Former Packers RB Samkon Gado makes move from NFL to medicine with surgical precision

Olivia Reiner
Packers News
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The night before Samkon Gado returned to Saint Louis University Hospital to complete the last few months of his five-year otolaryngology residency in mid-March, he laid in bed wide awake.

The coronavirus pandemic changed his responsibilities. Instead of focusing on general ear, nose and throat surgeries, Gado prepared to treat coronavirus patients. Otolaryngologists are at high risk of infection because of their specialty dealing with airways.

Restless after a weeklong vacation, he mulled over the risks of returning to the hospital.

“Honestly, I was scared,” the former Green Bay Packers running back said. “I was scared for my family. My wife had just become pregnant. We have a 6-, a 4- and a 2-year-old. I was nervous for their sake. I wasn't as much nervous for myself as I was for the risk of bringing something in the home for them. Irrespective of the precautions I took, that risk was never gonna be zero.”

Six years in the NFL, including his rookie season with the Packers in 2005, taught Gado that no matter his effort, no matter his intentions, producing the best possible outcome was the most important part of his job. In football, that meant if he couldn’t score touchdowns or rack up yardage, his opportunity with a team ended. In medicine, the repercussions are greater.

“It's not personal,” Gado said. “This is not about you, it's about someone else's life.”

Samkon Gado completed his otolaryngology residency at Saint Louis University and spent six years in the NFL.

To help those with coronavirus, Gado placed surgical airways in patients that had been on ventilators for more than two or three weeks. The procedure puts holes in patients’ necks and creates open passages, which aerosolizes the virus and makes it easier for those particles to spread.

“We have had the privilege of not being put at risk for most of the day-to-day of what we do, but now this is when the reasons why you choose to go into medicine are really put to test,” Gado said. “Is it for the money? Is it for the prestige? Or is it to take care of people? And if it's to take care of people, then you do that even if it's a risk to yourself and your family.”


For Gado, who was born in Nigeria, football never was his primary aspiration.

“I think football was always just a dream,” Gado said. “It was never anything that I felt like I could base my life on. It was something that I felt like I aspire to, but at the very best, it was gonna have to serve some kind of adjunct function in my life, that it couldn't be the end-all.”

Football became the means to fund his goal of becoming a surgeon in his native country. Gado took pre-med classes and played college football at Liberty University, a then-Division I-AA school in Lynchburg, Virginia. His opportunity in the NFL came when the Kansas City Chiefs signed him to their practice squad Sept. 5, 2005 as an undrafted free agent.

“I prayed at an early age that if I could just get four years, which was retirement, that would be enough to cover med school expenses and put me in a position to have retirement when I turned 55, 65,” Gado, 37, said “So that was just really my goal was just to get to four years. If I got to four years, anything after that was gravy.”

Packers running back Samkon Gado rushed for 171 yards against the Lions in 2005.

Gado got more than four years in the league. He played six, including a stint in Green Bay that drew league-wide attention. The Packers signed Gado to their practice squad after he was cut by the Chiefs on Oct. 4, 2005. When starting running back Ahman Green and backup Najeh Davenport sustained season-ending injuries, Gado got the call-up to the active roster less than two weeks after he joined the team.

In his first game as a starter in Week 9 against the Atlanta Falcons, Gado carried 25 times for 103 yards and two touchdowns, and was named NFC Offensive Rookie of the Week. In Week 14 against the Detroit Lions, Gado rushed for 171 yards and set the Packers rookie record for the most single-game rushing yards. In eight games that season, Gado registered 143 carries for 582 yards and six touchdowns.

“I never considered myself being a star,” Gado said. “I think my time in Green Bay was unexpected and very exciting, but that was still the anomaly. It was not the expectation.”

In the offseason, Gado worked as a surgical technologist at Bellin Health hospital in Green Bay. There, he was Sam, not Packers running back Samkon Gado. Despite his efforts to go unnoticed, he still found himself on the receiving end of double-takes, curious glances and the occasional “you look kind of familiar.”

Gado continued to pursue medical opportunities in the offseason throughout his NFL career, even missing portions of the Houston Texans’ voluntary workouts in 2007 to study for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).

His time in the league ended when he didn’t make the initial Tennessee Titans roster in 2010. With the realization of one goal, the quest for another began. To become a physician, he needed to go to medical school. His MCAT score from 2007 expired, so he decided to take the test again. Satisfied with his final score, Gado enrolled in the Medical University of South Carolina the following year.

“I think the hardest part for me was not necessarily moving forward but just kind of letting go of football,” Gado said. “’Cause once medical school started, I mean, that was like a whirlwind in and of itself. There was no time to really put your hand at the plow and look behind ‘cause it was moving fast. I remember my first day of medical school, I came home that night and literally did not sleep. I stayed up all night trying to digest the four lectures I had gotten that day.

"It forces you to move on.”


From medical school to residency, Gado stayed focused on his dream of practicing surgery in Nigeria, where his parents and most of his extended family still live. During the third year of his residency in 2018, Gado spent a month in Nigeria for an away rotation with his wife, Rachel, and three young children.

“I think as a Christian, it's hard to have that skill and ability, to have my background being from there and I think being given so many things from there, not just the tangible and the intangible, but a lot of my perspective and who I am comes from my Nigerian experience,” Gado said. “Just seems like the right thing to do and the need is really good and I'm capable of filling it. It almost feels like a calling more so than a desire.”

Initially, he hoped to move back to Nigeria after his residency and work as a surgeon. But with each passing year, Gado learned more about Nigeria’s health-care infrastructure. A 2018 study from the medical journal The Lancet ranked the country 142nd out of 195 worldwide in health care access and quality. While surgery is a need in the country, Gado determined that Nigeria’s greatest demand is for a basic health-care network independent of government regulation. If he wanted to assist as many people as possible, he needed help building out a viable framework.

So, Gado turned to an expert in organizational structure who shared his desire to give back to Nigeria: his older sister, Ruth Coleman.

Samkon Gado traveled back to Nigeria for a part of his residency and hopes to move back full-time in the future.

For Coleman, the opportunity to collaborate with her brother on addressing the health-care crisis in Africa was the “perfect sweet spot.” It combined her professional background in social work, her master’s in organizational leadership, her personal experience with chronic illness and her desire to improve the lives of African people.

“We're this brother-sister duo that wants to change the world,” Coleman said. “That's a little dramatic, but I think for me, it's just really exciting to work with family. It's crazy that I'm working with my brother, but then we're working for our own community. These are our friends, our family and our community. Our country. And then hopefully, the continent.”

Their organization, called The Jonah Inheritance, aims to build a scalable health-care network by investing in indigenous African doctors and giving them ownership stakes. The initial goal is to open a clinic in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. After several clinics have opened throughout the country and the organization is able to provide an insurance policy, Gado and Coleman hope to establish a surgery center. Gado sees himself moving back there permanently within the next five to 10 years.

For now, it’s time for Gado to slow down.


A six-year career in the NFL. Medical school. Eighty to 100 hours a week in the hospital during residency.

Gado’s lifestyle was not exactly conducive to spending time with family.

At the conclusion of his residency this summer, Gado will move back to Lynchburg, this time with Rachel and his children. There, he will join his former Liberty teammate Jay Cline in his ear, nose and throat practice, where he’ll have more flexible working hours.

“I'm so excited for him, even at work, that he'll be on his own and it's going to be both scary and exciting,” Rachel Gado said. “But you can't really soar until you're thrown out of the nest. I'm excited for him to experience that and to take off. I'm very, very excited for him to not have such a demanding schedule, to be able to spend more time with me and the boys.”

It was Cline who exposed Gado to otolaryngology by introducing him to others that worked in the field. The former Liberty roommates attended the Medical University of South Carolina at the same time: Gado was in medical school and Cline was doing his residency. Now, Cline is looking forward to bringing in the same level-headed Gado that he came to know on the football field.

“It's the same guy,” Cline said. “He's still extremely disciplined. He still has a great love for people. He's a great team player. He’s grown and matured, but I think the heart of the guy is the same.”

Throughout his career, his passion for medicine and for helping the Nigerian people never wavered. With his focus still on that ultimate goal, Gado must say goodbye to St. Louis, where he played with the Rams for two seasons, met his wife and will finish the training portion of his education.

“This is Rachel's, my wife's, hometown and we've lived here for half of our marriage, so I think leaving is gonna be hard,” Gado said. “But it's necessary. I think if Nigeria is gonna be a reality, I think moving to Virginia is part of that step.”

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