The North Philly Nomads' season ended with a bullet.
A stray bullet that lodged in the stomach of Nasair Boston-Epps, a 17-year-old senior at the Philadelphia Military Academy, as he waited at a bus stop in February on his way to his after-school job at McDonald's.
One that crumpled him to the ground, where he lay alone in the cold before the ambulance he called for himself arrived.
Nasair, stocky and thick-shouldered, is the captain of the Nomads, a rugby team of Philadelphia public high schoolers. Formed in 2011, they took quickly to a game first played two centuries ago on a boarding-school pitch in England. It was not so unlikely a match: The codes of the game could easily apply to so much of the Nomads' lives in North Philly.
Win, lose, or draw, the Nomads coaches told them, you never back down.
The Nomads came to see themselves as something more than 15 individual players, and then more than just a team. "15 as 1," they'd say. Family.
But last winter a bullet shook that family. Now, they were not sure they could keep going.
A game of brute skill
The Nomads were conceived as a shield. A way for public high school teacher Larry Conlan's students to build a community. In a strange game with no pads, no forward passing, no whistles, rugby forces you to rely on your teammates.
It's a game of brute skill that, to the uninitiated, looks like 90-some minutes of organized chaos. (They say it slows down as you get more experience, but I played through high school and college and was far from a star; it never slowed down for me.) But as coach James Brunson tells the Nomads, when you get hit, you dust yourself off, peel your teammate from the grass, and keep going.
The Nomads learned the fundamentals, with the help of Conlan and coaches Brunson, Lauren Murphy-Sands, and Kate Flanagan, ruggers themselves. True to their name, the team has had homes at now-closed Vaux High, Benjamin Franklin High, and now Kensington High. Any Philadelphia School District student can try out; the coaches are working to obtain nonprofit status to raise more funds.
The Nomads competed where they could: in high school gymnasiums, on fields pocked with trash and glass, where the neighborhood dogs roamed off-leash. Once, they played on an indoor bocce court in South Philadelphia.
With their donated equipment they rode buses to lush suburban high schools that seemed to them like college campuses, because the Nomads could not fathom high schools so sprawling.
Philadelphia's rugby community embraced them. The School District did, too. And though they were playing kids who had been around the game for years, the Nomads began to win.
The kids from North Philly didn't back down. "That was probably the most physically aggressive game we played all year," opposing coaches would tell Brunson. Take pride in that, Brunson told the Nomads.
College programs took notice. Fearless Pablo Berrios-Cruz, the team's first backbone, went on to Norwich University in Vermont on scholarship. "The Nomads opened so many doors," said Keyon McCloud-Holman, who scored a scholarship to a Division 1 program at Kutztown University.
Hollywood took notice, too. A movie is due out soon. Nasair got to sit in the director's chair during filming.
Quiet and unfailingly polite off the field, and a devastating tackler on it, Nasair had been looking forward to leading the Nomads in the season ahead.
"I wanted them to depend on me, but also depend on themselves," Nasair said. "Like Coach says, 15 as 1."
Then came the bullet.
‘You have to breathe’
He woke up in the hospital, and Murphy-Sands was there. She had hounded him in practice: "You have to breathe!" she would yell as he huffed down the field. Now she was sobbing at his bedside.
Nasair pulled off his oxygen mask. "Coach Murphy," he told her. "You have to breathe."
The Nomads crowded his room. He asked them to hang a team T-shirt on the wall, to keep him motivated through a month of surgeries, on nights he worried he would never play again.
And though the Nomads had tried to keep going in his absence, for a time, it seemed they could not.
There were other reasons, too. Seniors graduated. The coaches had moved schools once again. After the bullet it seemed insurmountable.
"It was crushing," Brunson said. The season was scrapped.
But the Nomads do keep going. And by spring, Nasair had learned to walk again.
And then he began to run.
Now the Nomads are looking for players to start a new season, with their captain back at the helm.
"I'm an underdog now," Nasair said. "I got to show them that even though they did this harm to me, I can come back bigger and better."