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Before Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence became heroes to Clemson football fans, the Tigers had another hero of a different sort in their midst. Safety Ray “Ray Ray” McElrathbey took the field for Clemson in 2006. Off the field, he took in his 11-year-old brother Fahmarr as their mother battled drug addiction and father struggled with gambling. 

The journey of McElrathbey and his little brother became one of the year’s feel-good stories. Their moving story was shared with numerous media outlets, including ESPN’s College GameDay and Oprah. Now, the story has been made into a movie and it debuted on Disney+ this week.

Ray Ray McElrathbey raises his younger brother

Ray “Ray Ray” McElrathbey arrived at Clemson in August 2005. He redshirted that first season. The following year, McElrathbey’s 11-year-old brother Fahmarr visited him at school for a few days during the summer. He never left.

Fahmarr stayed with Ray Ray because there were issues back at home in Atlanta. Their mother, Tonya, battled drug addiction. Having already been in the foster care system, Ray Ray didn’t want his younger brother to return to the system. Instead, he took the time to navigate the courts and successfully petitioned to become his younger brother’s legal guardian. 

Each morning Ray Ray took care of his younger brother and got him to school. He then attended class and went to practice. The two would reunite at night, the older brother often feeding the younger with food he snuck out from the cafeteria.

Clemson helps brothers after NCAA grants waiver

After the NCAA approved a waiver that would allow the school to help Ray Ray McElrathbey take care of his younger brother, Fahmarr became a regular at the Clemson football facilities. Following a schedule, one of the coaches’ wives would pick him up after school each day and bring him to practice. He worked on his homework in the film room. 

Their compelling story of hardship and brotherly love was originally told in The Charleston Post & Courier. ESPN heard about the brothers and ran a package during College GameDay. That changed their lives forever. After, they appeared on a variety of shows from Today to Oprah

Interestingly, according to former Clemson sports information director Tim Bourret, by the end of the 2006 season, the brothers had more than double the interview requests from the media than All-American players Gaines Adams and C.J. Spiller.

Moving story turned into Disney movie

On September 3, 2006, in the season opener against Florida Atlantic, Ray Ray McElrathbey made his first tackle for the Clemson Tigers. He added two more that evening and the coaches voted him special teams player of the week. He played in 12 games that season before transferring to Howard University.

McElrathbey earned his degree from Clemson in 2008. Now, he splits time between Atlanta, South Carolina, or LA, where he worked as a personal trainer and a bodyguard to some stars. He recently added a new title to his credit—movie star.

His story has been turned into a movie called Safety, starring Jay Reeves and directed by Reginald Hudlin, who also directed Marshall. It debuted this week on Disney+.  

Ray Ray, along with Fahmarr and their mother Tonya, who is now drug-free, are working together with the Ray Ray Safety Net Foundation, designed to help families struggling to stay together because of a substance abuse problem.

“My mother had her struggle initially, but we talked about and we worked through it,” McElrathbey told ESPN. “But she understands, like I understand, that we all are not perfect, and this is an opportunity that we have to share some of ourselves so that others won’t make some of the same pitfalls.”

Ray Ray McElrathbey was a talented high school football player, good enough to play college football and earn a scholarship at Clemson. Since he set foot on campus in 2005, he’s proven time and time again he’s an even better human being.