BY ROD WALKER
Julien Gums has played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome just once.
He was around 9 or 10 at the time, playing for the Easton Rhinos park ball team during halftime of a Saints game.
Gums, now a senior quarterback at De La Salle, was too young to remember many details about that game in the Dome.
But he knows he, and everybody else who has ever walked the halls at 5300 St. Charles Ave., will remember his next one in the Dome.
De La Salle plays University High in the Division II championship game at 3:30 p.m. Friday.
“It’ll probably be some tears when I get in there,” he said. “It took us three years to get here.”
Well, it actually took longer than that. Much longer.
It’s been 56 years since the Cavaliers played for a state championship.
Gums, who scored three touchdowns two weeks ago in the semifinals, is a big reason.
He has rushed for 1,141 yards and 15 touchdowns and thrown for 1,096 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The right arm that has thrown every one of those yards has a tattoo on it that motivates Gums, but it could also serve as a battle cry for the De La Salle football program.
“Without struggle, there is no progress,” it reads.
The Cavaliers have steadily progressed since Gums took over as the starting quarterback his sophomore season. They didn’t lose a regular-season game the past two seasons.
Now he has just one more game left.
De La Salle coach Ryan Manale, the architect who resurrected the program, will miss having Gums and the other 18 seniors around.
“Julien is unbelievable,” Manale said. “And I’m not even talking about football. He’s a kid that if you ask any teacher at the school about, you won’t find one who will say something bad about him. He’s humble and works extremely hard. On top of that, he’s a gifted quarterback. He’s special. He’s just a winner.”
But the Gums you see now is not the one Manale saw four years ago.
Gums, or “Juju” as many of his peers call him, is now a muscular 5-foot-11, 220 pounds. That’s a long way from the scrawny 5-foot-8, 160-pound frame he carried around as a freshman.
It was when he injured his shoulder during his freshman year against John Curtis that he realized something had to change.
“I said that can’t happen anymore, and I worked hard, so I had to get bigger and faster and stronger,” Gums said.
It also helps that he’s a pretty good chef. Lasagna, he says, is his best dish. In fact, he’d like to major in culinary arts in college.
His mother, Juliette, after whom he is named, taught him to cook. Her name, along with praying hands, is inked on his left arm.
“That’s my way of telling God to always watch over her and makes sure she’s OK,” Gums explains. “Other than God, she comes first in my life over everything. School, girls, everything. She means everything to me.”
His mom and four siblings moved to Texas when Gums was in ninth grade. He decided to stay in his hometown of New Orleans, where he lives with his father, Herbert Gums.
“I talk to them every day, but I don’t get to see them every day,” Gums said. “But I’m glad I stayed. I made a good choice.”
His siblings now are his De La Salle teammates.
“I don’t get to see my brothers, so I am always happy to do anything for my brothers on this team,” Gums said. “That’s why I make sure everybody on the team is doing the right thing. I just like to be there for my teammates, no matter what it is they need.”
His next stop is Nicholls State. He has verbally committed to the Colonels and is expected to play running back.
Despite his lofty stats, Division I schools never flocked to De La Salle to try to sign him.
“He’s the most underrated running back and linebacker you’ll find,” Manale said. “The only reason is the eye test because they see him as being a couple inches shorter than they like. But he is a football player.”
Manale gets to coach Gums one last time Friday.
Gums will text his mentor, Kenneth Polite, before the game just like he always does.
Then he’ll try to do what he’s done all season long: lead the Cavaliers offense.
He’s done it this season despite being hampered by back spasms and a sometimes-gimpy ankle.
“I’ve always just tried to give every breath in my body to help us win,” Gums said. “I fought the pain and just said forget it. I can’t worry about the pain. I just worry about winning. I am just grateful that I was blessed with the talent and just thankful I gave my all.”