A former Clemson Tiger and subject of the Disney film "Safety" may have part of his life on screen for millions to see, but there's always more to the story.
Ramon McElrathbey, who was "Rah Rah" before his aunt coined his "Ray Ray" nickname, grew up in Atlanta, jumping to and from different project housings with his seven other siblings while his mother and father both dealt with separate addictions in crack/cocaine and gambling.
"As a kid it was terrible," McElrathbey said. "As far as my understanding of what was going on, what was happening to me and why was happening to me, I didn't understand it. I wanted so much more. As a kid, you want your mom to be clean, and you want your family to be ideal. You want the things that you can't have in life as a kid, and I resented my parents because of that at the time."
The situation with McElrathbey and his family as a child was no outlier.
"It was a common thing in my neighborhood," McElrathbey said. "There were other kids that I went through it with luckily that can understand where I was coming from, but at the same time, I knew we were all growing up fast. We embraced it and understood that it was kind of the way of the world, and the only way we were going to be able to change it was to change our own situation because we were unsure if our parents were going to be able to."
McElrathbey wore this mantra of making the best of your situation on his sleeve for the rest of his life. McElrathbey was luckier than most, being a gifted athlete in multiple sports led him to a safe haven with multiple youth coaches, who took him in as their own and showed him the discipline that he wasn't even aware existed.
"It was a contentious battle, and we all butted heads early on because I wasn't used to the discipline," McElrathbey said.
Small things, even leaving a friend's house to go somewhere else, required a call home to his coaches for McElrathbey.
"Having a curfew, a bedtime, these just weren't things I grew up with at home," he said.
Regardless of having help around you, having no feeling of stability can make anyone lonely. This made it hard for McElrathbey to get close to anyone. The worry of abandonment settling early on in his childhood.
This made it all the more surreal when he was offered his first scholarship in the 11th grade.
"I didn't know how I was going to college initially," McElrathbey said. "I always said I was going to go but it didn't become real to me until I was actually offered a scholarship."
Ball State was the first of many offers McElrathbey received. McElrathbey ended up choosing Clemson over Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia Tech, Minnesota, Tulane, and Vanderbilt. McElrathbey gave multiple reasons as to why he chose Clemson, but one thing mattered most: "family atmosphere."
"They also recruited me the hardest," McElrathbey said. "Everybody on the staff including guys like Dabo were all family-oriented, and all wanted to put me in a better situation."
McElrathbey first arrived at Clemson in the summer of 2005 before his freshman year, taking some early summer courses in preparation for the school year.
"It was an adjustment for me more than anything," McElrathbey said about his first year in college. "I had some time to prepare in the summer, so when classes started in the fall I'd already had time to adjust."
Most college students may think less work eases their stress, but McElrathbey was the exact opposite in his first year.
"Once football started, maintaining the balancing act of it all was the hardest part," he said. "I learned early that when I was bored, I procrastinated a lot more often, so I liked to keep my plate full. I learned that even when I take more I do better because I have less idle time. I understood I had things to do."
This became even more prevalent when McElrathbey's younger brother Fahmarr came for a visit the next summer after their mother moved back to Atlanta from Las Vegas, and never left.
"The kicker or I guess the catalyst for that situation was, (Fahmarr) would rather go to foster care than go back (home)," McElrathbey said. "That took me to a place where I was wondering how bad it must have been. As bad as it was for me at times, foster care was never an option. But since it was for him, it made me realize the situation was a bit direr."
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McElrathbey was able to take legal guardianship of his 11-year-old brother with the help of his coaches, and had the support of his family but was left still hurting a little knowing he couldn't help everyone.
"There was some guilt in my heart knowing I could only help one of my siblings, and how that might make the others feel, especially the young ones," McElrathbey said.
Clemson and its coaches took his brother Fahmarr in like family, and when news broke of the NCAA's potential violations for the Clemson community helping Ray and his brother stay afloat, the amount of media attention it picked up was a shock.
"It came like a wave, a tsunami type of wave," McElrathbey said. "One moment I was a regular guy, and then the next moment I was somebody else because people had bought into my story and felt that they could relate. Everybody has things that they've been through, and I think that's why people gravitated towards me is because they could relate."
In a rare ruling, the NCAA granted a waiver to McElrathbey, and it couldn't have been accomplished without a group effort from the Clemson family.
"With the NCAA and the things that were going on that time, there were guys in the NFL with domestic violence issues, sexual conduct issues, and so they were like, here's a guy who's trying to do the right thing and take care of family and you want to punish him as well, and thankfully they felt that was unjust," he said.
After his redshirt sophomore season with Clemson, McElrathbey was thrown another curveball he wasn't ready for. He tore his ACL after finally finding a foothold as an RB in the previous season's bowl game and the ensuing offseason, and it completely unexpected.
"It was traumatizing," McElrathbey said. "Up until that point, I had never been injured, to the extent where I had to miss a year, or even multiple games," McElrathbey said. "One moment I'm one of the faster guys on the team and then the next I can't walk. Especially as a young guy with your emotions still developing, it's hard. Because up until that point, you were going to make it to the NFL and you had always thought you were going to make it to the NFL."
Things didn't end with a torn ACL. McElrathbey's football scholarship was not offered back to him for his junior season at Clemson, leaving him as he said multiple times prior, "traumatized."
"I wasn't ready," he said. "I was a young man and like a lot of things in my life I didn't understand what was happening to me. Luckily, I was coupled with a bunch of good men who made me see the bigger picture that college football is a business, and at the time, my boss wasn't satisfied with my performance. And so as a person, I can't be mad at the entire entity and take out my frustrations on Clemson because an individual within the staff felt that I was no longer needed. I wanted to continue to play and continue my education, and I was able to do both of those things."
McElrathbey finished his undergraduate degree at Clemson in three years, something he notes he's very proud of, which eliminated a lot of the stress of not getting his scholarship back because his schooling was finished.
He then moved on to Howard University in Washington D.C., a big change from a D1 school like Clemson.
"You don't know the luxury you have, being in that situation," McElrathbey said. "Having multiple trainers, multiple training rooms, new uniforms, free cleats and gloves every week. It was a culture shock on and off the field going from Clemson to D.C."
McElrathbey was able to finish his schooling and his football career at Howard and moved on through the years with a slight hope for an idea that started all the way back in 2006. in 2018, Ray finally got the call about the movie he'd been pitched when he was back in college about his story with his brother.
"From 2006, all the way until 2018, there was a few deals, but nothing could ever happen until the movie was greenlit," McElrathbey said. "So when Disney came along, I thought to myself, 'Well I've done this before, no point in getting my hopes up'. So when they emailed me, I was working at a homeless outreach center in LA where most days were already emotionally draining. So when I found out, it was emotionally overwhelming. All of my coworkers thought something had happened at work."
McElrathbey's life has changed forever since the release of "Safety," and being so vulnerable about his life validated a lot of the hardships he had been through.
"I would say the movies gave me a lot more confidence, but I don't know if that would be the case for most people," McElrathbey said. "Knowing you're an inspiration to so many can change how you feel about yourself. Hopefully, it comes with a lot more opportunities to change the world that I wouldn't be able to do by myself otherwise."
McElrathbey has already taken that next step towards helping the masses, starting his Ray Ray Safety Net Foundation in hopes of encouraging and helping underprivileged youth as compared to them just surviving.
"The largest goal is to educate people, and the focus is on individuals and families like myself, to help kids who just need a way out," McElrathbey said. "Showing them that there different ways to do things, and to change the perspective of the situation that they're currently in. That's the goal of The Safety Net Foundation, to catch people."
Education, in general, is a pillar of what McElrathbey wants to do with his non-profit organization. He currently lives in Atlanta and is always working to help underprivileged youth, and also hopes for a possible miniseries touching on all the hardships he's been through in life in the future.
"One of the things I stress is financial literacy in school because a lot of the things are detrimental to these kids' mental health stems from money, and a lot of issues are solved with money," McElrathbey said. "Money doesn't buy happiness, but it can make you feel a lot safer about the things you are going through and provide a lot of opportunities to changes someone else's situation."