Ron Higgins: Remembering Hokie Gajan

Today would have been Hokie Gajan’s 61st birthday. The beloved former LSU and New Orleans Saints running back, and later Saints’ radio analyst died at the age of 56 from cancer on April 11, 2016. Gajan, a Baton Rouge native, got the nickname “Hokie” as a child when he cut his forehead while dancing to the song “Hokey Pokey.” The doctor who stitched the cut gave him the nickname, and it stuck.

The former Baker High star started his last two seasons at LSU in 1979 and 1980, finishing with 1,563 career rushing yards and six TDs. The Saints drafted him in the 10th round as the 249th pick of the 1981 NFL Draft and he played four seasons rushing 1,358 yards and 11 TDs. Injuries sidelined Gajan for three entire seasons and half of another one. Severe knee injuries ended his playing career. He was a Saints scout for 20 seasons before moving to the radio booth in 2000 where he captivated the audience with such Hokie-isms as “He’s like a rolling ball of butcher knives,” “I’m sadder than the last piece of lettuce at an all-you-can-eat salad bar right now,” “They’ve got one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel,” and “He runs like a sprayed roach.” There is no doubt Hokie Gajan is still sorely missed.

The following story from Tiger Rag’s Nov. 10, 1979 was written by then 23-year old staff writer Ron Higgins who’s now the almost 64-year old editor of Tiger Rag.

Lately, junior LSU junior tailback Hokie Gajan must feel like the wildlife he loves to hunt.

Hobbled with an ankle injury he suffered in the USC game, Gajan hasn’t returned to form yet. He’s like one of the sitting ducks he probably likes to sneak up on and blow the feathers off.

It’s true that since Gajan has returned from the injury, he has put together back-to-back 100-yard performances with 104 and 106 yards respectively vs. Kentucky and Florida State. But he still realizes he isn’t in full flight just yet.

“I’ve been a little rusty on my cuts,” he says. “Like in the Kentucky game, I got an option pitch near the goal line and I ran straight for the flag. A Kentucky defender knocked me out of bounds at the 2-yard line. If my ankle had felt strong, I would have cut back inside about the 5 and taken it toward the end zone.”

As a freshman two years ago, Gajan would have jumped at the chance to run in any direction from the tailback spot. But since a guy named Charles Alexander already was the starter, Gajan spent virtually all his time playing on specialty teams.

He finished the season fifth in the SEC in kickoff returns with 16 returns for a 23.6 average. But in the final game of the season against Tulane in the Superdome, he tore knee cartilage while returning a kickoff.

The knee injury, as it does any athlete, scared Gajan.

“I never thought I’d get the knee back in shape again,” Gajan says. “But I worked out on machines in the weight room and it soon built back up.”

Then, he made a major mistake. He assumed he would be redshirted because of the injury.

“So, I really didn’t work that hard in the summer because I thought there was no use putting in all that work for nothing,” Gajan says.

When fall practice opened last season, Gajan was overweight and in pain.

“The extra weight put a lot of added pressure on my knee,” Gajan says, “and it was really hurting during the two-a-days.”

That’s when former LSU backfield coach Jerry Stovall intervened.

“When a player came here to LSU when I was an assistant coach, I gave them a goal sheet in which they answered three questions, discussing their goals in athletics, schools and goals,” Stovall recalls. “Hokie just wanted to become the very best he could possibly be in all aspects.

“When he came back overweight, I told he’d better drop his weight in a hurry if he wanted to be a running back at LSU, even if he had to cut his head off. He got his weight down instantly.”

Once back in playing shape, Gajan bounced back and forth from tailback to fullback in every game, depending on whether All-American tailback Alexander could be afforded a rest.

When Alexander was in the lineup, it was fullback Gajan who led him into the gang of waiting tacklers.

“I did have my choice of whom I wanted to block,” Gajan says with a laugh. “Sometimes, I would have two or three people on me immediately trying to get to Charlie. I just ducked my head and hoped some of them would fall over me.”

With defenses keying on Alexander, it turned Gajan and the rest of Tigers loose for big runs.

“We got lots of yards on options, especially the quarterbacks, because the cornerbacks immediately went after Charlie,” Gajan says. “Having him also helped our passing game because when we faked a handoff to him into the line of scrimmage, linebackers had to come up and safeties and the cornerbacks didn’t respect our receivers as much.”

Gajan ended his sophomore season last year ninth in the SEC in rushing with 611 yards for a 55.5 yards per game average. He also maintained his consistent kickoff returns, averaging 25.7 yards on 16 returns which included a 99-yard TD on the opening kickoff vs. Wyoming.

But Gajan believes his biggest reward was playing alongside Alexander.

“I’ll always be able to say I played in the same backfield with him,” Gajan says proudly. “I learned a lot from him. One of the lessons he taught me was to go 100 percent all the time on every drill in practices as well as in games. Doing that lessens your chance of getting hurt.”

Another major lesson Alexander taught Gajan was how to play with pain.

“Carrying the ball 40 times in games like Charlie did, him taking a beating and being able to keep going was amazing,” Gajan says. “He taught all of us how to play in pain.”

At the start of this season, people tried to compare Gajan and Alexander, something that causes Gajan to laugh.

“There’s no comparison at all,” Gajan says. “Charlie was a one of a kind running back with great speed and power. There’s no way I’ve been able to fill in his shoes.”

But Gajan has done just fine this season as starting tailback, despite the ankle injury.

He started the year with 65 yards against Colorado and then had 118 yards vs. Rice.

Then, came that fateful moment in the second quarter at the USC 12-yard line in the heartbreaking Tiger Stadium when Gajan hurt his left ankle. He missed the remainder of the game and the following contests vs. Florida and at Georgia.

“Mr. (LSU trainer Tracy) Ladd saw the play on film and said I’ve made that cut 100 times before,” Gajan says of his ill-fated running attempt around an end. “But when I planted my foot to make the cut, there was a guy on my back and the weight of him was too much.”

Gajan was clearly out-of-action for the Florida game. But he made the trip to Georgia and was ready to play. Yet, he was never called upon and watched the Tigers lose four fumbles in a 21-14 loss.

“I had been practicing all week long for the Georgia game,” Gajan says. “I was hobbling a bit, but when they kept asking me all week long if I would be able to make the trip, I said I could. I’d better expect to play because I wasn’t going along for the free ride and a free look at the game.

“They told me if I went, I was going to play, and I understood that. But when I got there, they must have looked at me in the pregame warmups and decided I wasn’t ready to play. I was totally frustrated.”

Anytime Gajan gets uptight about anything, he just picks up his guns and heads to Devil’s Swamp just north of his hometown of Baker just outside of Baton Rouge. He finds his peace matching his hunting skills against deer, ducks, rabbits and squirrels.

“Hunting relaxes me more than anything else,” he says. “Not only that, but it gets the soreness out of muscles after a game. Even though I try to hunt during the week before some of my late morning classes, Sunday is my main hunting day. Getting out the day after a game makes me feel a whole lot better.”

Something else that has relaxed Gajan is getting married this past summer.

“Being at home at night with Judy has given me more rest than I’ve had in the past,” he says. “When you live in a dorm, you’ve got guys saying, `C’mon, let’s go play cards.’ And I would stay up all night playing cards.

“The next day, I’d get up dead tired and in the afternoon at practice I wondered why I stayed up all night. Now, I get to bed at 10:30 and I feel great in the mornings.”

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Ron Higgins

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