The raw joy of North Philly's young ruggers

The Nomads' Tyquise Edgerson passes as he is tackled by Jamal Sherman at practice. The team won two games this season.
The Nomads' Tyquise Edgerson passes as he is tackled by Jamal Sherman at practice. The team won two games this season. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 27, 2014

The North Philadelphia Nomads won only two games this season, but the rugby club's success is not measured by its record alone.

It's measured by team captain Carlos Baez DeJesus, now so enamored of a sport he hadn't heard of before December that he sleeps with his rugby ball.

It's measured by young men so exhausted after practice that they can't do anything but eat, finish homework, and sleep - "and that means they're not out on the street, getting shot," head coach James Brunson said.

And it's measured by the college coaches who show up at games, and by trips the team takes to prep schools with pristine fields, which give them glimpses of a different life.

Teaching at Vaux High in North Philadelphia, Larry Conlan saw a need for his students to positively channel their aggression. A rugby player himself, Conlan started an after-school club in 2012 for teenagers to play the sport, a fast, full-contact, territorial game played with an overstuffed oblong ball and no protective equipment.

"They didn't even know what a rugby ball was, but I told them, 'OK, it's a game with no helmet, no pads, and 15 guys running after you. Who wants to do it?' Twelve guys signed up that day," Conlan said.

The club was small but popular, and when Vaux closed and Conlan and most Vaux students moved to Ben Franklin High School, Conlan's goal was to build a big enough program to field a 15-person player team. He brought in Brunson, a veteran player and behavioral specialist with a district alternative school, and also added Lauren Murphy-Sands, a Ben Franklin English teacher and former rugger, as another coach.

Nearly 30 players - most of them from Ben Franklin, the rest from other city public schools - signed on.

Brunson had set his sights on coaching a college program, perhaps, but once Conlan reached out about the Nomads, he changed course.

"I knew I could reach these kids," Brunson said. "These kids are me."

Brunson grew up in a military family, picking up the sport at the University of Hartford. When he moved to Philadelphia in 2001, he knew no one, but walked into a bar near St. Joseph's University to ask where people played rugby.

"They looked at me like, 'What does this black dude know about rugby?' " Brunson said. But he found his community, and has not let go.

Though they are not an officially sanctioned Philadelphia School District team, the Nomads have found staunch supporters among the district's officials, who have provided help with transportation and other needs.

Gregory Hailey, Ben Franklin's principal, lets the Nomads practice in the school gym on rainy days, and has cheered from the sidelines at games.

"I think it's great," Hailey said. "Kids that have never been involved in anything are on the team."

Robert Coleman, executive director of district athletics, said he'd love to see the program grow.

"This is the gateway for athletic scholarships, and it becomes a surrogate parenting program," Coleman said. "The Nomads are a surrogate family. They come together as one."

The Nomads subsist on a shoestring budget of donations, favors, and hand-to-mouth fund-raising. Between league registration, equipment, buses, referees, and other fees, it costs the team at least $5,000 to make ends meet. The three coaches work for free.

"I've been playing rugby in this area for 15 years," Brunson said. "I know people - you shake the trees, and sometimes $100 falls out. My buddies say, 'Let's give these kids what Malvern Prep has.' "

The Nomads don't quite have that, but they get by. When all of the team's equipment was stolen the night before the first game, the rugby community came through.

The team plays home games at Edgley Field in Fairmount Park, and practices on a modest field at Eighth and Poplar, where on a recent day it shared space with a group that occasionally kicked around a soccer ball in a corner.

The grass is patchy, the fence is falling down, and the field isn't quite big enough to support a regulation rugby field, but the Nomads make do.

The first time he played in a rugby game, Vernon Greene was startled, he said - not by the athletics, but by the perceptions people had about the Nomads.

"People thought that people like us couldn't play a sport like that," said Greene, 17, a Ben Franklin junior, before clarifying: "African American kids."

"Inner-city kids," added Ryan Johnston, also 17 and a junior.

Greene has to admit - he was dazzled by some of the places the Nomads have played - mostly suburban and prep school teams. Some have matching workout gear, he said in wonder. Others put out food for opposing squads.

"And," Greene said, "they had name-brand bread."

Visits to other schools have already had an impression on the players, Brunson said.

"They'll tell me, 'I'm going to get a good job so my kids go to a school like this one,' " he said. "They see the world is bigger than their six-block radius."

Rugby has revealed remarkable things to Johnston.

"Having a good field, having nice uniforms doesn't mean they're a better team, or more respectful," he said. "We're just as good as they are."

While the Nomads are raw, they play with a joy and energy that are undeniable - even through three practices each week and a full schedule of games. The young men are freshmen and seniors, native Philadelphians and students learning English as they learn about rugby.

Nomad Sergio Luciano is sold on the sport.

"All my friends told me, 'You're crazy. Why you play rugby? Latin kids play baseball.' But I love rugby," the 18-year-old said.

Baez, the captain, lived in Puerto Rico until eight months ago and played baseball for 13 years. He can tell you the exact day he first picked up a rugby ball - Dec. 7, 2013.

He no longer plays baseball, but dreams of playing rugby professionally. He is buoyed by the knowledge that it will become an Olympic sport in 2016.

"Rugby changed my life," Baez said. "When you've got problems, rugby pulls you out of them. It pulls you off the streets. It shows you discipline."

It's not lost on the Nomads that college coaches can often be spotted on the sidelines of rugby games.

"We keep telling them, 'We've got players,' " Conlan said.

The team is gearing up for its final game of the season: the Nomads are scheduled to play in the 2014 High School Rugby Championships at the University of Pennsylvania on May 31 and June 1.

They may not take home a trophy, but the trophy is a bit beside the point.

"I told them, 'If we lose every game, but we're getting better, this is a success,' " Brunson said. "I can't wait for next year. I want to take these guys places."


kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146 215-854-5146 @newskag

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