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Sometime in August or September of 2006, Ray Ray McElrathbey presented me with a gift to show his appreciation for putting him and his brother up for a few nights.
Offering lodging to the subject of a story is not a particularly journalistic thing to do.
But sometimes the human thing to do overrides ethical entanglements of a job that demands detachment and forbids emotional involvement.
At The Post and Courier newspaper, we had just written a story that quickly became a very big deal. But Ray Ray, who had taken custody of his brother Fahmarr, was still a scattered college kid frantically trying to find a place to live off campus.
So during that search, the two stayed in the basement of my home. And maybe a week or two later, after they'd moved on, Ray Ray presented a show of appreciation.
In the form of light bulbs. A bunch of light bulbs (yes, we ended up using every one of them).
"Ray of Light," Ray Ray texted this morning when reminded of it, followed by a smiling emoji.
What a powerful, illuminating snapshot from that crazy time in his life. In the course of all that chaos, the thought occurred to him that he wanted to give back. And a few bags of light bulbs were all he had to give.
It's been 13 years since the Ray Ray story captivated the nation and made the Clemson community proud of wrapping its arms around two of its own and providing help in a time of desperate need.
It seems like decades ago in the context of what Clemson has achieved on the football field during the utterly brilliant Dabo Era.
Nowadays, Clemson is the face of college football in many ways. Clemson is a very big deal and has been for a while now, to the point that there are middle-school kids who know nothing other than winning. Lots and lots of winning.
But back then, Clemson was not a big deal. It was seldom a national sensation. So that's the stark difference between then and now in the context of the Ray Ray story.
In 2006, it was surreal and new and wonderful for Clemson to be the center of attention. And the heart-wrenching Ray Ray saga most certainly made Clemson the center of attention for a time, from appearances on Oprah to all the national headlines to the Keith Jackson Award of Excellence to Person of the Week by ABC News to ... you get the idea. He and his brother were everywhere. Thus, Clemson was everywhere.
Ray Ray and Fahmarr came back to the basement yesterday, the same basement where they brought what must've been 200 pounds of clothes and left on the floor back in 2006.
They are in town for a movie documenting what happened. Various times over the last 13 years Ray Ray sold the rights to his story, only to see the idea fizzle with various entities.
Mark Ciardi, the producer, has been working on this for 12 years. Eventually Disney came along and took interest, and then things began moving really quickly on the movie they will call "Safety."
At halftime of Saturday night's game against Charlotte, they'll have seven minutes to stage game action and they're hoping fans stay in their seats to make it all seem real.
Ray Ray and Fahmarr are not characters in the movie, but they are close by during the filming process in an advisory capacity.
To both of them, it's hard to get past seeing hundreds of extras involved in a project devoted to their story. Ray Ray even gets a little weepy when he tries to process it all. There were times over the years when he told himself the movie thing probably wasn't going to happen. He wonders if this is really happening, whether it's all a dream.
A quick update on where they are in their lives:
Ray Ray, 32, lives in Los Angeles and has worked at various jobs including personal training and providing security for big celebrity parties.
Fahmarr, 24, has bounced around and is now in Clemson, working at a sports bar and hoping to begin a career in rapping or audio production.
They say their mother, whose addiction to crack cocaine set in motion Ray Ray taking custody of his brother, is clean and sober and in a great place mentally.
Their father, whose main demon was gambling, died in July of 2018 of complications after suffering cardiac arrest.
Yesterday, Ray Ray spent time touring the vast, sparkling football operations facility. He met with Dabo Swinney, who asked him who would've imagined back in 2006 that Clemson would be at the top of the college football world one day.
He met with Jeff Davis, a major mentoring figure who wasn't afraid to give Ray Ray straight talk during that fall of 2006 and beyond.
Amid the pay-for-play debate that currently rages, it might be useful to include the vast expansion of real-life, developmental resources available to college football players in general, and Clemson college football players in particular.
In 2006, Davis was the only person in the football program that served as a sounding board for players who were going through struggles off the field. And even then, the former Clemson great was splitting his time between that and fundraising for IPTAY.
It took an NCAA waiver to allow coaches and their wives to support Fahmarr in the form of rides to and from school, places to stay, and so many other needs of an 11-year-old kid.
Now, when you walk into the Allen N. Reeves Center the first thing you see on your right is the PAW Journey. That's where Davis and an entire staff see to it that players are being nurtured and challenged and prepared for a life that has nothing to do with what happens when 80,000 fans are watching.
At Clemson and other schools, there's now more being devoted to cultivating not just the player but the person. Where maybe athletes were viewed as more disposable commodities 13 years ago, now it seems a central focus is life after football when no one is watching but a boss.
The football program was housed in the McFadden Building during McElrathbey's day. There was no nap room, no slide and no bowling alley.
Yesterday, Ray Ray was most taken with the football program's high-tech virtual-reality system. In 2006, the only virtual reality was Ray Ray's daily reality of trying to juggle football, school and raising a child.
Before that, Fahmarr was living with his parents in Las Vegas and things got really bad. Fahmarr said he wanted to come visit Ray Ray in Clemson, and he took the cross-country flight as an unaccompanied minor.
"I was going to be down here for like a few days," Fahmarr recalled. "But I got to Clemson and saw the Tiger paws on the road, met some of the coaches. I saw those Tiger paws on the Bi-Lo, and I was like, 'I love it here.'
"I kind of had a conversation with Ray Ray and I just blurted out: 'I'm not leaving here. I'm not going back.'"
Ray Ray's recollection: "He might not remember this, but my response was: 'OK, where do you want to go? Are you going to go to foster care?'"
The answer: I'll go to foster care before I go back to Vegas.
Ray Ray now: "It made me think, like, 'Damn. OK, maybe this situation is a little more dire than I thought.'"
One of his closest mentors back in Atlanta told him he'd be nuts to try to take on the burden of raising Fahmarr. Another close confidante told him to go for it if he thought he could do it better than his parents.
So he did it.
Before long, word started to spread and then it became a story. The NCAA relaxed its rule against extra benefits to allow for a trust fund, and Ray Ray said the outpouring of contributions totaled approximately $100,000.
But this wasn't some fairy tale. Ray Ray was still a kid in college who found himself apologizing far more than asking for permission, and Fahmarr was still a middle-school student not only adjusting to a new place, but also dealing with becoming a celebrity almost overnight.
"Sometimes all I wanted to do was go outside and play but it was time to do an interview or something like that," Fahmarr said. "It's something you have to learn to appreciate, and I guess I was being unappreciative at that moment.
"But it was insane. It's still kind of hard to process. It was instant: One day I'm just walking around middle school. And the next day, I'm thinking: 'If I go to this game, there's going to be a couple of thousand people wanting to talk to me.' But once you get over that, it's amazing. It's honestly great."
Fahmarr became extremely close with the family of Rob Spence, who was then Clemson's offensive coordinator. Numerous other families also were instrumental in helping raise him during that time.
Back then the Swinney family lived right next door to the Davis family. Fahmarr remembers long hours playing with the three Swinney boys; he used to babysit their youngest son Clay, and he said Kathleen was always willing to help him however she could as she ferried her sons across town.
He says he has regret about losing touch with some of the people who helped him so much then, most notably the Swinneys and the Davises.
"It should've been something that was easy to do," he said. "I just felt like I wasn't in a position with not finishing school, and not progressing my life in a way that they would want me to. So I kind of distanced myself, I guess? That's kind of just what happened, and I do feel bad about it. I apologize. I was just not doing the right things."
At this point Ray Ray interrupts. His brother is feeling guilty about his life going down a different path, but Ray Ray reminds him that the most important figures in your life are the ones who are there for you regardless of the path chosen. And he includes the aforementioned two families.
"I sort of get what he’s saying because with whatever happens, you want to be the best you to the people who care about you the most," Ray Ray said. "A lot of the time, we think that the love we receive from other people is based on how we're currently doing and how they see us. But if we take a step back ... those people love us regardless, even when we're not our best selves. Because as humans, everybody understands that you're not always your best self. I always talk about people loving you unconditionally when you're wrong. That's the best type of love. Those are the people that you need to keep close to you."
The final chapter of Ray Ray's Clemson career was not an uplifting one. Having signed with the Tigers in 2005 as a defensive back and redshirting that first year, he played on special teams in 2006 and then switched to offense late in the season.
In August of 2007, he suffered a season-ending knee injury. When 2008 spring practice rolled around, he was at running back and looking up at a stocked position that included C.J. Spiller, James Davis, Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington.
Tommy Bowden decided not to renew Ray Ray's football scholarship. Athletics director Terry Don Phillips offered him a chance to stay on and work in the athletics department as a graduate assistant while pursuing his Master's degree. He graduated that summer and left for Howard to continue playing football.
While it's hard to imagine Swinney making a similar decision to basically cut a player who'd been out-recruited -- his oft-repeated saying upon a scholarship offer is "til graduation do us part" -- Ray Ray acknowledges that he made his share of mistakes back then and doesn’t hold any grudges.
It's here when we present to him a quote from August of 2007, before his knee injury and before Bowden told him the football program was moving on without him:
"I'm not what everyone wants me to be. I'm a 20-year-old that isn't expected to live like other 20-year-olds, and I can't do the things that as a 20-year-old I would normally do. Because everything I do is magnified, changed and looked at differently. I have to live up to standards that ... I wouldn't say they're unfair, but they're hard."
The 32-year-old Ray Ray's reaction to that quote:
"That sounded grim. It sounds like I was going through a range of emotions that I was not equipped to understand at the time. It was the youth in me. ... I wanted to be regular, a little bit. There are some perks that come with being extraordinary, and there are some perks that come with being regular. And you've got to take the good with the bad. From that interview, it sounds like it wasn't one of the better times for me. Hearing that, it's like, 'Wow Ray. You were going through it.'
"I was my own drummer for a long time, in the band of Ray. And I clashed with anyone that wanted to support me outside of how I wanted to be supported. I would get into it with the coaches over things like study-hall hours. I graduated in three years. Now I wouldn't say I was the smartest person in the world, but as far as study hall was concerned I was like, 'Naaah I don't really need it.' It wasn't that big a deal for me. ... But you can only let something go for so long until it becomes something else, and a small thing becomes a big thing.
"I guess I went about things a little differently. I guess I was a little tyrannical. And it's not that I had bad ideas; I just typically did them on my own because that's how I was used to moving: On my own."
They're together again, back in the place where everyone came together to assure big brother didn't have to do it on his own anymore.
At one point, they were celebrities in this town and far beyond. But then the rest of the world moved on, and so did they.
Now they're being embraced again, just in a different way.
How do you process this resurgence of fame, the long-awaited movie that Disney is putting its name on, the hundreds of people who are going before the cameras to rekindle this story?
Ray Ray says it really hasn’t sunk in. He doesn't know what to say when assorted extras in the movie, college kids getting paid 100 bucks a day to walk 20 feet this way and then 20 feet that way, approach him and thank him for allowing them to be a part of it.
Thirteen years ago he gave light bulbs to one small part of a community that put its arms around him and his brother, squeezing them tight and protecting them.
When he and Fahmarr returned to the old basement yesterday, they extended their arms with two more gifts that lit up the room:
FROM THE TIGER FAN SHOP: Click HERE for more in-season DEALS on officially-licensed CLEMSON apparel and gear!