When Ray McElrathbey shows up for his first football meeting at Clemson University, his coaches launch into speeches about the proud tradition of Tigers football—a tradition filled with success, sacrifice and teamwork. They tell Ray Ray (as he’s known) and the rest of the freshmen about how, before each home game, players will run down the hill toward the east end zone and touch Howard’s Rock, one of the university’s most sacred traditions. And if players aren’t willing to “give it 110%, keep your filthy hands off of it.”
Sacrifice, Ray Ray hears again and again. Sacrifice for your team. Your coaches. Your school. “You must sacrifice,” the coach says.
Ray Ray understands the word well.
The red-shirt freshman sacrificed plenty to get to Clemson. His dad split a long time ago—when his little brother Fahmarr was still asking for help putting on his shoes. His mother’s a drug addict, so she’s often gone, either physically or mentally. But even so, Ray Ray overcame his upbringing and sacrificed much to land at Clemson with a football scholarship.
He takes the “student” part of being a “student-athlete” seriously, too. Instead of taking a litany of can’t-fail classes like most football players, he dives into a heavy load of psychology classes. He aims to do more than play football: He wants to graduate and set himself up for a life off the gridiron. And he hopes that all those psych classes might help him help his mom, too.
But he keeps getting calls from Fahmarr, whom everyone just calls Fay. Ray Ray thinks his 11-year-old bro just wants to talk, and Ray Ray just doesn’t have the time. But then, finally, he learns the truth: Their mom got caught for possession again. She’s been gone for a week.
Ray Ray rushes back to Atlanta and gets some mixed news. The good: His and Fay’s mom, Tonya, has been accepted to a rehab program, all expenses paid. The bad: It’s a 30-day, live-in program. Fay will be in foster care for a month.
“I’ll take him,” Ray Ray tells the counselor as he leads Fay away.
But how? The school dorms don’t allow 11-year-olds. If anyone found out, the coaches would probably kick him off the team.
But Ray Ray’s willing to risk it. He’s Fay’s brother, after all. Family. And what do you do for family? You sacrifice for them, that’s what.
Yeah, Ray Ray already knew all about sacrifice. He didn’t need some coach to tell him. But a student? An athlete? And now a mother and father, too?
This freshman’s about to take a graduate-level course for the word.
Most people would say they’d do “anything” for their family, and it might be true. But Ray Ray has the opportunity to walk the walk.
Already dealing with a demanding practice schedule and a back-breaking academic load, Ray Ray carves out time to care for his little brother—spiriting him off to a school bus so Fay doesn’t fall too far behind, keeping him out of trouble (as much as he’s able) and instilling some tough love along the way. Ray Ray’s commitment to Fay only climbs as the movie goes on. “I’m Fay’s brother, his father and everything else that he needs me to be,” he says.
But—and this is something of a spoiler if you’re not aware of the real story behind the movie—Ray Ray learns that he doesn’t have to do it all alone.
You can’t hide an 11-year-old in a college dorm room forever, of course. Ray Ray’s roomie, Daniel (Clemson’s third-string kicker), is the first to become an accomplice. Then a few other teammates are brought into the fold, helping out where they can.
When Ray Ray’s secret is discovered by the whole team, his coaches are pretty angry at first. But when they see the devotion that Ray Ray has for his brother—and the loyalty that some team members show to Ray Ray—they work with the safety to make it happen. They facilitate a move off campus. A coach’s wife begins shuttling Fay to school. And when the community hears about Ray Ray’s story, many of them rally to help as well.
This ultimately complicates matters: The NCAA, in an effort to avoid any appearance of shady, under-the-table payments to student athletes, doesn’t allow schools or communities to provide any tangible help to student athletes at all. Even giving Fay rides to school could be construed as some sort of “payment.” So when Ray Ray goes to the NCAA to ask for the variance, his team rallies behind him.
One of the people who helps Ray Ray is a collar-wearing member of the clergy, who gets part of his congregation to help Ray Ray clean out his apartment’s basement. (Ray Ray worked out a deal with the landlord to do some odd jobs on the property in exchange for a reduced rent.) “God gave you a strong back for a reason!” he exhorts. (We see the priest in scenes later on, always in a helpful capacity.)
Crosses hang in both Ray Ray’s Atlanta home and in his college apartment.
Ray Ray meets a girl named Kaycee on campus and, eventually, begins to date her. I don’t recall seeing even so much as a kiss between the two, but Ray Ray does cook a romantic dinner for the two, with Fay acting as a smirking waiter. (Kaycee does wear some tops that show a bit of cleavage or midriff.)
Fay also has a love interest. Kaycee and Ray Ray prep Fay for a middle school dance, with Ray Ray serving as Fay’s dance partner. “If things go well, she may even rest her head on your shoulder,” Kaycee tells Fay. That’s exactly what happens when Fay and his crush dance. Later that night, when Ray Ray asks how the evening went, Fay says, “She loves me.”
In one of the football team’s first practices, players go head to head—pushing each other around like padded gladiators and sometimes pushing or hitting each other afterward, forcing teammates to separate the combatants. When someone remarks that he thought this was supposed to be a light-contact drill, Ray Ray says, “I think this is light contact.”
Football is a violent sport, and we see plenty of rough tackles both in practice and during games. In that same drill, Ray Ray matches up against a huge upperclassman who hollers, “Where’s my victim?!” (When Ray Ray gets the better of him, he’s furious and pushes him around a bit.)
When Fay is secretly staying in Ray Ray’s dorm room, big brother and another guy take him to the dorm bathroom via a massive duffel bag. Sometimes that Fay-filled bag smacks against a wall, which the boy definitely feels.
Fay meets his middle school crush while both are waiting outside the principal’s office. Fay asks her what she’s doing there.
“Swearing,” she says. “The big one.”
This being a Disney family movie, we don’t hear “the big one”. The only small/marginal ones we hear are “d–n,” “suck” and “crap.”
We do hear a lot about addiction, and it’s clear that Ray Ray, thanks to his mother, knows more about it than anyone would like. He impresses a professor by talking about a certain study done on the brains of addicts, which suggested that addicts are prone to addiction from birth.
It’s also clear that Ray Ray and Fay’s mother is serious about getting clean. When her 30 days in rehab are up, she’s given a chance to stay a few months more: It puts additional burden on Ray Ray, of course, but she knows that it’ll up the chances that she’ll remain sober after she’s out. “I’ve been clean for weeks,” she says. “I want to stay that way.”
[Spoiler Warning] Ray Ray’s heard that song-and-dance before, though. Late in the movie, he convinces Tonya to turn permanent custody of Fay over to him. “I pray every night that you’ll never go back,” he tearfully tells her, “but I can’t keep risking Fay’s life like that anymore.”
When Fay first calls Ray Ray to tell him that their mother’s been picked up for possession, Ray Ray meets the boy at a seriously shady apartment. Though context isn’t spelled out, Fay’s “caretakers” seem like either gang members or drug dealers or both.
At a college party, we see lots of red Solo cups, but have no idea what’s in them.
Ray Ray doesn’t tell anyone that Fay’s staying in his dorm room at first. He and Daniel lie to the dorm’s R.A., smuggle the kid in and out and, of course, keep the whole venture a secret. And then, when the truth does come out, he lies again, albeit trying to keep some complicit team members out of trouble.
Trips to the bathroom become a serious issue during Fay’s 30 days in the dorm. When Fay asks what happens if he has to do “number one,” Ray Ray hands him a bottle. (We hear other conversations related to the bathroom, too.)
Fay struggles at school and has some problems with authority—issues that Ray Ray does his best to deal with. Ray Ray also lashes out at Fay at times. And in a moment of frustration Ray Ray accuses a coach of not really being in his corner—telling him that he just wants to help “another black kid” so he can sleep better at night. (The coach gives him a little insight to his own difficult upbringing, telling him that he understands Ray Ray’s plight more than Ray Ray imagines.)
Safety is based on a real story.
Ray McElrathbey played for Clemson in 2006 while serving as guardian for his 11-year-old brother, who became something of an unofficial mascot for the team. A knee injury cut short Ray Ray’s football career (and, controversially, Clemson pulled his scholarship because of it), but McElrathbey still graduated from Clemson in three years.
It’s a pretty great story even without the Disney treatment, but director Reginald Hudlin expands its scope to talk not just about the McElrathbey family, but the notion of what the word family itself actually means.
When Ray Ray asks a handful of fellow Clemson players about his secret, his friends promise to keep it. Moreover, they’ll help Ray Ray in any way they can. “As long as you’re family, so’s the kid,” one says. Later, when a school official tells a Clemson coach not to risk the NCAA’s wrath for just one kid, the coach shoots the guy down. “He’s not just one player to me,” he says. “He’s part of a family. I’ll take that risk any way of the week.”
The number of times the film mentions family in connection with the Tigers football team, you’d think that Safety was pulling double-duty as a Clemson recruitment tool. But talk with football players—or others who get involved in tight-knit team sports—and many will tell you the same. Your team, in a way, can become a sort of extended family. In this movie, some community members become a part of that family, too. Most importantly for our purposes, it drives home an important, and ultimately biblical, message: We’re to carry one another’s burdens when he can. We’re not in this life alone.
For years, Ray Ray thought that it was just he and Fay against the world. They’d have to do it alone if they were to do it at all. And throughout the film, we see times when Ray Ray pushes away help, or the possibility of help.
But finally, he realizes that that’s not the way forward. “Clemson taught me it’s OK to open your heart and accept help,” he says. In our culture of self-sufficiency, it’s a lesson that many of us could probably internalize a bit more.
Safety continues a strong tradition found in Disney’s film catalog—that of the inspirational sports movie. This movie indeed inspires. And while some of the themes here are kinda gritty, Safety deals with them without slathering on a lot of excess muck.
A movie that feels both clean and real? That’s not as rare as a college football player caring for his 11-year-old brother. But it’s rare enough to celebrate.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.