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.
“I knew I needed to get further away from Atlanta, from home,” says Ray Ray, who lived with coaches and mentors as a child while their mother and father wrestled with drug and gambling problems. “It’s like Egypt for me - it is like I have been delivered from there, and there is no reason for me to go back. I am comfortable there. And when you get comfortable, you tend to get in trouble - in my case, at least.”
The brothers have formed a symbiotic bond over their time together.
For Fahmarr, Ray Ray serves as the stable father figure and reliable role model who includes Fahmarr in all aspects of the college football lifestyle, from playing video games in the dorm room to traveling to Nashville for the 2007 Music City Bowl.
In the wiry kid seven years his junior, Ray Ray has found a close friend who knows what it’s like to feel older than his age.
“Throughout everything, most of my mentors and the people I hang out with have been older,” Ray Ray says. “So because of the stuff I went through in my past, it’s been hard for me to relate to people in my age range. We’re in the ‘terrible 20s’ or the ‘invincible 20s’ or whatever - we think we can do anything and we can get away with a lot of stuff at this age ‘cause of ignorance. It’s, ‘Yeah, I was young and dumb.’ I don’t get that opportunity.”
They spend nearly every waking hour together, watching television and playing spades and checkers during rare moments of downtime.
Although a few production companies still are toying with the idea of making a movie chronicling the brothers’ story, Ray Ray and Fahmarr will be removed from the spotlight that shined so brightly on them in Clemson for the past few years.
They were the subjects of scores of profiles in print and on television, and Ray Ray was honored as the recipient of the Keith Jackson Award of Excellence at the ESPN College Football Awards Show in December 2006.
For Ray Ray, the notoriety was a double-edged sword.
“A lot of the stuff I do, I am worried about people liking me for what I am and not who I am,” Ray Ray says. “That was the case, just playing football. Now it’s ‘cause I was on Oprah, stuff like that.”
It is tough on Ray Ray, juggling sociology class and morning weight room sessions with parent-teacher conferences and book reports. But every “yes, sir” that comes out of his younger brother’s mouth is evidence of the good work he has done and continues to do.
“I am going to take you to the Smithsonian,” Ray Ray says to his little brother as his teammates joke and kid after practice.
“Don’t worry about it,” Ray Ray says. “It will come in time.”