‘Safety’ tackles story of Clemson football player who cared for brother as mom battled addiction
By PETER SBLENDORIONEW YORK DAILY NEWS |DEC 07, 2020 AT 9:00 AM
Former Clemson football player Ray Ray McElrathbey says making the new Disney movie “Safety” often felt like watching an instant replay of his life.
The film is based on the true story of McElrathbey bringing his 11-year-old brother, Fahmarr, to live with him on campus in 2006 after their mother, dealing with drug addiction, was unable to care for the youngster.
“There were days that felt like they would never end,” McElrathbey recalled to the Daily News.
“When things got overwhelming, I would question why I decided to do this, because it was a choice I made, as opposed to something I had to do. But I prayed about it, and there were plenty of times I cried in the dark and I hoped for days like this one, where I have the opportunity to talk about something as great as a Disney movie made in my likeness.”
The movie, which debuts on Disney+ this Friday, stars actor Jay Reeves as McElrathbey. The film shows how the student-athlete juggled taking care of his sibling while staying on top of his studies and playing safety for the Clemson Tigers.
McElrathbey, now 34, was a frequent presence on the movie set during production, and also reviewed cuts of the film and connected with Reeves early on.
“I just told him to be happy,” McElrathbey said. “I was always optimistic, so as long as he kept an optimistic thought process while he was playing me, he should be OK.”
Before they started filming, Reeves, 26, repeatedly worked out with McElrathbey and got into shape for the role.
The actor, who played free safety and slot receiver during his days as a high school football standout in Los Angeles, was moved by the elements of love and family featured throughout McElrathbey’s story.
“Ray’s story came with a lot of meat and substance, so I didn’t really have to do much,” Reeves told The News. “The number one thing I had to do was be honest. If you’re honest, it will always work.”
Adding to the movie’s authenticity was the fact Reeves and his co-stars shot scenes on the actual Clemson campus in South Carolina and quickly got a feel for the community’s unrelenting passion for football.
The actors placed an emphasis on making the football and practice scenes feel realistic, including on a day when Reeves and his on-screen teammates ran full 50-yard conditioning drills.
“It’s that extra detail that got you to believe, ‘Oh man, these guys are really running (sprints),’ opposed to just acting,” Reeves said. “Those little details really, really made the football come to life in this movie.”
In addition to his support for the film behind the scenes, McElrathbey made a cameo in “Safety” by playing a member of the football team, Raheem, who was named after his father.
McElrathbey had six tackles as a special teams player for Clemson during the 2006 season. He garnered widespread attention that year, with ESPN and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” highlighting his story. He even recalls fans of opposing teams voicing their support for him.
Nearly a decade and a half later, McElrathbey says it feels like “a miracle” to have his story turned into a movie.
“It doesn’t feel real,” McElrathbey said. “That’s where I’m at right now. I’m inside of a dream that doesn’t quite feel real yet.”