Hokie Gajan came to the team as a rookie, a 10th round draft pick out of LSU.
Nobody around here needs a primer on the LSU-Ole Miss rivalry.
“Hoke came to camp and he wore these old, beat-up white football shoes that had purple laces,” Manning said, Tuesday morning by phone from New Orleans, a city mourning the deaths of former Saints Will Smith and Gajan.
“I told him, those shoes had to go, he had to get him some new shoes,” Manning said. “He told me he couldn’t afford any new shoes. Well, I had a shoe contract at the time, so I got Hokie’s shoe size and got him a pair of new shoes. But in the meantime, I went and got some pink laces and put them in those old white shoes.”
“I’ll tell you, Hokie was a really good football player but more than that he was just good people,” Manning continued. “He was so humble. I mean, he had zero ego. He was kind and courteous. He would make fun of himself. We talk in this part of the country about good ol’ boys. Well, Hokie Gajan really was a good ol’ boy from Baker, Louisiana, as good as they come.”
Gajan, 56, died Monday of a rare form of cancer. He leaves behind a legion of admirers and listeners. He was one Louisianan with a lot of Mississippi connections.
Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Hamp Cook, the Southern Miss great and former Saints scout, counted Gajan as “another son. God, I loved Hoke.”
When Gajan’s Saints playing career came to a premature end because of more injuries than we can count, Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Finks was the astute Saints general manager. Finks just didn’t want to let go of Gajan, a player he admired for his grit, his football knowledge and for his willingness to do anything for the team.
Finks’ idea was to make Gajan a scout, and that’s what he did. He told Cook, a veteran and highly respected scout, to take Gajan under his wing and teach him the business.
“It wasn’t hard,” Cook said Tuesday morning. “Hokie already knew football. He knew what makes a good football player.”
Cook and Gajan went on the road together. Most of the time, Cook drove and Gajan rode shotgun. There may or may not have been an ice chest filled with beer along for the ride.
“Hokie really was like one of my sons,” Cook said. “You know, I had scouted him when he was at LSU. I gave him a plus-plus grade because I just loved how hard he played. I knew he would make a team even though he didn’t have the great speed you want in a running back. Nobody had more heart than Hokie.
“I guess you’d say we were comfortable around each other. We just hit it off. It was Jim Finks’ idea to put him with me and I am forever glad he did it. I just hate this has happened. This is hard for me, for everybody who knew Hoke.”
Jim Henderson, the voice of the Saints and Gajan’s broadcast partner for the last 16 years, was another having a difficult time Tuesday morning. His normally smooth, pleasing voice cracked several times as he talked of his pal, Hokie.
It was Henderson’s idea that Gajan leave his scouting job to join the Saints broadcast team.
“I just thought he was a natural,” Henderson said. “I mean, he was from Baker, Louisiana, he played at LSU, he had played for the Saints and he had been a scout. His football knowledge was impeccable. He was a salt of the earth Louisiana guy who Saints fans identified with.
“And, selfishly, I just enjoyed being around him so much. I just loved to hang out with him.”
Gajan could get right to the point, tell you what you needed to know and make you laugh while doing so. I remember listening to Henderson and Gajan during the Katrina season when things were going from bad to worse for the Saints. The Saints were called for a series of blocks in the back when Hokie finally intoned in an exasperated voice, “Guys, it’s not that hard. If you can read their names on the back of their jerseys, don’t hit ’em.”
Henderson, who lives in a lakehouse near Poplarville, remembers his favorite Hoke-ism. Aaron Brooks had just replaced Jeff Blake as the Saints’ starting quarterback and he was scrambling around in the backfield, changing directions several times before he finally fell for a one-yard loss.
Said Hokie, “Brooks was running around then like a just-sprayed roach.”
I saw the play. It was a perfect description.
And it was perfectly Hokie, one of a kind.