McElrathbey's mom appreciates Clemson's generosity
Tonya McElrathbey isn't exactly sure why her son is no longer a member of Clemson's football team.
Sometime during the past month, Tigers coach Tommy Bowden informed Ray Ray McElrathbey that his scholarship wouldn't be renewed beyond this summer, when he is scheduled to graduate with a bachelor's degree in sociology. If McElrathbey chooses to remain at Clemson and attend graduate school, he can work as a graduate assistant within the athletic department, which would pay for his tuition, books, housing and meals.
But McElrathbey can't play football for Clemson anymore. A four-year scholarship doesn't guarantee a player four years on a team's roster. A college scholarship is a year-to-year contract, and it's the coach's discretion to renew it before each season.
Bowden decided the Tigers didn't need McElrathbey anymore -- on the field, at least.
A seldom-used running back, McElrathbey was buried on the team's depth chart behind stars James Davis and C.J. Spiller. McElrathbey never stepped on the field during the 2007 season after injuring his knee during preseason camp. He played sparingly as a special-teams player the year before.
"I was looking forward to going to Clemson and seeing him play," Tonya McElrathbey said. "But you know what? I can go somewhere else and see him play. I don't think it's right, but things happen for a reason. Ray Ray is a strong young man and everything that's happened to him has happened for a reason. He's been through so much that he can overcome anything now."
McElrathbey garnered national attention in 2006 for taking custody of his 11-year-old brother Fahmarr. Tonya McElrathbey was struggling with an addiction to crack cocaine. Their father hadn't been around much because of a gambling problem. Tonya and Fahmarr were living in a motel in Atlanta when Ray Ray rescued his younger brother and took him to Clemson, S.C.
After media outlets reported McElrathbey's plight, college football fans -- and not just those from Clemson -- wanted to help. The ACC established a trust fund for fans to donate money to pay for Fahmarr's living expenses. More than $100,000 was raised to help the brothers. The NCAA even allowed Clemson's coaches to help care for Fahmarr and drive him to and from school while Ray Ray attended classes and practice.
It was one of the best stories in college sports. Ray Ray McElrathbey received numerous humanitarian awards for his efforts, including the 2006 FedEx Orange Bowl-Football Writers Association of America Courage Award. He was honored at the ESPYS and appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
Clemson benefited from the story as much as McElrathbey did. The school was applauded for its generosity and efforts in caring for Fahmarr. It was the kind of publicity that money can't buy.
"I really appreciate the people at Clemson," Tonya McElrathbey said. "I appreciate the coaches and especially the citizens of Clemson, who donated their time and money to my family."
Clemson did everything it was supposed to do and more. The school provided Ray Ray with a college education and an opportunity to play college football. The school's coaches took Fahmarr into their homes and through their generosity provided him with a life he might have never had.
More than anything else, Clemson might have helped save Tonya McElrathbey's life. She said she has been clean from drugs for 18 months. She's working full-time at an Atlanta communications company. She no longer lives in a motel and plans to attend classes at a community college this summer.
"It was a direct result of Ray Ray," she said. "That's why I decided to get clean. All of the publicity Ray Ray received was also about me. He forced me to look at myself through someone else's eyes. I realized how much I was hurting my family. Hopefully, I can be an asset to my family from now on."
Bowden has offered little explanation as to why McElrathbey's scholarship wasn't renewed. Across the Web, Bowden has been portrayed as a heartless villain who is ending a young man's dream. He has been accused of taking away McElrathbey's scholarship because the Tigers don't have enough room on their roster for incoming freshmen.
Privately, people close to the situation say Bowden didn't have a choice. After injuring his knee, McElrathbey didn't regularly attend his rehabilitation sessions. He vanished for days at a time and didn't respond to telephone calls and text messages from coaches.
"It's like he wasn't even a part of the team," said one person close to the situation who requested anonymity. "There were rules and there were Ray Ray rules. He thumbed his nose at the coaches and they got sick of it. It's a complicated story. Nobody wants to trash the kid. But some of the things he's done here have just been inexcusable. He just wasn't doing the thing he was supposed to do. You can't have rules for one kid and different rules for the other 84 players."
Tonya McElrathbey said Ray Ray hopes to continue playing college football at another school. He has two years of eligibility remaining and wants to attend graduate school. He didn't return several telephone calls seeking comment for this story.
McElrathbey has told friends he won't tell his side of the story until after he transfers from Clemson. He fears speaking now might hamper his chances of finding another school willing to let him play football.
Bowden also remains silent.
"Tommy wants to do what's in the best interest of the kid," said the person close to the situation. "If he wants to keep playing football, it's in his best interest to go somewhere else. If he doesn't want to keep playing, it's in his best interest to stay here."
Wherever Ray Ray ends up, Tonya McElrathbey won't be far behind. Neither will Fahmarr.
They're a family once again.
Isn't that all that matters?
"Ray Ray said I helped him become a man," Tonya McElrathbey said. "He's helped me become the woman I'm becoming today."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.