Ryan Johnston didn’t know rugby would change his life. He was just a kid from North Philadelphia looking for an outlet for his energy and something to keep him safe after school.
Johnston surely didn’t think his rugby experience would ever lead to a feature film inspired by the North Philly Nomads, the team that gave him joy and a second family.
But soon, Johnston will be flanked by his former coaches and teammates as they attend the premiere of The Nomads, which closes the Philadelphia Film Festival on Sunday night.
“I never, ever would have imagined this,” said Johnston.
The real-life Nomads got their start with an after-school rugby club that Philadelphia teacher Larry Conlan began in 2012 at Vaux High School. There wasn’t a lot for kids to do in North Philadelphia, and Conlan thought rugby — a fast, full-contact game played with an overstuffed oblong ball and no protective equipment — could be the kind of anchor for his kids that it had been for him.
“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 told The Inquirer in 2014 of the sport, wildly popular in England, that’s seen as a precursor of American football.
When Vaux closed in 2013, Conlan and most of his students moved to Benjamin Franklin High School, where the club became a team once Conlan recruited more coaches and more players, kids from other schools. The Nomads practiced wherever they could find space, paying for equipment, buses, referees, and league registration through a tiny budget made up mostly of donations and favors.
Brandon Eric Kamin was drawn to the Nomads after he read about the team in The Inquirer. At first, Kamin thought he might make a short film about the Nomads, something they might use to help raise funds for the team. But the more he learned about them, the more he saw his project as something more ambitious.
“The Nomads are everything this city represents, the underdog spirit," he said. “I wanted to amplify their story as much as possible.”
Kamin, who grew up in Havertown, had started Bear Bear Productions — a small production company focused on commercial work — with a friend after he graduated from Ursinus College.
“I didn’t go to film school,” Kamin said. “I literally had a cleaning business for two years as I was making spec commercials.”
At first, he thought the Nomads’ story would be the subject of a documentary. Then, he realized it should be a film that encompassed some of the team’s most powerful moments: how it formed after a round of school closures, how rugby empowered young men, how it bonded them.
It became The Nomads, starring Tika Sumpter and Tate Donovan, which was filmed in Philadelphia in 2018 and features Johnston and two other real-life Nomads who were “special-ability extras” in the movie — actors who could actually play rugby.
Donovan plays the Conlan character, named Mark Nolin, in the film. Donovan took cues from Conlan, an energetic, enthusiastic man who now teaches at Penrose Elementary in Southwest Philadelphia. Sumpter’s character is an amalgam of real-life Nomads coaches James Brunson and Lauren Murphy-Sands.
“Against the odds, together as one,” the movie poster says.
That the film captures much of the team’s essence, down to the paper-plate awards presented at the end of the season to each player, was an honor, the Nomads said. Many of its settings were the Nomads’ actual stomping grounds — a practice field at Eighth and Poplar, the Belmont Plateau.
“We’re humbled,” Conlan said.
“I didn’t really believe that it was even real until we were on set one day,” Murphy-Sands said. “It’s just what we do in the springtime.”
And yes, the real-life Nomads are very much a team, still scrapping for players and training space.