CAMILLA -- On the night of Sept. 19, 2008, Pelham head football coach Jim Morrell picked up the phone -- and through a river of joyful tears -- placed a call to The Herald.
"It's just awesome," began an emotional Morrell as he tried to find the words to report that the Hornets -- mired in a three-year, 31-game losing streak -- had officially just ended that skid with a 14-6 win against Randolph-Clay in his first year as coach. "The people of Pelham have waited a long time for this, and I hope now we can start a new streak."
Pretty impassioned words from a guy who grew up rooting against Pelham when he was a football player for rival Mitchell-Baker High.
But that's just Morrell: the kind of man who put all that aside and put his heart and soul into everything he did for -- and every word he spoke to -- his one-time rival he'd grown to love.
And now two and a half years later, that hope of starting a new streak is no more.
Morrell was forced to resign last week after three years and a 6-25 record. He candidly admits he's not sure where he'll go from here or what he'll do next.
But one thing he's sure about? He's not leaving the region of Southwest Georgia he's long called home.
"I'm from this area, I grew up in Camilla and I plan on staying. Pelham was not my home, but I made it my home and I enjoyed every minute of my three years here," Morrell said during an interview with The Herald on Tuesday. "I just wish I had been given more time to continue to turn things around."
Pelham went 0-10 last year, although they started 2-2, then were forced to forfeit two games after Morrell discovered he'd used an ineligible player in the Hornets' first four contests of the season -- a violation he courageously self-reported to the school and the GHSA, even though no one knew about it but him.
"It affected the outcome of our season. That was kind of where things took a turn this year and we just never recovered, even though I feel we really were in all but one of our ball games the rest of our season with a chance to win," Morrell said. "If we finish 5-6, do we still have problems (that need to be addressed)? Sure. But when you go 0-10, it magnifies those problems.
"I thought we were on the right path to (fixing) those issues, but the (administration) decided they wanted to take the program in a new direction. But hopefully, if nothing else, the situation this year taught my kids how to be men, have integrity and do what's right. I can walk away proudly knowing that."
Morrell said he was "sick" when he discovered the mistake he -- and he alone -- made in allowing the ineligible player to compete. He told his principal, then called the GHSA and then told his kids.
"I went straight to them and told them I made an honest mistake -- that I'd screwed up -- and that I was sorry," he said. "I explained to the kids that this is what you do (in life) when things like this happen: You admit you were wrong, ask for forgiveness and move on. I've thought a lot the last week about whether that mistake (is what cost me my job) but ultimately, I know I did the right thing. I thought I was going to get a chance at a fourth year and an opportunity to (atone) for our 0-10 season -- and there was a lot of excitement building among the kids as we worked out in the offseason -- but (the school) wanted to move in a new direction.
"I appreciate the opportunity the folks at Pelham gave me, and the community has been very supportive. So I'm very thankful for that."
Morrell was the principal at Early County High School in 2007 -- and had been out of coaching for a number of years -- when the job came open at his one-time rival. He said he jumped at the chance to take on a challenge -- and the Hornets were just that, having gone 0-20 combined in their two previous seasons without much promise that the losing streak would end any time soon.
"I really felt it looked like a good opportunity," Morrell said of his thought process at the time of taking on the challenge. "And to get that first win after all that losing, well ... that felt great."
It took Morrell just four games to snap the skid. And although the Hornets finished 1-9 that season -- getting outscored 243-24 in their final six games -- he returned in 2009 feeling like they'd won one small battle in an enormous war.
"We came back the next season, went 5-5 and made the state playoffs," Morrell said proudly. "Yeah, we got beat in the first round, but we're talking about a team that'd (been 0-31 in three-plus) years (before that). I thought we were rolling in the right direction, and I hate that I won't get a chance to see where it would've gone. But I hate it for the kids more than anything."
Pelham has yet to hire a new coach.
Morrell was in the middle of offseason workouts with his team when he was delivered the news. He'd been told after the 2010 season ended that the participation numbers needed to increase and that the administration wanted to see "some changes" before next year. The school has just added a new weight room, which Morrell and his kids were taking full advantage of twice a day, "working harder than ever," he said. And even before the new weight room at the new school was opened, Morrell was bussing his players back and forth to the old weight room at the old school for morning and afternoon workouts.
"I was looking forward to next year because I knew we had a real good crop of kids coming back and some good new kids coming in," he said.
That included the Hornets' star player, field general and leading scorer, rusher and passer from a year ago, quarterback Caleb Morrell -- the coach's son.
And his father's forced resignation left the junior signal caller with a touch decision.
"Caleb was torn. Really, really torn. He was torn between supporting his teammates and all his friends, or supporting his dad," the coach said. "I told Caleb, 'I'll do whatever you want to do. If you want to stay, I'll support you, cheer you on, go to every club meeting, every game and just be your daddy, and nothing else. But if you want to leave (and transfer to somewhere else), I understand.'
"He was forced into some real grown-up decisions real fast."
Caleb made his decision late last week, deciding to transfer to Camilla's only private school, Westwood, where the Wildcats were coming off a completely opposite kind of season than the Hornets had: 13-0, complete with a GISA Class A State Championship.
It was a decision that brought a smile to the face of Jim Morrell in a week where there hasn't been a whole lot to smile about.
"(Westwood's football coach) Ross (Worsham) is my best friend -- has been my whole life. We grew up together, played high school ball together and then went to Georgia Southern together. He was in my wedding, and I was in his, so I'm tickled to death he's going to being playing football for Ross," said Morrell, who then added with a laugh: "He's a lot better football coach than me anyway."
Caleb is also close friends with Westwood's star quarterback, Mason Worsham, who is Ross Worhsam's son, and who is also a junior.
And suddenly, the Wildcats' football program just got a whole lot better one year after winning it all.
"I'm excited, I really am. Because I'll get to see my son play football his senior season and just be a dad," said Morrell, who added that he currently has no plans to join Worsham's staff as an assistant or volunteer coach. "I don't know what (my future holds as far as my next job), but I do know I'm not moving Caleb. He'll graduate from Westwood, and I'll be there to watch him play football and baseball during his senior year."
Morrell, who was also the school's athletic director when he was forced to resign, says he'll work out the rest of the year coaching physical education at Pelham Elementary, then "see what (jobs are) available" around Southwest Georgia after the school year ends.
"I may just coach P.E. here. Right now, I love it," Morrell said. "Or I may coach at a middle school, or ref football games. Right now, I just don't know."
But he does know he leaves Pelham without an ounce of regret.
"I wish the (school and the football program) the best, and hopefully I left them with some good things to build on," Morrell said.
And if nothing else, he at least gave the Hornets a win on that joyful, tear-filled night in 2008 that the town will not soon forget.