CLEMSON, S.C. – The alarm sounds at 6:15 a.m. and Clemson freshman Ray Ray McElrathbey starts a routine like few others in college football.
Along with classes, film work, defensive back meetings and football practice, McElrathbey sees his 11-year-old brother, Fahmarr, is dressed and fed, finishes his homework and makes it to middle school on time.
Ray Ray, 19, has temporary custody of his brother because of his mother's continuing drug problems and his father's gambling addiction. The two brothers have shared experiences in foster homes and now share an apartment near campus.
They live solely off Ray Ray's scholarship while Clemson's athletic department tries to get a waiver from the NCAA that might let them accept donations without jeopardizing Ray Ray's football eligibility.
Ray Ray sought custody because he was tired of worrying what might happen to Fahmarr living with mother in Atlanta.
“I wasn't going to let him go back to a foster home, back to the system,” Ray Ray says.
The transition from football player to caregiver is one Ray Ray has cherished since Fahmarr's arrival in June.
“As a brother, it was still me first. As a parent, it's him first,” Ray Ray says. “Before I do anything for me I've got to do stuff for him.”
The elder McElrathbey sounds like a father discussing the struggles of managing a sixth-grader. It often takes two or three shouts before Fahmarr rises and puts on his clothes. Ray Ray signs off on his brother's homework, meets with guidance counselors and tries to keep more fruit around the house.
Ray Ray has no car, so a teammate or friend gives Fahmarr a ride to R.C. Edwards Middle School.
Fahmarr returns to Clemson in the afternoons, often starting his homework at Vickery Hall, Clemson's athletic academic center, or a football coach's office while his older brother works out with the team.
After practice, the two return home. There's dinner, school work and some brotherly time before Fahmarr is asleep and Ray Ray catches up on his assignments, school and football. A big night of fun might be a movie with a teammate or friend.
McElrathbey doesn't mind the sacrifice.
“My pastor told me it's the Lord wanting to slow me down. I'll take it as that,” he said.
McElrathbey has seven brothers and sisters. Because of his mother's addiction, her children have been separated, some ending up in foster care as she went to rehab.
McElrathbey's mother copes well without the stress of her large family, her son says. Other times she has vowed to get clean and go through rehab, but he says that once she was again raising her children, her problems would resurface.
Ray Ray used sports to keep himself out of trouble, often living with coaches or other mentors who kept him in school and focused on the future.
When McElrathbey came to Clemson, he couldn't help but fret over Fahmarr. “You didn't see him at Christmas dinner in Orlando crying in my arms because of his brother,” defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said.
While many in the athletic department have asked to help the McElrathbeys, Clemson must be careful the help is not seen as extra benefits. Clemson and the ACC have worked on a waiver request to the NCAA, athletic spokesman Tim Bourret said.
Koenning doesn't understand why his wife or other members of Clemson's coaching family can't assist with a trip to the grocery store or school. “I can take two boxes of toys out of my basement and give them to Goodwill, but I can't give them to Ray Ray?”
McElrathbey has no time left for a job, but makes extra spending money washing cars or mowing lawns. He says there is nothing they need he can't afford. “I just had to get rid of the 'great' things, what I call the material things,” McElrathbey said.
The NCAA says it's working with Clemson and the ACC on the best solution to assist the McElrathbeys. While the rules prohibit most benefits beyond what comes with the scholarship, “individual circumstances can and are taken into consideration in unusual situations,” the NCAA said in a statement.
Safety Michael Hamlin often drives Ray Ray and Fahmarr, and takes Fahmarr for a bite when his older brother is busy. “He's like a little clown. Everybody likes being around him,” Hamlin said.
McElrathbey is glad for the help he gets. He's more happy knowing Fahmarr is safe and sound. The younger McElrathbey told his older brother he is the celebrity on campus now.
Fahmarr was supposed to be in Clemson just temporarily. But now Ray Ray expects to maintain custody of his younger brother throughout his teen years. He stays as upbeat as possible and won't dwell on his mother's problems because it doesn't help him or, more importantly Fahmarr. Ray Ray dreams his mother might one day stay drug free to guide her children, but isn't counting on it.
“You can't get mad at people for being who they are,” he said. “You can accept it or you don't, but either way you can't get mad about it because it doesn't help.”
I hope these two have a great life and can help others-give others hope that they need.
The school announced the trust fund for the McElrathbeys on Sept. 19, about a week after the NCAA granted a waiver to allow the brothers to receive help and not violate rules against extra benefits.
Attorney Chris Olson, who has overseen donations until the trust fund could be enacted at First Citizens, said the latest account total was $48,619.
I think that is is wonderful that they allowed that. A bank employee said that this restores her faith in human beings. We could all use a little restoration of that faith IMO.