YOUNGSVILLE — Everybody was there to watch Jake Arceneaux.
Almost literally. Everybody.
The Ascension Episcopal gym bleachers were packed front to back and left to right with students — every single one the school had to offer, from eighth grade to 12th, stuffed in like sardines, wearing Ragin’ Cajuns gear over their usual school uniforms.
Arceneaux sat at a table at midcourt, looking lonely compared to the rest of the student body. There was a Ragin’ Cajuns table runner and two Ragin’ Cajuns helmets siting atop pompoms on the table’s corner and an Ascension Episcopal Blue Gators backdrop for the cameras.
Flanked by his parents, Arceneaux, in silence, signed away the next couple years of his life. The rustling papers of his letter of intent was clearly audible, and a well-tuned ear might’ve been able to pick up the scratch of the pen on paper.
But when the deed was done? Bedlam.
This was a proud moment for the small school, the entirety of which fit in one set of bleachers along one side of a basketball gym. It was a proud moment for his coach, Mike Desormeaux, who got to watch his prized quarterback sign on to play the same position at his alma mater. It was a proud moment for his father, Joey Arceneaux, who was thinking about those mornings his son went out the door at 5:30 a.m. to go work out.
For Arceneaux, who gracefully stood and smiled with a snaking line of people waiting to take their picture with the Cajuns’ newest quarterback, it was a day devoid of drama. He’d known for a long time where he was going to wind up.
“It’s like family over there,” Arceneaux said. “There was no doubt in my mind that’s where I wanted to go.”
Arceneaux was not always a Division I quarterback prospect, but he always had the intangible qualities to play the position. His father remembers the days when Arceneaux was one of just 13 players on the eighth-grade team.
He got banged around a ton in those days and, like just about everybody else, played both ways. But he never left the field.
“He’s always had a lot of heart,” Joey Arceneaux said.
As time passed, Arceneaux’s tangible traits started to catch up — especially in the last year. Last offseason, Arceneaux said he put on about 15 pounds and grew about two inches, filling out his current 6-foot-2 frame.
His dad sounds pretty sure that Jake’s not finished, either. Arceneaux doesn’t turn 18 until May of this year.
“He’s growing every day,” Joey Arceneaux said.
He was offered a scholarship by Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth last March, and he accepted it a few days later. Then, when September rolled around, he started really showing why he’d earned a scholarship in the first place.
A more physically mature Arceneaux exploded on the field this year. He guided his Blue Gators to nine straight wins to start the season and led them to the Division IV state semifinals, throwing for 2,355 yards and 26 touchdowns while adding another 534 yards and six scores on the ground.
But his last game at Ascension Episcopal was his most unforgettable.
“His performance in that semifinal game was one of the best I’ve ever been around for,” Desormeaux said. “Any time — any time — we needed the big play, he made it. ... He was absolutely our pulse that game. If you didn’t know, there was never a doubt when you saw that game about who our guy was.’
Arceneaux had 202 rushing yards to go with 144 passing yards and two scores in that game, a 49-42 loss to then-unbeaten St. Mary. It’s days like that that make Desormeaux think Arceneaux has the physical tools to play at the Division I level.
But it’s all the other things — the same things that Joey Arceneaux saw when his boy never missed a play on the team with 13 players — that make him certain that he belongs.
“He has all the physical attributes, but it’s the mindset and mentality that a quarterback has to have, and that you really can’t teach,” Desormeaux said. “He had that from Day 1. You can see in his body language that he never gets rattled. When the situation gets bigger, he plays bigger.”
If anybody in Arceneaux’s life knows what’s required of a player to make it in college, it’s Desormeaux. He was a two-year starter with the Cajuns back before the days when they were a perennial bowl contender.
He was thrilled to see Arceneaux sign on to play at his alma mater, but he was adamant that he played no part in nudging him that way.
Desormeaux hasn’t yet sat down with Arceneaux to speak with him about the differences between high school and college football, but when he does, the lesson will be to believe in himself.
“Everybody has ability at that level, it’s not that that gets you through,” Desormeaux said. “It’s knowing that you belong, no matter what ups and downs come, just knowing in the back of your mind that you belong and you’re supposed to be there.
“If you let a little bit of doubt, a little bit of worry creep into your head, you start doubting yourself, maybe you don’t make it. The guys that make it are the guys that know they belong there.”
On Wednesday, Arceneaux looked like he belonged. Decked out in his finest vermilion and white windbreaker and hat, he celebrated with the raucous crowd of real and extended family that will be able to make a short trip across town to watch him on Saturdays.
Once he gets there, he’s planning to continue to do what got him there in the first place.
“I’m going to go in there and work like a starter,” Arceneaux said. “Whatever the coaches decide, redshirt, third string, second string, starter — I’m going to work like a starter.”