There are a handful of running backs in club history that have been a beacon of consistency, piling up carries and pounding out yardage annually. For the Packers, Samkon Gado is just a flash across the team’s landscape over the last half of 2005 that is as memorable for its brilliance as it was brief.
Part of it is the Nigerian-born Gado’s name, which instantly wedges itself into the mind. However, it is the undrafted free agent’s sterling play over a seven-game stint that is remembered most, despite it coming during a season in which the Packers finished 4-12.
Gado wasn’t signed to the Packers practice squad until mid-October. When he was promoted to the active roster following season-ending injuries to the top two running backs, he was buried deep on the depth chart. In his first game, Gado had a single carry for 8 yards. In his second NFL contest, he came off the bench for 62 yards and a TD against Pittsburgh. After that, inexplicably at the time, the rookie from tiny Liberty University emerged as one of the league’s niftiest rushers.
He ran for over 100 yards three times in the next six games, scored six touchdowns and captured the imagination of fans with his humble approach and uncommon path to the NFL. Gado ended up leading Green Bay for the season with 582 yards, the second-highest total for a rookie in club history. He was traded to Houston after the first game of 2006, and bounced around the league for nearly six years total, but it is that stretch of performances his rookie season that brands his career.
“For a guy like me, it was short but sweet, but it was amazingly sweet,” said Gado, from his home in Charleston, S.C. “That was just a short amount of time, but it helped define my life. I still meet people that say, ‘Hey, you’re that guy with the Packers,’ and it strikes up a conversation. You kind of move on, but it reverberated way beyond football.”
Gado recently completed his first year at The Medical University of South Carolina. He always said he aimed to attend medical school so he could return to Nigeria as a doctor, even when he arrived in the NFL. In ’07 he took time off from the Texans’ offseason conditioning program to study for the MCAT. Even his wife, Rachel, knew from the start.
“On our first date, I told her what my plans were,” said Gado, who is doing research with an anesthesiologist this summer. “That was the first thing I wanted to get out there. If we were going to go on a second date, I figured she should know. I have three years left of school, four more years of residency.”
Circle back to ’05, when the Packers’ backfield was decimated by season-ending injuries to Ahman Green and top reserve Najeh Davenport. After a solid performance against the Steelers, Gado was inserted into the starting lineup for the first time at Atlanta. It was his 23rd birthday. He rushed for 103 yards and a pair of TDs and caught four passes for another touchdown. Green Bay took home its first victory in over a month.
“The most amazing part of that game was all of the most important people in my life were there,” said Gado, who was named NFL Rookie of the Week. “Everything was starting to happen and they were there to see that. It was like a gift, to see all the sacrifice present itself.”
The gifts kept coming. Two weeks later he slashed for 111 yards and a touchdown at Philadelphia. In the next game he posted 75 yards and a TD against the Bears. The following week against Detroit at Lambeau Field, Gado had a remarkable performance: 29 carries for 171 yards and a touchdown. It’s the highest rookie total in club record books, and the seventh-most rushing yards by any player.
“At that point, the game started slowing down and everything stopped seeming so foreign,” he said. “I could anticipate more and I understood the convergence of getting my stride and playing an opponent. The Lions weren’t having the best year, either, and everything seemed to click.”
During a year where little was going right, Gado was something to feel good about over the last half of the season. He had been cut in training camp by the Chiefs before arriving in Green Bay, so he was a longshot who had overcome the odds. He was overwhelmingly polite, thanked his offensive linemen on the sidelines after scoring touchdowns and generally viewed his success with wonder.
Every now and then, he’d hole up in his apartment after practice and try to make sense of a season that turned out to be Mike Sherman’s last as head coach.
“I was a small-time kid from a small-time school, and there were no expectations for me to do as well as I did during that stretch,” Gado said. “The team really embraced me. I look back on it often. I think my favorite part was just getting to know the city and experience the excitement. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.”
The whirlwind ended suddenly. On Dec. 19, he had six carries for 45 yards against the Ravens before suffering a sprained knee. His season was over. Ultimately, his career in Green Bay pretty much was, too. He would go to camp with the Packers in ’06 and made the team, but was traded in early September to Houston. GM Ted Thompson pulled the trigger on the move as he rebuilt the roster.
“At first I was shocked,” Gado said. “For a month I couldn’t believe I was traded. I realize now he was setting up his team to look a certain way. He knew what he was doing and what he wanted. To this day, I still consider myself a Packer.”
Gado played for the Texans for two seasons and appeared in 11 games, and played in 16 contests over two years for the Rams. He also had a brief stint with the Dolphins in ’07. Of his 972 career rushing yards, all but 382 came during that magical stretch with Green Bay in ’05. Now he’s in the medical library at 6:30 a.m.
“Sometimes I’ve wondered why the other five years didn’t look like the first,” Gado said. “That season reverberates way beyond football. It opened doors for me where other coaches took chances on me. I ended up playing in St. Louis, where I met my wife. It set my course in other areas as well. To this day my friends and I talk about that season and there are memories I cherish. I always knew medical school was what I was meant to do, and I’m thankful for the time I had.”
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