Get ready for an inspiring sports movie that’s about so much more than sports. The Disney+ Original Movie Safety tells the true story of Ray McELrathBey, a former Clemson student and promising college football player that is thrusted into an impossible situation due to circumstance — yet through sheer perseverance, faith, and brotherhood, he triumphs against the odds. At just 19 years old, after his mother was sent away for rehabilitation, Ray (played by actor Jay Reeves) is suddenly left to care for his 11-year old brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus Mixson) — all while trying to excel at his academic studies and play safety on the Clemson football team. A difficult feat for any person, Ray first struggles to adjust as a new freshman and to keep his secret for fear of expulsion.
With the help of people like his roommate Daniel (played by Hunter Sansone) and his girlfriend Kaycee (played by Corinne Foxx, who is Jamie Foxx’s daughter), Ray slowly learns how to accept the help and love of not only his newfound family, the Clemson football team, but also members of the outlying community. When it all seems like it will finally start to come together, the rules that govern college football threaten to force him to choose between a bright future within his grasp, and his brother who desperately needs him. Written by Randy McKinnon (Where the Water Runs) and Nick Santora (Scorpion, Punisher: War Zone), this feel-good drama is one that any person — football enthusiast or not — can enjoy.
Safety easily fits into the genre of an empowering sports film, but this is not your typical sports movie. A Disney+ Original, the real heartbeat of this story is the power of family, the community that rallied behind this amazing young man, and Ray’s never-ending determination to do what’s right for his brother. “Family isn’t just blood relation, and I think that is what this movie is about,” Corinne Foxx stated. “They were all these people in Ray’s life that were rooting for him that aren’t necessarily blood relation, but were there for him in that way.” Though the movie touches on some heavy issues, it still manages to maintain a great balance of laughter, exciting sports footage, well-suited actors, and a true story that resonates all on its own.
Securing the rights to this story back when it took place in 2006, producer Mark Ciardi knew right away that this was a movie worth making. As he should — a former sports athlete himself (Ciardi is a former professional MLB player), he is best known for producing iconic sports movies like The Rookie, Secretariat, and Miracle. “I watched the national story like everyone else on [television] … and was incredibly moved by it. When you can feel something by just watching a two or three-minute clip, and then you start to peel back the layers of what the story [really] is? There’s no real science to knowing which stories you should make into a movie, but you have to go by your gut and your instincts.” Academy Award nominee and director Reginald Hudlin agrees that Ray’s story was extraordinary. “Ray had it tougher than most, but this guy made a way out of no way in a situation where failure, to him, was not an option. I think that’s a really important message. And I knew it was especially important for the times that we’re living in. Ray represents integrity because he succeeded while maintaining a focus on education, a focus on excellence — which in this case was on a playing field — and most importantly, taking care of his family. And those are values we all think are important, no matter who you are or where you’re from.”
The film’s scenes are mostly set on Clemson’s campus, so the visuals are everything you’d expect from a great sports movie, and with the stadium footage filmed during halftime of an actual Clemson game, the optics do not disappoint. From the first-person views of football plays in action to the sound of 85,000 fans screaming from the stands, the adrenaline jumps off of the screen. But they couldn’t have pulled it off without the full support of the university. “Clemson was great. They were supportive of this movie from the very beginning when we reached out to them,” Ciardi details. “It felt like an entire military operation to pull off that 10-minute game scene, but it was spectacular to watch from my angle up in the booth.”
A few of the actors admittedly didn’t know anything about the real-life story of Ray McElrathbey (affectionately known as Ray Ray), but once they read the storyline, they were all in. For actor Jay Reeves, all it took was reading the role description to draw him in. “I remember dropping everything in that moment, I was overwhelmed with excitement. This story was just so impactful to me, [it] made me leave everything and go pursue it.” Thaddeus agrees: “Once I started researching, I saw the Oprah Winfrey Show that they first did, and I almost cried from just watching it, because you can just see the pain. I know [Fahmarr] went through a lot, so I really wanted to embody those feelings and show that [emotion] onscreen.”
The events take place in 2006, so that meant creating a world set in that time. From the outfits to the culture and the music, many of the young lead actors were experiencing these things up close for the first time. “The music really took me back, so I really enjoyed the party scene. It’s an amazing soundtrack that I’m excited for everyone to hear,” Sansone beamed. “For me it was being able to wear baggy clothes, because I was too young to wear that style when it came out,” Thaddeus mused. Reeves was excited about using a flip phone, but for Foxx, she was most happy about finally driving her childhood dream car. “When I first came on set and saw the turquoise VW bug, I was super excited. I took so many pictures of myself inside of it,” she exclaimed.
Conveying someone else’s truth onscreen is a huge undertaking. But the real Ray Ray McELrathBey and the rest of the team all agree that the only thing they would do differently if they could is tell more of the story. “Even with us only focusing on a few-month span, the original cut was over 3 hours long,” Ciadi said. “But the things they took out are not things the audience will miss,” McELrathBey assured. “Ray has had a momentous life,” Hudlin noted, “so there was a lot of incredible content, but we had to get it down to 2 hours. So our job was to make sure that we got to the true message of the movie, and what was most gratifying was that when people saw it, they laughed, they cried, and they felt inspired. And if they’re doing that, then we’ve done our job.”
Throughout his ordeal, there were many adversities McELrathBey had to face, but when asked what was the hardest thing he had to endure, McELrathBey’s first thought was being alone. “I was straddling the line of what I was able to do versus what others were able to do, being that I was moving in silence and not telling anyone early on. So being alone in my decision was the toughest part. But once everyone found out, life became [a little] easier.” Despite all he’s been through and not having a father around, McELrathBey is still very grateful for the extended family he was given. “I was raised by my coaches, so I had plenty of people who stood up to teach me how to be a man. And my [Clemson] teammates were always there. So even through the tougher times, I had people I could lean on. ”
There’s no shortage of heroes in this moving film, but when you ask McELrathBey, he has his own idea of a hero. “I think my brother is the real hero in this story. I wasn’t different from many teenagers, but he was the catalyst that made me step up. He brought leadership to me, and I can appreciate that.”
Don’t miss Safety, premiering on December 11 on Disney+!