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One child left behind

McElrathbeys deserved better from Bowden, Clemson

Posted: Wednesday March 12, 2008 2:49PM; Updated: Thursday March 13, 2008 11:05AM
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Ray Ray McElrathbey is no longer a member of the Clemson football team after Tommy Bowden pulled his scholarship this week.
Ray Ray McElrathbey is no longer a member of the Clemson football team after Tommy Bowden pulled his scholarship this week.
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Warning: What follows may be hazardous to your belief in happy endings.

If you remember the uplifting story of Ray Ray McElrathbey, the Clemson running back who rescued his younger brother from a bleak home life two years ago by bringing the boy to live with him and becoming his legal guardian, you may not want to know about the latest developments in his saga, which aren't nearly so heartwarming. This is the world of big-time college athletics and, sooner or later, that world almost always turns cold.

McElrathbey first gained national attention in 2006, after taking over custody of his brother Fahmarr, who was 11 at the time. Fahmarr had been in and out of foster care in Atlanta for much of his childhood -- just as Ray Ray had -- because of their father's gambling problems and their mother's addiction to crack cocaine. Once McElrathbey was settled at Clemson with a football scholarship, he decided to help his little brother escape that life as well by giving Fahmarr a stable home -- his own.

It was a sweet story made sweeter by the normally soulless NCAA, which granted the financially strapped McElrathbey a waiver allowing him to accept monetary aid from the university and the public in the form of a trust fund for Fahmarr, as well as home care from coaches' families for him while Ray Ray in class or at practice. McElrathbey was widely and deservedly praised for character and maturity beyond his years and Clemson was credited for having a football program with a heart.

But that happy tale took a disheartening turn earlier this week when Clemson announced that McElerathbey's scholarship would not be renewed even though he has two more years of eligibility remaining. Contrary to popular belief, football scholarships are not guaranteed four-year rides, but year-to-year deals that can be pulled at the school's discretion.

Although Clemson coach Tommy Bowden has been vague in his explanations, it appears that he pulled McElrathbey's scholarship because, after signing 25 new recruits last month, the Tigers had to take away some existing scholarships to stay under the NCAA maximum of 85. With several running backs ahead of him on the depth chart, Ray Ray became expendable. "We're pretty good at running back right now," coach Tommy Bowden said, as if that was the only issue.

Cold-blooded? Heartless? You bet. Having one more scholarship to hand out isn't going to change Clemson's program in any significant way, but losing it certainly could change Ray Ray and Fahmarr's lives.

Ray Ray now has the choice of transferring to another school to finish his eligibility (if he can find one willing to offer him a scholarship), or he could finish his degree requirements over the summer, enroll in graduate school at Clemson and accept the school's offer to be a graduate assistant. Although Clemson points out that McElrathbey would still be on scholarship, the stipend would pay for tuition and books only, not room and board. Contrary to the original news reports, Clemson now says that the scholarship and stipend would cover everything.

In short, the McElrathbey brothers' lives are again up in the air thanks to Bowden's lack of compassion. Apparently having an extra inside linebacker or tight end is more important to him than showing loyalty to a young man who has given three years of effort to the program -- to someone trying to raise a teenager.

McElrathbey hasn't spoken publicly since the decision. Teammate and friend James Davis suggests he doesn't want to speak negatively about Clemson for fear it would discourage other schools from offering him a scholarship. If that's the case, at least it indicates that McElrathbey is planning on leaving Clemson behind, which is the smart thing to do, since Clemson has done exactly that to him.

Fear not for the McElrathbey brothers. They have overcome far greater obstacles than this one, and it's unlikely that they will let Clemson's callous decision derail them for long.

Whatever the future holds, Ray Ray should be remembered at Clemson as a young man who understood the meaning of commitment and character. A college is supposed to provide its students with an education but, in the end, it's a shame that Clemson's program didn't learn more from him.

(Send comments/questions to Phil Taylor at siwriters@simail.com.)