When it comes to the Ray Ray McElrathbey story, Clemson's ham-handed football factory fumbled this story from start to finish.

It was only through the generosity of good people and the power of the press that the third-string running back's story will have a happy ending.

McElrathbey, if you recall, was the Clemson player whose heartwarming personal story brought the Tigers the kind of positive, national publicity you just can't buy, at any price.

It all started back in 2006 when the Atlanta native took in his younger brother, Fahmarr, because their mother was addicted to drugs and couldn't provide a decent place for the child to live.

When his story hit the papers, it was obvious that the school's coaching staff was not prepared to handle the situation.

When people came forward to help, Clemson handed the problem off to the Atlantic Coast Conference office, which was equally inept at recognizing a golden public relations opportunity.

As the media scrutiny intensified, they finally came up with a solution that allowed donations to flow into a trust fund for Fahmarr. Meanwhile, the school relished all the feel-good stories that followed.

Through it all, Ray Ray represented his university favorably from coast to coast. He even appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

But what happened next is part of the ugly underbelly of college football most fans never see, or want to see.

Not a nobody

Every year, coaches call marginal or injured players into their offices and tell them it's over. Their scholarships are not being renewed. Hit the road.

Most people still don't understand that athletic scholarships are not guaranteed for four years. They're actually reviewed and renewed year to year.

Most kids on the bubble are simply run off by assistant coaches who know how to make their lives a living hell. Usually, they are nobodies who quit, transfer or disappear without anybody taking notice.

Somebody, however, forgot to tell Clemson coach Tommy Bowden that Ray Ray McElrathbey was not a nobody whose fate could be traded for a better player to be named later.

When word of Ray Ray's dismissal got out, it was front-page news and the backlash seemingly caught the Clemson football staff by surprise.

The real loser

McElrathbey's days as a Clemson football player are over, but he will graduate in August. He also has been offered a graduate assistant position for next year.

Is that enough? Maybe.

The McElrathbey boys will be fine. Ray Ray will earn his degree and Fahmarr has a healthy trust fund to help him along in life.

The real loser is Clemson.

How could they not see this coming? Why didn't somebody step up and say, "you know, this might not look so good?"

That's because it looks like what it is — college football programs use players until they are of no use to them anymore. Then, when nobody's looking, they kick them to the curb.

Only difference, this time everybody's looking.

Reach Ken Burger at 937-5598 or kburger@postandcourier.com.