(Photo: Jim Finks)
The veteran player sat in front of the general manager’s desk, his head in his hands. He had spent the previous season, his sixth in the NFL, on the injured reserve list with a knee injury. Now, in training camp, he had blown out the other knee when tackled on a kickoff return. He knew it was over. The GM had been in this situation many times, when a player comes to the end of the road, and he knew it wasn’t easy. But he saw something in this young man who had survived six years after becoming the 249th player drafted in 1981, in the 10th round. He might not even have been drafted years later, when the draft was limited to 224 slots. He had defied the odds, enjoyed a solid career, and now the GM had other plans for him.
“Hokie,” said GM Jim Finks. “How would you like to be a scout?” This scene really happened, because I was sitting in the room when Howard “Hokie” Gajan from Baker, Louisiana, was given the opportunity to spend his lifetime around the sport he loved. It’s ironic that only days after another former Saint, Will Smith, was tragically killed in violence that another icon of Who Dat Nation was felled by cancer. But we mourn differently, and while we mourn Will Smith with sorrow and confusion at his needless loss, we mourn Hokie with a smile on our face and a celebration of a life well lived.
To a modern generation of Saints fans, Hokie was the color man to Jim Henderson on Saints broadcasts. While Henderson was George Burns or Bud Abbot, usually the straight man, Hokie was Lou Costello or Gracie Allen, whose analysis often resembled a punchline. Even a poignant moment, such as the Saints’ return to the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, was captured in the Hokie-Henderson repartee. “I just get goosebumps all over my body when I see this,” Hokie said, “and you know how hard that is.” Henderson’s rejoinder: “It would be even harder for me looking at your body covered with goosebumps.” “Well, that’s your problem,” Hokie replied.
Hokie’s analysis of plays and players was littered with down-home descriptions. In a 2012 broadcast, Hokie said that trying to tackle Darren Sproles was "like trying to tackle a fast armadillo!" Still my favorite was his call of Reggie Bush’s zig-zag between tacklers for a touchdown. “He was runnin’ around like a sprayed roach,” Hokie said fondly. Hokie’s status as a broadcaster opened an unlikely door as a pitchman, a job he was amazed that people would pay him to do. But his commercials, which ranged from a foundation shoring company to a waste disposal company – “Our business stinks, but it’s picking up!” - became treasured New Orleans standards.
Back to the beginning, Hokie was a good scout, responsible for any NFL prospect in Louisiana’s abundant college football system. In the war room during the draft, when a player’s name would come up, Jim Finks would ask the area scout to talk about him. Humble man that he was, Hokie was not comfortable at first telling a roomful of football lifers how much he knew, but when it was his job and when the boss asks, Hokie delivered. But he was still Hokie.
I remember the American Bowl game in 1990 when the Saints traveled to London to play the Raiders. The night before the game, personnel chief Billy Kuharich took the scouts and other execs out for dinner at a white-cloth London restaurant. I was sitting across from Hokie, who seemed confused by the menu. Finally, he ordered fish, but when the order came, he looked at the plate and saw his meal - head, tail, fins and all. He looked across the table at me and said: “I’m sorry, Mr. Miller, but I can’t eat nothing that looks like a mullet staring back at me!” That was Hokie.
Today we mourn another beloved Saint, but, thankfully, when we mourn Hokie Gajan, we can do it with a smile.
The death of former Saints’ player Will Smith is tragic for many reasons, not the least of which is “why?” First reports said Smith’s death was the result of road rage by a man whose Hummer rear-ended Smith’s Mercedes. Later reports suggested that the shooter, Cordell Hayes, knew that Smith and his wife had dined that evening with a former police officer who was connected with a wrongful death suit Hayes filed against six police officers after police killed his father in 2005. Did he follow the Smiths home and precipitate a confrontation?
Either way, the death was senseless, as violence usually is, but our reaction reveals much about ourselves. Most of us never met Will Smith, but we knew he played for the Saints, therefore, he was beloved. He was a first-round draft choice in 2004 and an important member of a team inherited by new coach Sean Payton in 2006. Smith led the Saints with a career-high 13 sacks in 2009, when the club won its only Super Bowl, and his 67½ career sacks rank fourth in team history.
Smith’s death is not more important than that of any other person who dies from violence, but we pay more attention to it. The deaths of innocent victims appear in the news every day in nearly every major city, but we have become numbed. Most reported homicides contain evil intent such as gang rivalries, violent robbery or drug deals gone wrong. Most of the time we turn the page or wait until the weather report comes on, ignoring that human tragedy leaves collateral damage. Children, parents, spouses and friends of a man killed violently are left to wonder why it happened. But when a prominent figure, well known in the community, is an innocent victim, the collateral damage is extended to us. Stay tuned for the weather.
by Jim W. Miller--Visit Jim Miller's blog at http://www.jwmillersports.com/