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For McElrathbey, Safety is Clemson and family

December 26, 2020

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The Disney movie "Safety" about former Clemson football player, Ray Ray McElrathbey, taking on the responsibility of caring for his 11-year-old brother Fahmarr McElrathbey, premiered on Dec. 11. "Safety" is directed by Reginald Hudlin, director of well-known movies "Django Unchained" and "Boomerang" and produced by Mark Ciardi, producer of sports films "Secretariat" and "Million Dollar Arm."

McElrathbey is played by Jay Reeves, Fahmarr by Thaddeus Mixson, and McElrathbey's love interest, Kaycee Stone by Corinne Foxx, daughter of Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, all notable subjects in the film. 

What a day Friday, Dec. 11, 2020, must have been for McElrathbey. It had to be a busy, overwhelming day for the former Tigers' safety and running back. The movie about his life was revealed to the world, and he watched it in Atlanta, where he spent most of his childhood. 

"It's definitely a lot to think about just the idea of a movie about my brother and me. Honestly, I really didn't do much today. It was a relatively quiet day," the former Mays High (GA) athlete told on Dec. 11. "I did all of the interviews leading up to today. My high school had a viewing for their seniors, and I went to that. Some of my childhood friends had a viewing, and I checked it out. Otherwise, I kind of ran around and did nothing." 

The biopic covers a fragment of McElrathbey's three years at Clemson starting in 2006. McElrathbey said the initial contact and idea of making a movie started 14 years ago. "They came to me in 2006 when the news story was fresh,” he told us on Sept. 21, 2019, after the filming of the action scene from the Sept. 2, 2006, Clemson vs. Florida Atlantic game. "I was actually contacted by multiple people interested in telling my story, but I stuck with Ciardi. They had heard about everything that I had been through up until I got to Clemson and the situation with my brother was the catalyst, I guess."

After so many years of conversations and meetings with Ciardi and several rejections of the project, McElrathbey had to feel relieved "Safety" was finally completed, and the premiere was over. 

"No, not at all," he said. "Now, I feel more obligated to continue to share because of the response. I guess people are more interested now in my story, and I'm realizing its impact on others. So now it doesn’t feel like it is over. It feels like it's just starting."

"Safety" shares how McElrathbey’s life changed in 2006 when his football career almost ended.

That year Fahmarr moved in with him at Clemson because their mom, Tonya McElrathbey, was battling drug addiction, and his father, Raheem, was absent. So the 19-year-old student-athlete found himself juggling school, football, and Fahmarr, which wasn't easy, and others did their best to assist him within the NCAA rules. But when one rule was broken, McElrathbey was suspended from all football-related activities.

"They suspended me, and people kind of lost it. People in Clemson and around the nation took the NCAA to task. I guess you can say for the treatment of me,” McElrathbey recalled.

His story was first told locally by sportswriter Larry Williams, then by the AP News, and more aggressively by national sports show hosts Stephen A. Smith (ESPN) and Jim Rome ("Jim Rome is Burning"), who used their airtime to criticize the NCAA over McElrathbey's suspension.

Clemson and McElrathbey later applied for a waiver from the NCAA to allow Fahmarr to receive help. NCAA president Myles Brand and the governing body approved the waiver and established a trust fund for Fahmarr.

"There are some people who are still at Clemson in the same position or who moved around that helped me and Fahmarr out a lot," said McElrathbey while he was back on campus to film "Safety." 

"People like Stephanie Ellison, who was the head of compliance when I was there. Since my story had a heavy dose of compliance, I spent a lot of time with Stephanie. We chatted often because I had to make sure I was within NCAA guidelines with a lot of stuff that I did. I appreciate her and everyone who helped."

As legal guardian of Fahmarr, McElrathbey simultaneously saw playing time on special teams and at safety. But after suffering a knee injury in 2007 as a running back, he never played in another game. In 2008, he graduated from Clemson with a Bachelors Degree in Sociology and a Minor in Communications in three years and later studied Fitness and Management (2008-2010) at Howard University.

At 24 years old, McElrathbey finished his football career at Mars Hill College in North Carolina, where he once picked off a pass and returned a punt 53 yards for a touchdown to help lead Mars Hill to a 48-36 win over Newberry College (SC) in 2010. 

Since his school days, he has lived in California, where he worked with former President Barack Obama's campaign. McElrathbey has also worked as a personal fitness trainer and spent time as armed security for individuals and several businesses.

Today, he calls Atlanta home again and continues to work as a trainer. Additionally, he is the owner of Safety Freight, a trucking company, and runs a nonprofit organization called Safety Net, formed to help families struggling to stay together because of substance abuse problems, with the help of Tonya and Fahmarr. McElrathbey, 34, said Tonya has been drug-free for years and Fahmarr, now 25, is fine, but sadly his father, Raheem, passed away about two years ago.

If the name Raheem sounds familiar outside of it being McElrathbey's father's name, it's because it's also the name of McElrathbey's character, who makes a brief cameo in the movie.

“Bring it up. Bring it up. Bring it up. Make sure y’all get y’all study hours in. Once a task has begun, never leave it till it’s done. Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all. Hard work on three.”
-  Raheem (Ray Ray McElrathbey)

Raheem is the football player who led the end of a practice break down scene. His part and line were brief but very significant to McElrathbey and his family. (Note: Ray Ray can also be seen during the NCAA hearing in the middle of the team.)

“Bring it up. Bring it up. Bring it up. Make sure y’all get y’all study hours in. Once a task has begun, never leave it till it’s done. Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all. Hard work on three.” - Raheem (Ray Ray McElrathbey)

"My character is a dedication to my father and the words ‘once a task has begun, never leave it till it's done. Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all’ has been a part of my life since I was young and started in athletics," McElrathbey explained.

McElrathbey said even though Raheem struggled with gambling and Tonya, drugs, he always maintained a good relationship with both and never harbored any anger for either. He went on to say that having Fahmarr taught him that parenting isn't easy, and he considers himself lucky to have gotten some practice. 

"I guess you can say I was lucky. I got to practice without actually having a kid," stated McElrathbey, who has a seven-year-old son named Ray Jr. "Fahmarr was my first shot at raising a child, and through that, I learned a lot before I became a parent of my own."

Ray McElrathbey/Instagram
Ray McElrathbey with Ray Jr. back in Clemson on Sept. 21, 2019, as the Tigers faced Charlotte.

"I try my best to be a better parent,” he continued. "As a parent, my goal is to not make the same mistakes as my parents and to use what I learned to understand what to do and what not to do."

Disney+ has over 86 million subscribers, so "Safety" was streamed and viewed by many, and with the promotion by ESPN and a star like Jamie Foxx urging fans to watch Corinne, the audience on Friday was considerable, diverse, and far-reaching.

McElrathbey said he expected the movie to get lots of exposure, but he was surprised to know who tuned in and really surprised to learn where a few were located. 

“It's Disney, so I expected a big audience, but I wasn't really prepared for the emotions that it would cause others to have," he said. "I've had people approach me or message me that I wouldn't think would be watching a Disney movie. There are even people reaching out to me from various countries like the United Kingdom, France, and India. I was also doing press in Australia."

The world is so different in 2020, and while the Coronavirus Pandemic is still raging, it may have played a part in who and how many people watched "Safety."

"I think the virus may have helped in two ways," McElrathbey stated when asked if he thought COVID-19 might have boosted the viewership of "Safety."

"One, because we are pretty much still in lockdown, so a lot of people are at home and able to watch the movie. But also, 2020 has been a hard year for most people and one of the more challenging years for the world, let alone any individual person. It just hasn't been a whole bunch of feel-good things going on."

"For the people who don't know what Clemson is, I want them to understand what Clemson is and what Clemson was to me."
- Ray Ray McElrathbey 

McElrathbey said "Safety" covers one of the better and significant stages of his life, but it was only a small part - there's more. He anticipates the movie will spark interest in the rest of his story, and those details, once shared, could inspire and assist others.

"The movie itself covers a year of my life, if that," he noted. "There's a bunch of things that led up to Clemson and a bunch of things that happened thereafter, and that's a crazy story. Other things have happened in my life that are quite interesting, and I think that a lot of people can draw inspiration from, as well as learn from my mistakes."

In less than 24 hours after the premiere, he found himself listening to and advising people who were touched by his path and willing to share details of their own lives. 

"A lot of people are opening up to me about their own struggles in life where I've always been a person that's geared towards service, now there are people that are seeking my advice," added McElrathbey, who also worked as a homeless outreach specialist in California. 

Now that the holidays are here, more and more people are witnessing an example of his service to others when McElrathbey came to his brother's aid. That selfless act catalyzed interest in his story and led to the eventual rescue, restoration, and unification of his family.

So with everything that occurred at Clemson before the movie and everything that will happen afterwards. What does McElrathbey want people to get from it all? 

"For the people who don't know what Clemson is, I want them to understand what Clemson is and what Clemson was to me," he said, reflecting on everything. "As far as being there for me, as far as being all-in in a family atmosphere and family in general. The Clemson family is like your brother and your sister."

Furthermore, he hopes the movie showed how important family is. 

"Family is really the biggest thing. Just protect your family, care for your family, and love your family. I hope they get that from it too."

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For McElrathbey, Safety is Clemson and family

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