The inspirational story of college gridiron player Ray McElrathbey turned into Disney family movie Safety

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Ben O'SheaThe West Australian
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Jay Reeves as Ray Ray in Safety.
Camera IconJay Reeves as Ray Ray in Safety. Credit: Chuck Zlotnik

In the same way the true story of American gridiron player Michael Oher inspired the 2009 drama, The Blind Side, which earned Sandra Bullock an Oscar, the tale of Ray McElrathbey has now been turned into the Disney Plus family flick, Safety.

Both films are about young African-American men from troubled backgrounds, with drug-addict mothers, who find hope on the gridiron field. But there are significant differences, too. For starters, Oher’s journey from the wrong side of the tracks to the NFL was assisted in no small way by Leigh Anne Tuohy, a white woman, who took him into her home and raised him as her own, which is depicted in the Bullock film.

McElrathbey didn’t have the benefit of a guardian angel in his pursuit of a gridiron scholarship at the prestigious Clemson University, and, in fact, found himself playing surrogate mother to his baby brother while his mum had an extensive rehab stint.

The inspirational story of McElrathbey juggling a full course load, a demanding gridiron program and taking care of his little bro — at first in secret because it was a breach of his scholarship conditions — made it all the way to The New York Times in 2006. Now, some 14 years later, McElrathbey almost can’t believe he’s joined a studio stable that includes Aladdin and Elsa.

“It’s something I could never imagine, being under the Disney umbrella,” he says.

Hunter Sansone as Daniel, Isaac Bell as Fresh, Elijah Shane Bell as Pop and Jay Reeves as Ray.
Camera IconHunter Sansone as Daniel, Isaac Bell as Fresh, Elijah Shane Bell as Pop and Jay Reeves as Ray. Credit: Photo Credit: Chuck Zlotnik/Chuck Zlotnik

In Safety, which gets its title from a gridiron position, Jay Reeves, pictured, plays McElrathbey, and the actor gets the tick of approval from the Real McCoy. “I think the only person who could be better at being me is me,” he says. “Everybody says they want Denzel or someone prominent to play them, but Jay is a wonderful actor.”

What the film also does in forensic detail is give Aussie viewers an insight into the bonkers world of college gridiron, a multi-billion-dollar industry where crowds at some games regularly exceed the capacity of the MCG. And this is to watch amateur athletes, who are attending university.

“You see, education is not paid for on this side of the world, so in order for me to make it through Clemson, I would’ve had to pay $80,000 to get through school,” McElrathbey explains. “For a young man, who didn’t come from the best background...college football gives us opportunities we would not have had otherwise, and for a lot of us, it is a vehicle to get out of our situations.”

Unlike Oher, McElrathbey didn’t go on to play in the NFL, and these days is raising a family in Atlanta, while running a foundation that helps families torn apart by substance abuse.

It’s worthy work, but a far cry from other graduates of the Clemson gridiron program, such as Deshaun Watson, now star quarterback for the Texans, who signed a US$160 million ($209m) contract extension last September.

Clemson’s current QB, Trevor Lawrence, is likely to earn even more if he lives up to his billing, as the consensus No.1 pick in the NFL Draft this year. McElrathbey has mixed feelings when it comes to the future of this budding superstar from his alma mater.

“I fear for quarterbacks being drafted No.1, because if you’re drafted No.1, it usually means you are going to a terrible team,” he explains. “It’s hard to turn around terrible. But hopefully Lawrence can change the complexity of any program he goes into, because that’s the sort of gentleman he is, the sort of player he is.”

While McElrathbey may never have achieved such heights as a player, he believes his story has the power to help anyone achieve greatness. And the secret is a chant he used at Clemson. “Once the task has begun, never leave until it’s done, be not labelled great or small, do it well or not at all,” he relates. “That’s what I want people to take away from the movie; that and family is everything and opportunity comes from effort.”

Safety is now streaming on Disney Plus.

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