Fahmarr McElrathbey spins spirals high above his head in the early morning sunlight. It is a few minutes past 8 on a late summer Saturday, and 13-year-old Fahmarr is far from where most boys his age are at this hour - in bed, sleeping off a growth spurt - and has been since 5 a.m.
Standing on the sidelines at Greene Stadium on the campus of Howard University, Fahmarr is some 640 miles from his first “home” in Atlanta, where he bounced from foster home to foster home as a small boy. He is a five-hour plane ride from Las Vegas, where he shared a “home” with his crack-addicted mother. He is an 8 1/2-hour ride on the interstate from Clemson University, where a community came together to make him feel at “home.”
But here, on the sidelines - surrounded by sweating, cursing, hulking college football players, most of whom are nearly a decade older - he is no more than three feet from his older brother Ray Ray, who stands at his side.
Fahmarr McElrathbey is home.
Ever since Ray Ray became his brother’s legal guardian at 19 - a few months before his redshirt freshman season at Clemson - the relationship between Ray Ray and Fahmarr has been markedly different than the bond between most brothers.
“We are more of a father-son relationship - what I say is the law pretty much,” says Ray Ray, now 21. “He understands that, and he takes that because he knows that I would never put him in a position to fail.”
So when Ray Ray told Fahmarr earlier this spring they would be leaving Clemson - where a team, an athletic department and a town had extended aid to them, where Fahmarr had made friends at R.C. Edwards Middle School and Ray Ray had earned a degree in sociology, where Fahmarr had watched his brother stand on the sidelines on Saturday afternoons while the crowd roared for the Tigers - and coming to the District to start anew, he swallowed his disappointment and followed.
“I miss Clemson a whole lot,” Fahmarr says, tugging on a broken pair of eyeglasses. “The atmosphere is just different.”
After a rocky childhood in the streets of Atlanta, Fahmarr had grown accustomed to the stability of life in Clemson. Ever since he visited Ray Ray in the summer of 2006 - he told his brother he didn’t want to go back to Las Vegas and their mother - he had become the town’s unofficial mascot, catching rides to school with future pros like current Tampa Bay Buccaneers player Gaines Adams, spending the night at the house of assistant athletic director Jim Davis, being greeted by perfect strangers on the street.
“Every time I walked past it was like, ‘Hey, Fahmarr,’” he says. “Or sometimes it was like, ‘How you doing today, ‘Marr?’”
But he never got to see his brother play. And since Clemson coach Tommy Bowden had rescinded Ray Ray’s full scholarship - the reserve running back still had two years of eligibility remaining because of his redshirt season in 2005 and a knee injury in 2007 - he would never hear the Clemson faithful cheer his brother’s name.
In the spring, Ray Ray weighed his options. He could stay at Clemson, where Bowden had offered him a job as a graduate assistant, and forsake his dream of playing college football. Or he could transfer to one of the smaller institutions that had offered him the monetary aid necessary to support his little brother, begin graduate studies in communications and try to play.
While the decision to transfer to Howard may seem as one made in the self-interest expected of a normal person his age, Ray Ray says it was the right call for both of them.
“I felt it was the best move because it gives us a chance to grow, to get away from something that we are used to,” Ray Ray says. “Recently, in the past few years, we have been in a position where we were comfortable, and everything came real easy. This is more of a task, and in life you need those type of experiences.”
So this summer, the two crammed their belongings into their banged-up Buick LeSabre and turned north for the nation’s capital. It was a turn not only toward the unfamiliar but another step away from where they came - and the life of temptation that destroyed their family.