Photo by Darryl Maxie
The Morrow linemen, led by Joe Burgess (left, foreground) work hard after the rest of the team has finished for the day. Coaches like James George (right) consider them the team's most essential element.
By Darryl Maxie
The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect Morrow from its recent high school football misfortunes and to give the team a new identity worth believing in.
Forgive the "Dragnet"-esque opening, but Morrow's idea of changing names goes back further than the 1960s police drama. It's as old as the Bible, when God took an old guy named Abram and changed his name to Abraham to reflect a better future -- "a father of many nations."
And if there's any team that needs a better future, it's Morrow.
To look at the Mustangs' recent past, you wouldn't recognize them as the last Southern Crescent school to win a football state championship, way back in 1987. They haven't had a winning season in 13 years, and have gone through seven coaches in the last decade.
But that was then. Morrow is trying to establish a new now, and it starts from the inside out, according to their coach, J. Livingston.
Yes, that's J. Not J-A-Y. Just J. Georgia has had one-letter coaches before, T. McFerrin among the most well-known because he's a 300-game winner. But J isn't concerned with catching T in the W department. For a school that has five one-win seasons and one goose egg since 1998, it may be way too early to think in such lofty terms.
Many coaches speak of "changing the culture" at places where losing has become part of the fabric. At Morrow, they change the names.
It begins with the linemen. Long after the rest of the team has hit the showers, the linemen routinely go the extra mile, taking a role that had once been an afterthought and turning it into an honor duty.
The line coaches, Herbert Dunbar and James George, started it -- unintentionally perhaps. But by the time Livingston realized what they had done, they had a "Crime Boss," a "Diabetes Boy," a "Gentle Giant" and one simply called "New Guy." Oh, and don't forget "Skeletor."
There's nothing unintentional about the emphasis on line play, however
"On any team, the line is the anchor, the driving force, the engine," said Dunbar, who coaches the defensive linemen. "The team goes as the line goes. Our estimation over the last year or so is that we needed more work (on the lines). We're getting there, one step closer every day."
George said he's teaching the offensive line the difference in the thermometer mentality and the thermostat mentality.
"A thermometer just reads the temperature," George said, "but the thermostat dictates it."
George knows about turning a program around from the inside out. He played for the late Ben Scott at Carrollton. They had a dry period in the middle-1980s and George was part of the turnaround.
By the time he graduated in 1991, Carrollton had begun a run of 12 consecutive seasons in which it won at least nine games and always reached at least the second round of the playoffs.
"These guys have the same look in their eyes that we had when I was in the ninth grade at Carrollton," George said. "They are saying, 'We are the ones who can change this around.' You've got to believe in your coaches. They're being out here, that shows the level of belief they have."
Said Livingston: "We make them work harder and longer because we want them to know that 'you are a valuable commodity to us.' We've got skill people who are as good as any in the state, but what good are they if you don't have an offensive line that can block for them? And it's been like that for the last six to eight years."
The linemen have bought into the concept.
"We've got more players feeling love for the offensive line," said Joe Burgess, a senior who will be counted on to be one of its leaders. "It wasn't that way all the time."
It was hard for any of the Mustangs to feel the love with the way coaches have come and gone.
"We've had several 0-10, 2-8 and 1-9s, that kind of season, and some of that is because there's no consistency in coaching," Livingston said. "You look at Lovejoy. Coach (Al) Hughes has been there 11 years and he's been able to establish his principles and philosophies. But when you don't have that (stability) and you're always flipping the script, that never gives a coach the opportunity to develop that."
So Livingston concentrates more on developing his players' inner qualities and less on the won-lost ledger's bottom line.
"Our emphasis is on getting better, with excellence, because if you do that, winning will take care of itself," Livingston said. "If you do what's right, you will win. The world is full of athletes who do wrong and get praise. What I'm trying to do is get them do right and get praise. If that doesn't equate to a win, that's fine, because we'll still have a better person in the world. The last two years we've gone 2-18 and sent over 22 kids to colleges on scholarship. Is that a win or not?"
But make no mistake about it -- Livingston wants to win. And there's a core group of players that wants to win, too. At a place where what you're called is significant, Livingston has dubbed them his "Magnificent 30." Many of them are linemen.
"We started in the spring with 75, but through June and July that dropped to a magnificent 30, because that's all that came out (for voluntary workouts)," he said.
Despite its size, that core group has given the coach reason for optimism.
"This ain't Morrow as usual -- those days are over," Livingston said.
The players think so, too.
"We're a whole lot better than that 2-8 last year," Burgess said.
Whatever record they produce, the Mustangs are forge a brand new name for themselves. Call them determined, if nothing else.
"You're going to have to beat us," Livingston said, "because we're not beating ourselves anymore."