"I was elated," Ray McElrathbey tells PEOPLE on finding out his family's story was being made into a movie for Disney+

By Lindsay Kimble
December 10, 2020 02:30 PM
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Ray McElrathbey was overcome with emotion when he learned his life story would finally become a movie. So much so, he had to leave work.

"I was in college in '06 back when I first heard that they wanted to make a movie and I was excited," says Ray, a former Clemson football player who took custody of his 11-year-old brother Fahmarr McElrathbey, while a redshirt freshman back in 2006.

Now 34, tells PEOPLE he initially thought it would be around a three-year process. So when he actually got the call that the film was a go 15 years later, he was shocked and "elated."

At the time Ray was working as a family outreach specialist and a crisis coordinator at a homeless outreach program in Los Angeles called HOPICS. "It was a rough day at work that day, leading up to that point ... And then I get an email from the producer of the movie and [he] was just like, 'Ray, it's a go. Call me.' "

"And I cried," he admits."And I was at work crying and my coworkers thought I just was suffering from the day ... Not knowing that I had got the best news of my life."

Out Friday, Safety follows Ray's time at the South Carolina university after his mother Tonya McElrathbey's battle with drug addiction led to him becoming Fahmarr's guardian.

"I grew up not in the best of situations, so I've learned to get by with minimal needs," Ray tells PEOPLE, noting that the housing and food he received through his Clemson athletic scholarship were comforts he wasn't used to.

It made the decision to take in Fahmarr actually easy, he says.

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Current Clemson football head coach Dabo Swinney and a young Fahmarr McElrathbey
| Credit: Ray McelrathBey/ INSTAGRAM
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Fahmarr McElrathbey (red shirt) and Ray McElrathbey (second from right)
| Credit: Ray McelrathBey/ INSTAGRAM

Explains the former running back, "I had other times where food wasn't necessarily available and then housing wasn't necessarily available. And so I've struggled more trying to figure out how to get those things taken care of in my life, as opposed to keeping a human happy, like my brother, who was just happy to be at Clemson and in a better situation."

Though in the film, Ray (played by Jay Reeves) hides Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson) in his Clemson dorm room for some time, the reality was a little different. In fact, he initially wasn't even trying to hide Fahmarr, as his brother was just visiting from Las Vegas — where he was living with family — at the time.

But then, "Two weeks pass, three weeks pass, a month passes." Ray didn't tell anyone else save for his roommates, who were supportive.

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The actors portraying the McElrathbeys in Safety
| Credit: Disney+

He sought advice about making the arrangement permanent from his mentors, who wanted to ensure Ray understood "the gravity of the situation."

"I was at an NCAA Division 1 [football] program, so it's even more stringent and my schedule was more structured," he notes. "And so time I would have to raise a kid and do it properly, was very limited."

But he jumped in feet first. Eventually, a local reporter got wind of the story and Ray and Fahmarr made front-page news. "And then that's when my coaches found out that this is actually real, he's not going anywhere."

Like in the film, Ray and Fahmarr moved into off-campus housing and were bolstered by the support of the Clemson community. Other universities around the country, including Temple University in Pennsylvania, also donated their per diem funds to help the McElrathbeys out.

Unfortunately, stringent NCAA rules at the time prevented the brothers from accepting things as simple as rides from their coaches' spouses, or meals.

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Ray and Fahmarr McElrathbey today
| Credit: Disney+

Eventually, Ray and the school applied for a waiver allowing Fahmarr to receive transportation and for a trust fund to be established to cover general living expenses, which the NCAA granted in a rare exception to the sports governing body's extra benefits rule.

Other sweet moments in the film are drawn from similar situations that the brothers really lived, the former athlete says. Fahmarr was allowed to sit in on team meetings, and the Clemson squad even named defense calls after him.

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From left: Tonya, Ray and Fahmarr McElrathbey
| Credit: Disney+

Of course, there were moments when the challenges of balancing it all got to Ray, but he tells PEOPLE, "I took on the responsibility of being a parent, and as a parent, I needed to be a parent. And there's no days off as a parent."

Ray eventually graduated from Clemson in 2008 after only three years and went on to take graduate courses at Washington, D.C.'s Howard University. He later played a final year of football at Mars Hill College in North Carolina.

Since then, Ray has started a trucking company called Safety Freight, and he, Fahmarr, and his mother — now sober for years — work together on his foundation, Ray's Safety Net Foundation.

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Safety
| Credit: Disney+

"We're trying to change the world as a group," says Ray. "And we're wonderful, taking everything in. There've been so many emotional highs, so many emotional levels. Because if you watch part of your life play out in full view of the world, being vulnerable, could make you question a lot of things."

He continues, "But it's been rewarding, as much as any other experience that I've been involved with, because of the people reacting to my story. There's so many people out there who've been through similar situations, who are going through it currently, and just happy to see someone else ... come out of it and be better. ... So it's rewarding, it's humbling."

Ray has, of course, seen Safety — in fact, he jokes, he's seen six versions of it.

"It even seems like it's just a minuscule part of my entire life, three years out of 34," Ray continues, adding, "But I'm amazed at what they were able to do and the things that I was able to purvey through the messaging and through the movie, in the amount of time that we use. I'm excited about it."

Stream Safety on Disney+ starting Friday.