- Associated Press - Saturday, May 31, 2014

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - 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.”

Story Continues →