I’mma tell you about something crazy that happened to me back at Clemson, in 2005.
I was living on campus and everything, 19 years old. Redshirt freshman playing special teams for the Tigers.
At one point, my family started going through some things, and next thing I know, I gotta take care of my 10-year-old little brother, Fahmarr. He came to live with me. On campus. Sneaking him around and stuff.
You can probably imagine there was plenty of stunts and clowning and hijinks and all that. Some frustrating moments. Some heartwarming moments.
Sounds like a Disney movie, right? Well, it is.(1)
But since this is The Players’ Tribune, I’mma keep it real. Me and Fay didn’t really grow up living no Disney movie life. Actually, I brought him on this with me as my guest editor to help me explain. I needed an assist on this one.
Editor Fahmarr’s note: What’s good, bro. I got you.
Anyway, yeah. I mean, listen. You don’t end up having to bring your brother to live with you in college because everything is going well.
My earliest memories of my childhood are of me and my family always on the move. Moving between Chicago and Atlanta, where my parents were from, living in the projects, living in shelters sometimes.
I was kicked out of elementary school when I was nine. My mom was having her struggles around that time and my dad was struggling as well. They had one of those situations where they were getting back together and breaking up. And my mom had a drug addiction. At this point, I stopped living with them altogether and started living with my little league football coach.
That’s how I kinda got outta that world. Once I moved in with my coach, I moved into a more stable household. Things changed for me. But for my siblings, it mostly stayed the same.
I became the brother that was typically in a better situation, you feel me. I was always the one that seemed to be O.K., so I would get calls all the time, before I even got into college, to see if I could send money or if there was something I could do to help out.
Fahmarr: Yeah, just so the people know, me and our brother, Cornelius, were in foster care for about two and a half years. So, we was just looking at Ray’s situation like, “Dang. He got it made.”
Summer ’05, Fahmarr called me countless times. Over and over and over and over again. Like, When you gon’ let me come? When you gon’ let me come? When can I come?
Fahmarr: I just hit him up every day for a whole summer. School was out, and I was doing pretty much whatever I wanted to, and just decided to hit him up. And I hit him up. And hit him up. I was like, “I just want to come visit, man. Come see you. Come see what it’s like over there.”
Right. So, finally, I saved up enough money to fly him out.
Fahmarr: It was my first time flying. And when you’re a kid flying by yourself, they let you meet the pilot and everything. It was dope. I remember how when I landed, we had like a little sentimental hug at the airport or whatever.
Fahmarr: We were running through the airport like in the movies. Ray had challenged me like, “I bet you can’t beat me to that pole over there.” And so, he gives me a head start, and we start racing through the airport. And I forget what he bet me, but he made it fun. He made it worth it. And in my mind I was like, ‘Yes, this trip is going to be amazing.’
So, Fahmarr is there, and we’re finally doing it. We’re hanging out, we’re cool.
Well, two weeks pass, and he’s still there.
I knew he was living it up, and I didn’t want to rush him out. I didn’t really wanna burst his bubble. So, one day, I’m trying to ease him into it, you know? I’m like, “It’s about to be time for you to get ready to go back, Fay. If you’re ready, I’m gonna get you a plane ticket.”
Fay’s like, “No, I don’t want to go back.”
It’s funny because I still feel bad just thinking back on that conversation, you know?
Like, of course he didn’t want to go back. I already knew what was coming next.
“Can I stay here?”
I said no. I’m on campus, I’m a college student, yadda yadda yadda. “Nah, you can’t stay with me.”
He’s like, “But I BEEN here. We’ve been good, right? I haven’t been bothering you, right?”
And I’m like, “No, I can’t.” I started looking for plane tickets.
All of a sudden, Fay said, “I’m not going back.”
At this point it’s literally like, “O.K., here’s the deal: Either you go back to Mom or you go to foster care, what are you going to do?”
Fahmarr said, “Well, I’d rather go to foster care.”
I’ve lived with my parents. I’ve lived the life he was living. And at that time, I knew they was staying in a weekly motel in Vegas. Just trying to make ends meet.
Fahmarr: We were like five minutes away from the strip in Las Vegas, close to pretty much all the bad stuff going on that you can imagine. I was just wandering around, going where I wanted to, staying out late and whatnot. I felt like I was basically raising myself.
Imagine being an older brother and hearing that. He’s literally telling me he would rather go to foster care than go back home.
So I was like, Well, damn.
Me and Fay didn’t see each other too much early on as kids.
Like I said, back then, my mother had a drug habit.
We stayed in a few different shelters, Salvation Army, things like that. All of the kids, we moved back and forth, and we kind of branched out and stayed with different family members sometimes, and then we’d come back together.
That’s when I first knew things were different for me. That I didn’t have no regular life.
When I was about six or seven, my family moved from Chicago, where I was born, to a neighborhood in the middle of Atlanta called Carver Homes.
I call them my Sandlot days.
The Carver apartments was clusters of homes, set four and six, in rows. They were all connected, and they were brick. Just your average kind of beat down housing project in Atlanta. I remember there was this big field with a whole baseball diamond behind where I stayed at, but me and my friends always used to play our games in front of the houses. Just one of those kid things I guess.
Anyway, Fay was born when I was seven. My mom was in rehab when he was born, so I stayed with my dad.
My dad had this new girlfriend that I didn’t like ’cause she wasn’t my mom. I was doing things like stealing her jewelry and throwing it in the backyard. Or sometimes I’d steal her cigarettes and throw them out.
At one point, my mom moved us from Carver Homes to a place in Atlanta called Jonesboro South. And this new neighborhood was like a rival to my old neighborhood, you feel me? Like in terms of gang violence, hood violence. So now I basically gotta live in this new hood where all the other kids are picking on me and hating on me.
I was a skinny nine-year-old kid. A little precocious, very energetic. But, even though I was this happy-go-lucky kid on the outside, deep down, I was also kind of mad at the world, maybe more than I realized, and super distrustful of authority.
So, one day, I get into a fight with a kid at school. Just b.s. kid stuff. He was jawing about something. I don’t even remember what started it.
All I know is, me and the kid were fighting, and the principal ran up on us, trying to break us up. I was a rowdy, wild little kid, so I was going. I mean, scrappin’ hard.
Next thing I know, the principle SNATCHES me up and throws me.
Like, he threw me, bruh.
And I get it. He was just breaking up a fight. But I felt disrespected. I felt like this grown man had put his hands on me.
So me reacting, like a crazy kid, I went and got a knife.
Look, you have to think, by this point in my life, I had already been through it. And my auntie always told me, “Don’t let nobody put their hands on you or talk to you any kind of way. If it happens, do what you gotta do.” It might not have been the most sound advice. It might sound like crazy advice for a kid. But lemme tell you something: That was hood advice.
That ain’t for y’all lil kids who grew up in nice neighborhoods.
And so it was just one of those things.
So, I went and got the knife, and I flattened the principal’s tires.
That’s how I ended up being kicked out of elementary school. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t just kicked out of the school I attended. I couldn’t go to any Atlanta Public Schools, anymore.
But at the time, I was also in football, and I had this great coach, Coach Mark.
Coach Mark was cool, man. I remember one time I caught a stomach virus right before our championship game. It was looking like I might not be well enough to play.
Coach knew my situation, knew that, left alone, I definitely wasn’t gonna be in shape to play, so he took me in for the weekend to try and nurse me back to health.
He’d never had any kids or anything like that, so I think that weekend was meaningful for him in that way. Like, Hey, this is something I could do.
So, shortly after that, he was like, “Well, this was a good experience. I understand that you have your struggles at home, and if you want to, you can stay here.”
Coach Mark had two jobs, so from then on, he and my other coach, Coach Harvey, took shifts looking after me. I lived with Coach Mark, and he would be there in the morning when I woke up for school. And then after practice, while he worked the night shift, Coach Harvey would step in.
I stayed with Coach Mark through elementary and middle and ninth grade. In 10th grade, I was allowed to go back to Atlanta Public Schools, and I moved in with my AAU basketball coach, Tony Hill, and his family.
If I’m being honest, there was probably a part of me as a child that felt like the people that were taking care of me was taking care of me because I was good at sports. I mean, you have to think. It wasn’t like I was living with families. I was living with coaches.
It took me getting older to realize that they weren’t doing it to get anything out of it. They were really there for me, just because they wanted to be.
I never wanted nobody’s charity. I never wanted to come off as if I was begging for something.
But one day, one of my mentors told me something that just changed my whole perspective.
I had a mentor tell me that it’s not begging if someone sees that you’re in need and offers you help. They’re investing in you because they care about you. They just want you to be good as a person. That’s it.
If they care about you, they want to see you succeed. And when you do, that’s enough. If it ain’t enough, then they aren’t the right people in your life.
Fay stayed with me at Clemson for like a month. And for a while, it was good.
Fahmarr: Dude, the 2005 Clemson team was so awesome. So awesome. Every single one of them, top to bottom of the roster, oh my gosh. They are literally family to this day.
The first day I got there, Ray was like, “I got family here. He gon’ be in my dorm.” He told his roommate that I was going to be sleeping on the couch or whatever. And his roommate was like, “Huh? I don’t know if we can do that.” But Ray said, “He ain’t gon’ bother nobody.”
Eventually, all the guys just bought in. They said, “You know what? We cool with it. We good. We got lil bruh. That’s our little brother too, now.” I remember the second day, Anthony Waters took me to McDonald’s and bought me a 20-piece McNugget.
Then it got to the media.
Long story short, I got suspended by the NCAA, and the whole thing looked like it was gonna come crashing down.
Fahmarr: Ray had a game in Tallahassee, and he couldn’t find somebody in Clemson who could let me stay over to their house. So somebody offered to let me ride down with them, and watch me as a favor. The person turned out to be a booster or something, and I guess it was improper benefits, as the NCAA saw it.
It was something they did for my brother, but supposedly if they did it for my brother they did it for me, and that was against the rules. So I was suspended immediately. “Barred from all football activities.”
Keep in mind, at the time, a lot of guys in the NFL and college football was doing things they didn’t have no business doing — getting DUIs, domestic violence charges, and stuff like that.
So, when people got word that I was suspended because I was trying to make life good for my little brother??
People went crazy.
Stephen A. Smith even did something on it. And if you know Stephen A., you know it was intense.
Basically, it just created a really tough situation for both Clemson and the NCAA. It was uncharted territory.
So, Myles Brand, the NCAA president at the time, comes out to the school to kinda sit down with me and some administrators and figure this all out. And then they reinstated me.
I think they always wanted to do the right thing. It was just an unprecedented situation and for a quick second, no one knew what to do about it.
But after I was reinstated, they established a trust fund to take care of Fay. And you know what? I’ll never forget that.
Fahmarr: Never. Forever grateful for the NCAA’s decision. Real talk.
That’s pretty much when the credits start to roll. After tearing my ACL in 2007, I finished out my degree, and then I went on to Howard to pursue my master’s and played for the Howard Bison for a year.
Fahmarr: After that, life became pretty much normal. Basically, I got all the things I wanted, like a steady household, a steady diet, a father figure, family. After Clemson, I went to D.C. with Ray, and then we moved to Atlanta. I went to Carver High School, did my own kid stuff. Stayed out of trouble. Nothing too major.
Fay, come on, man. You really gon’ lie to the people like that?
Fahmarr: Yo, chiiill.
I think you skipped over that whole period of Howard, and all the crazy stuff you were doing, man.
Fahmarr: I thought Howard was supposed to be … secretive.
Fahmarr: I was just a young kid on a college campus, doing teenage stuff. I was closer to the players in age, so we would just hang out.
Basically, they could make a second movie, and it’s the same movie except Fay’s older, I’m at a different college campus, and it’s just all kinds of chaos all over again.
But I wanna be real for a second. This might sound corny, but that whole cliché about everybody sticking together and all that cheese — it’s not just a cliché.
If people take anything from my story, I hope it’s that you don’t gotta go it alone, you feel me? And you shouldn’t. It takes a village. It’s O.K. to need someone and get help and keep it moving. That’s what I want people to get from my story.
And I hope they cry.
I’ve lived a crazy life, man.
I mean it’s so much that I didn’t even get to tell y’all about ... like, you know I was hit by a tractor trailer, right? True story.
But eventually, there came a time in my life when I could finally start processing some of it. I started doing research. I had an fascination with psychology and human behavior.
That’s how I learned about something called the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study. It’s one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and how household challenges contribute to later-life health and well-being.
In the ’90s, CDC and Kaiser did this research project, where they basically rate you from one to 10 based on a bunch of different data points about the traumas you experienced as a child. A score over four triples the likelihood of you experiencing various medical conditions, chances of you having heart disease, kidney disease, and forms of cancers.
I scored an 8.
Because of those early challenges, traumas, you’re more likely to engage in risky behavior and pick up things like smoking and drinking. You live your life a little bit wild. You procrastinate more. You almost like create drama, you know? That’s how I learned that I created pressure packed situations because it was what I was used to.
I learned all this later in life, after Clemson, after everything. There’s a lot of research out there about what happens to kids when they grow up like me and Fahmarr did.
But what helped me cope with everything that happened to me, was finally understanding what happened to me. Why I felt the way I felt. Why I moved the way I moved.
Even now, at 34, I still struggle with some stuff from my childhood. Because I grew up having to be the parent to my parents in some situations, I’m still conditioned to put others before myself. And so as an adult, I always have to take time to be like, Wait, you need to focus on you, Ray. You need to get Ray O.K.
There have definitely been times that I’ve stretched myself too far, to where I’m not taking care of myself. But it’s something I do because of how I was conditioned.
I never blamed my mom for any of that stuff I went through. Man, you know how it is with moms. Mom could tear up the world, but at the end of the day, she’s still Mama.
But I had some real issues with my dad for a long time. It wasn’t until I got into his position, where I was a parent to my brother, that I really understood, you know?
It bothered the hell out of me that I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do for my brother. I felt like I was inadequate. I carried around all this shame and shit. It really put things into perspective.
As a grown up, I’ve come to forgive a lot of the things that I faulted my dad for in the past, because I didn’t know. I didn’t understand his struggle. And knowing what he went through, considering it as a grown person — you know, like how somebody can work hard all day and then get home, and feel like everything you worked for is gone. All the money gone to bills or things it didn’t need to be spent on. All the things that you bought, all the food that was in the refrigerator, gone. And then you have to make a decision about how you continue your day.
And he stayed through that for years. I couldn’t have done it. But he stayed for years and worked with my mom and tried to help her through her struggles. When the breakup came, I was pissed, I faulted him like, Why the hell did you do this? You broke up our family.
But you know, he passed away recently, and one of my biggest regrets in life is that I never told him I came to grips with it. I never told him that I was O.K. And that I understood. I had the opportunity, and I shit on it because I didn’t know any better.
Fahmarr: Some things just go unspoken. It’s O.K.
Sometimes I look back on it, and think about how we’ve definitely been through a lot of stuff. Like, a LOT of stuff. Foster care, being separated from siblings, the whole thing with the movie. It’s just a whole lot of trials and tribulations. I think it just makes you who you are.
It’s just a test and you just gotta keep going, keep trying, stay focused. Always keep faith, because without God nothing is possible. The situation was made by his hands. That’s the only way I can look back and understand everything that happened. Because I don’t know how I made it through. I guess I just kept waking up and going to sleep with a good mindset and just having faith.
I literally did nothing. I don’t know how to explain it. Honestly, I feel like I’m background noise. My brother is the one that should be getting all the credit because he is the one that sacrificed stuff for me. It’s not the other way around.
You were never background noise. Listen, let me get this straight.
Fay was never background noise. He had to choose to grow with me.
I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. We were both practicing with each other.
Because of Fay, I got the chance to practice a skill set that most people should have before it actually happens to them, and that’s raising a kid. I was a parent before I ever had the chance to do it with my own kids. And my child’s life is better because of that.
And so, Fay, if my son’s life is better because of something you did, that makes you important.
Like I don’t know how else to put it. You know, you changed my child’s life. That’s the point.
I was investing in you. If you didn’t do nothing else with your life, you’re alive. You did that, and that’s enough.
Fahmarr: I’m just glad that you cared enough, man. I’m just glad that you cared enough to do it.
We can’t get everybody, but if you get somebody, that’s a lot more than most people can say.(2)
(1) Safety is rated PG and streaming on Disney+ beginning December 11th.
(2) The Ray Ray Safety Net Foundation understands that every child needs assistance to be their best. Founded by Ray Ray McElrathbey, the foundation works with children and families who are healing from trauma. Whether it’s rehabilitation planning for those battling addiction, or other forms of family support, the foundation seeks to provide individuals a ray of hope through education and mentorship accountability programs.