NFL Running Back and Liberty Alum Returns to Lynchburg to Practice Medicine
As Samkon Gado suited up Nov. 13, 2005, to take the field for the Green Bay Packers in his first NFL start, he knew Jay Cline, his best friend and college roommate, was watching from the stands.
They felt like they were living an absurd dream. Both pre-med students and football players at Liberty, the duo bonded over four years of brutal schedules, constantly juggling medical coursework with their football practice.
Now Gado was playing with Brett Favre, barely a month after being cut from the Kansas City Chiefs roster before ever playing a game. Three touchdowns later, his NFL career was off and running – a six-season career that would take him all over America, from Green Bay to Houston and everywhere in between.
“It didn’t seem like it was really happening,” Gado said in a video call.
That November night changed his life forever. But fifteen years later, he is back in Lynchburg, reunited with Cline not by football but by the love for medicine they both share. All along, Gado has known what his goal is: one day serving his homeland of Nigeria through medicine.
Gado’s journey didn’t always point toward medicine, much less the NFL, however. Born in Nigeria, he moved to South Carolina at age 9 because his father wanted to attend seminary.
In his new surroundings, Gado soon wanted to play football, but his parents wanted him to play soccer, Gado’s father said in a Liberty Game On video. Eventually, however, his parents relented – and Gado’s football career began.
As his skills increased as a running back and he started thinking about college, he made the decision to attend Liberty University and play football. Before long, he would cross paths with Cline for the first time.
“The first time I had the opportunity to meet him was during a summer practice session before school started,” Gado said. “We were part of a small group of players on the football team who had the same perspective, with very similar interests with regard to school and our walk with the Lord.”
Cline and Gado quickly realized that their dreams lay along the same lines. Both football players and pre-med students passionate about their studies, both soft-spoken, studious men, they quickly ignited a fast friendship – a friendship full of humorous college moments.
Gado often visited Cline’s home in Danville, Virginia, during breaks.
“His mom would make my favorite casserole and I’d sleep in his bed downstairs, and we would just get doted on for two days,” Gado said. “She’d send us back with these piles of food, and of course it’d be gone three days later.”
But even as they enjoyed fun memories, the relentless pace of life as a college football player meant that maintaining high grades in pre-med honors coursework was a constant juggling act – a challenge that Gado would become increasingly acquainted with as the years rolled by.
“Those were busy days. Lots of early mornings and lots of late nights – I think playing any sport during college definitely changes your college experience,” Cline said in a Zoom interview.
Though he worked hard, Gado never believed he could make it to the NFL. So, when he graduated and Flames Coach Ken Karcher helped him get an opportunity to sign with the Kansas City Chiefs in the summer of 2005, he jumped at the chance.
The Chiefs cut him before he ever played, however, and before long the Packers signed him – thanks to the slate of injuries that would eventually give him his opportunity to start that fateful November evening in 2005.
It was a moment he will never forget.
“I wanted the game to end as quickly as possible so that I wouldn’t mess it up – and I was so glad when the game was over,” Gado said.
Gado would go on to win two NFC Rookie of the Week awards and score seven touchdowns that season, according to ESPN – quickly gaining a reputation among Packers fans in a year often marked by failure for the Packers (a 4-12 disaster).
Looking back now, one memory in particular stands out for Gado as one of the highlights of his career: a double-date with then-fellow rookie, now-NFL legend Aaron Rodgers.
“There was a girl that he was interested in from his hometown in college, and she brought a friend with her,” Gado said. “So, we went on a date, it wasn’t really that remarkable when it was happening. … We went out, had a nice steak dinner … And that was that. It only really became something significant when Aaron became Aaron and then it was like, ‘Yes, I have that story. I was his wingman.’”
After that famous season, however, Gado moved between teams with varying degrees of success, always knowing that his ultimate goal was expanding his medical knowledge – not NFL success.
“Because of the way that I entered (the league), I never felt that I was given the assurance to know that (football) was something I could plan on the next year,” Gado said. “I never signed a big contract; I never was drafted. … I was always afraid that I was just one decision away from going to medical school.”
Simultaneously, however, Gado knew he wanted to return to Nigeria as a doctor one day – and he was preparing for that very thing, even as Cline went through medical school. In an NFL.com interview with Adam Schefter in 2007, Gado discussed missing offseason practice so he could study for the MCAT to apply to medical school. According to ESPN and PackersNews.com, he even spent time working at nursing homes and other medical facilities to sharpen his skills during most offseasons – and when the end of his career finally rolled around in 2010, he knew it was time to make the step and apply.
That decision saw Cline and Gado reconnect, five years after graduation separated them. Gado chose to attend the Medical University of South Carolina to continue his studies – the same school Cline was in his residency at as an ENT specialist.
Both married by that point, Gado and Cline had kept up with each other throughout Gado’s NFL career, with Gado often visiting Cline or vice versa when they had spare time.
“It was fun for me – it was exciting to vicariously continue my football career through Sam. I had hung up my cleats, and part of me was thankful to be done,” Cline said, “But … it was really exciting to visit and go to games. He’d give me tours of the locker room, so that was fun.”
After making the jump from constant NFL action to nonstop studying, Gado graduated from medical school and applied for a residency at Saint Louis University – an opportunity he attained as he followed in his friend’s footsteps to study otolaryngology (ENT).
All along, Gado had planned to move back to Nigeria to begin his work in his homeland after finishing his residency, but when the 2020 coronavirus pandemic hit in his last of five years at SLU, he knew his family would need a break.
After finishing his residency this summer, the opportunity opened up at Cline’s ENT practice in Lynchburg to reconnect with his lifelong friend – and he realized Lynchburg could be that break.
“We’ve changed our approach a little bit,” Gado said. “Residency happened, a wife and three kids – with another one on the way – happened, and I think we just needed a time of recovery. So that was what led us to come to Lynchburg. The job really seemed to be a good step – the right step in my learning.”
As he continues developing a plan to help Nigeria through his organization, The Jonah Inheritance, aiming to build surgical infrastructure in the country while involving local doctors, he is enjoying his time reconnecting with Cline, 20 years after they first met.
“Our goal really is to start finding doctors who are indigenous and supporting them,” Gado said. “And one of the ways we want to do that is to build clinics for them, create an infrastructure … and hopefully down the road we’ll be able to open up a surgery center. And so Lynchburg seemed to be the perfect place to start developing the skills to do that.”
Though life brushing shoulders with Aaron Rodgers and blasting through defenses seem a world away, football and medicine have come together to provide Gado with a one-of-a-kind resume, and he’s grateful for every opportunity he’s had. He has no idea where medicine may take him next – but somehow, Cline will probably be involved.
“The question we’ve asked ourselves is why does the Lord keep bringing us back together,” Gado said. “Is it to keep making us better and sharpen us for different things, or is it for something together?”
John Nekrasov is the Sports Editor. Follow him on Twitter at @john_nekrasov.