By Michelle Hiskey
Ray Ray McElrathbey stands with his brother Fahmarr McElrathbey at a Clemson University game.
In 2006, Ramon “Ray Ray” McElrathbey was a redshirt freshman defensive back at Clemson when he told Oprah Winfrey, in a segment titled “Childhood Interrupted,” how he had taken legal custody of his 11-year-old brother. Their dad had left and their mom was addicted to drugs.
In 2008, McElrathbey was a graduate student in sports management playing for Howard University, testing his post-surgical knee for one season in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision.
Saturday, he’ll play cornerback for Mars Hill College, (5-5, 3-3 in the South Atlantic Conference) a Division II team tucked in the North Carolina mountains. Mars Hill (enrollment: 1,200) has no graduate school, so McElrathbey’s working on his teaching certificate.
He commutes each week to Mars Hill from Atlanta, a four-hour drive. He leaves behind his brother, Fahmarr, and younger sisters Tatiana and Brittany, and his mom Tonya, who is still struggling and looking for a job.
McElrathbey puts on his helmet with the mixed feelings of a working parent.
“I’m chasing the dream, but not trying to make my siblings’ lives a nightmare,” he said. “I know I need to be there more, just for guidance purposes. It’s a cycle in my life, people going in and out, and if I stay gone too long, I’m just like everyone else: I said I’d be there, then I left.”
Ray Ray McElrathbey
McElrathbey, 24, one of seven siblings, has stayed consistent throughout a roller coaster of life and football, said his brother Fahmarr, now 15 and in 10th grade.
“He’s shown me that no matter how many things we are going through or our family is going through, there’s someone to help me through life and to be a better person,” Fahmarr said.
In August, a casual comment at a luncheon for high school coaches landed McElrathbey his latest roster spot.
In a year since leaving Howard, he had been training aspiring high school athletes. He was planning to coach high school football. He told the men who had once coached him that he still had college eligibility, and interest.
Ray Ray McElrathbey playing for Mars Hill College.
“Mars Hill moved things along pretty fast,” he said. “I was there maybe a week and a half later.”
Head coach Tim Clifton had nurtured other Clemson players (defensive tackle Antwon Murchison, cornerback Michael Grant, linebacker Khalid Abdullah) on their way to the NFL. The Lions’ quarterback is Jon Richt, the son of Georgia coach Mark Richt.
McElrathbey, who is older than one position coach at Mars Hill, has brought the talent to score touchdowns on an interception and punt return. A motivational speaker, McElrathbey has also addressed the team.
“He brings experience and a positive attitude,” Clifton said. “He’s had some insights on things because of what he’s been through, and life lessons for people…When you’ve had to mature at the rate he had to, you look at things a little differently.”
Through his Sunday school class at Mars Hill Baptist Church, McElrathbey has formed a network of supporters for his football and family obligations.
One key figure is Max Lennon, the former president (1985-94) of Clemson.
“He’s very thoughtful about what he wants to do,” Lennon said. “Deep down, he’d like to get into the ministry, and we talk about his faith and how God has blessed him. He’s had some difficult circumstances to overcome.”
Lennon and Clifton were among the national audience for McElrathbey’s story in 2006. A trust fund was set up to help him take care of his brother.
“The thing that impressed me most of all in the national media was when Temple played Clemson, the team gave him their ($1,500) per diem,” Lennon said. “That conveys what people think of him once they get to know him.”
A movie of McElrathbey’s story is on hold, awaiting funding. He would also like to write a book one day.
Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer in Decatur, Ga., and a former Division I golfer at Duke.