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SmashMouth 05-25-2013 10:34 AM

Hokie Gajan taking on debilitating aches, pains like he did would-be tacklers
 
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If he weren't in such pain, Hokie Gajan would have a field day describing his physical condition. You can almost hear the colorful New Orleans Saints radio analyst cracking wise in his trademark self-deprecating style.

"I'm walking around like a drunk pelican on a swinging bridge."

"I'm about as comfortable as a mudbug in a worm hole."

But there's nothing funny about Gajan's health problems. A debilitating case of arthritic gout and the physical fallout from an injury-riddled seven-year NFL career has extracted a toll on the former LSU and Saints running back.

Today, Gajan's hands are so swollen and distorted he can't grip a fishing rod. His knees and back are so balky his wife, Judy, suggested he apply for a handicapped license tag. He's walked with a limp for two decades, and his feet are so swollen across the toe joints he's gone from a 10 regular to an extra-wide 15-EEEE.

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All this for a man who will turn 54 on Sept. 6, two days before the Saints' season opener against Atlanta.

"Hokie is 53 but he looks like someone in his early 80s because of his health," said Bobby Hebert, Gajan's former teammate with the Saints and broadcast partner at WWL-870. "We've all had our aches and pains, but he's had it tougher than any of us."

Indeed, while thousands of fans hear Gajan's colorful Hokie-isms on Saints games or see him pitching a local product on TV, few are aware of the decline of his physical condition in recent years. Most just assumed the happy-go-lucky Hokie was just humping along through life just fine.

But friends and family have seen Gajan's once active lifestyle gradually grind to a halt.

Once fast enough as a high school senior to qualify for the state track finals in the 220-yard dash, he can't remember the last time he ran.

Once able to leg-press a team-best 1,400 pounds in the Saints' offseason strength programs, he can barely lift his leg to the second rung of a barstool.

The man who used to bench-press 400 pounds with ease, now needs his wife to open a ketchup bottle for him.

"It hurts to see him like this," said former Saints offensive lineman Stan Brock, Gajan's longtime hunting and fishing buddy. "I understand how painful it is for him."

Gajan has dealt with injuries of one kind or the other for much of his life. At 2, he gashed open his forehead while spinning to the "Hokie Pokie" song his older sister P.J. taught him. The doctor who stitched him up gave him the nickname. Howard Lee Gajan Jr. would forever be known as Hokie.

"I don't recall anybody ever calling me anything else," Gajan said.

The middle son of Howard Gajan's nine children, Hokie's life revolved around three passions: sports; the outdoors; and the Catholic church. He starred as a two-way standout at Baker High School, then earned a full scholarship to his dream school, LSU, located 7 miles downriver from his back yard.

The Saints selected him in the 10th round of the 1981 NFL draft, along with classmates Rickey Jackson, George Rogers, Frank Warren, Hoby Brenner and Jim Wilks.

Gajan started 36 games as a running back-fullback for Bum Phillips' Saints teams from 1981 to 1985. In 1984 he led the Saints with seven touchdowns and an average of 6.0 yards a carry, a season record which still stands for Saints rushers with 100 or more attempts. His 903 yards from scrimmage were second on the team to Rogers.

"Hokie was as blue-collar and old-school as they come," Hebert said. "He was tough, a great teammate. If Bum would've told him to run through a wall he'd have done it or died tryin'."

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New Orleans Saints running back Hokie Gajan breaks to the end zone scoring the winning touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in September 1984.
The Associated Press archive

Injuries sidelined Gajan for three entire seasons and half of another one. He battled through back, ankle, head, hamstring and calf injuries during his first five seasons before a pair of severe knee injuries ended his playing career in 1987. The critical blow was delivered by Seattle defensive lineman Jacob Green in Week 10 of the 1985 season, rupturing all four ligaments in his left knee. Then general manager Jim Finks gave him a job as a scout in the personnel department and Gajan worked there for 14 years before moving into the broadcast booth in 2000.

For most of the first decade of his retirement, Gajan enjoyed a clean bill of health. Slowly but surely, though, things started to go awry. He had his right knee scoped and his left knee replaced in 2006. Back surgery came a couple of years later. Two years ago doctors removed the pinkie finger on his left hand. Last month they amputated the middle toe of his right foot.

"We're all dealing with our own injuries," Gajan said from Brock's Black and Gold Classic last weekend, where he spent two days trading fish tales and injury updates with about 30 former teammates. "For some of us, one part of the body is worse than the other. All of us wake up in the morning feeling like (crap). Something is hurting on you."

Indeed, few of Gajan's teammates managed to get through the Black and Gold Classic without some kind of ache or pain. Saints offensive Steve Korte limped around the charity auction on May 17 with his right knee still wrapped in gauze tape from knee replacement surgery last month.

"The injury rate in the NFL is 100 percent," Korte said. "There's only so much pain you can take before you decide to get something done about it."

Gajan's problems are exacerbated by gout, a painful form of arthritis that causes sudden and sometimes serve attacks in the joints. Gout is the most common form of inflammatory arthritis, affecting about 2 percent of the world's population. It was once known as the "disease of kings" because it was thought to be caused by protein-rich diets of meat and seafood and excessive alcohol consumption. Most gout cases today are attributed to genetics, obesity and physical trauma.

Gajan said his father also battled the disease, which is caused by high levels of uric acid in the blood. The acid crystallizes and deposits in joints, tendons and surrounding tissues.

Gajan's left elbow is pocked by large bony lumps. Another large deposit on the inside of his big toe has deformed his right foot.
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He's long grown accustomed to the awkward looks and probing queries he receives when he goes out in public.

"It's aggravating," Gajan said. "I had my 83-year-old uncle down here and he fished every day all day. And I can't. Hell, I got grandkids that can get out there and hold a fishing pole. It depresses me. No, I'm not going to go home and stick a revolver in my ear but it's aggravating."

The disease is treatable and Gajan is doing everything he can to combat it. He takes the anti-inflammatory Indocin daily to combat the pain and swelling in his joints and Colcrys to limit the production of uric acid. He also pops aspirin and ibuprofen.

Mostly, he's learned to adapt. He wears tennis shoes whenever possible, opens water bottles with his teeth and sleeps on the couch if need be.

Grand Isle fishing guide, Jeff Brumfield, enables his angling addiction by wrapping the butt of his fishing rods in soft stretch tape to aid his grip. Milk crates facilitate boarding and disembarking the boat.

"I'm concerned more than anything else," Gajan said. "I want to be able to hunt and fish with my grandkids. If I can't physically get on a boat, that concerns me."

Gajan doesn't know how much of his ailments to attribute to football and how much simply to Father Time. He's certain some of his knee and back pains are due to blows he suffered during his playing career, but he's hesitant to assign all of the blame to football.

The NFL's health insurance lasts five years after retirement, but as in Gajan's case the most serious health consequences of a football career often don't manifest for a decade or more. Fortunately, Gajan's health insurance through WWL covers most of his costs. Unlike many of his former NFL peers, he hasn't been forced to draw on his NFL pension.

More than anything, Gajan doesn't want pity. The hard-nosed son of a Marine navigates his 50s just as he did would-be tacklers, head down, shoulders lowered and square to the line of scrimmage.

"I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me," Gajan said. "A lot of people have it worse than I do. I'd have to be in a wheelchair before I'd get a handicapped sticker."

The good news is Gajan is getting better. At the advice of Brock and through the encouragement of Judy and his four daughters, Gajan changed his diet in January and began exercising regularly for the first time in years. He also stopped drinking. He's lost 30 pounds and is as close to his playing weight of 235 points as he's been in decades. Far from nimble, he nevertheless can feel the difference when he plays with any one of his nine grandchildren.

"He's working hard to change his lifestyle, to pay more attention to the things he needs to be doing," Brock said. "That's part of his makeup. He is very, very mentally tough. He's made some changes as opposed to giving up and quitting. The beauty of it is, his hard work is starting to pay off. He's getting better. I just saw him dancing with his grandkids at his daughter's wedding."

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Ashley 05-25-2013 01:04 PM

Re: Hokie Gajan taking on debilitating aches, pains like he did would-be tacklers
 
Damn good read thank you. God bless you Hokie!

Halo 05-25-2013 02:48 PM

Re: Hokie Gajan taking on debilitating aches, pains like he did would-be tacklers
 
Hokie is, and has always been, a total class act!

arsaint 05-25-2013 03:27 PM

Re: Hokie Gajan taking on debilitating aches, pains like he did would-be tacklers
 
Knew Hokie had some health issues, but did not know that they were this severe.

God Bless Hokie!

Danno 05-25-2013 04:22 PM

Re: Hokie Gajan taking on debilitating aches, pains like he did would-be tacklers
 
I'll bet you never see Hokie's name attached to some NFL injury lawsuit.

He's often said he knew the dangers so he's not bitter.

Love the guy. Class act and one lovable personality. One of the few things I like about WWL. I just wish he'd do more homework about the current NFL.

NOLA54 05-25-2013 09:34 PM

Re: Hokie Gajan taking on debilitating aches, pains like he did would-be tacklers
 
I want to know...was it worth it?

westbankdaze 05-26-2013 06:18 AM

Re: Hokie Gajan taking on debilitating aches, pains like he did would-be tacklers
 
Quote:

Originally Posted by Danno (Post 504632)
I'll bet you never see Hokie's name attached to some NFL injury lawsuit.

He's often said he knew the dangers so he's not bitter.

Love the guy. Class act and one lovable personality. One of the few things I like about WWL. I just wish he'd do more homework about the current NFL.

I bet you are right. I hope our healthcare system doesn't fail him though - he needs serious attention.

K Major 05-26-2013 08:20 AM

Re: Hokie Gajan taking on debilitating aches, pains like he did would-be tacklers
 
Quote:

Originally Posted by Danno (Post 504632)
I'll bet you never see Hokie's name attached to some NFL injury lawsuit.

He's often said he knew the dangers so he's not bitter.

Love the guy. Class act and one lovable personality. One of the few things I like about WWL. I just wish he'd do more homework about the current NFL.

+1.

skymike 05-27-2013 08:14 AM

Re: Hokie Gajan taking on debilitating aches, pains like he did would-be tacklers
 
This is terrible to hear about. I hope Hokie gets better, and
if anyone could beat something tough, its a tough old boot like
him. Thanks for posting this.

Rugby Saint II 05-28-2013 02:13 PM

Re: Hokie Gajan taking on debilitating aches, pains like he did would-be tacklers
 
Contact hurts now and later..............


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