Nonprofit groups such as Play Rugby USA run many inner-city programs, including the one at PS/MS 218. In fact, Play Rugby has started after-school programs in nearly 200 schools in New York City and 26 in Los Angeles. “We started doing things on the weekends, Sundays. We worked with 75 homeless kids from a shelter in Brooklyn and then combined those kids with some of my older banking colleagues’ kids, mixed them all together,” says Mark Griffin, a former investment banker and the founder and CEO of Play Rugby USA. “And it was fun, but it was also extremely rewarding. You could see immediately: 1) all the kids mixed together and we’ve never to this day had a discipline issue, and 2) you could really see — especially for me it just struck me massively in the first-ever coaching session I did with these homeless kids from Brooklyn — just how much they loved having an engaging activity they could all participate in that had some structure. It also clearly had some people who cared about them and wanted them to have fun, and that sort of enthusiasm came through to them. And they just loved it, and they kept coming back.”
The program eventually moved to public schools and fostered a cultural exchange by bringing two groups of people together. Griffin estimates about 15,000 kids have participated in inner-city rugby programs nationwide in the past six years, and then there are the bankers, lawyers and other professionals — some who still play the sport in adult leagues — now volunteering as coaches.
Richard Sexton, 42, a partner in the real-estate company Newmark Knight Frank, donates to Play Rugby USA and volunteers as a coach. He grew up in a rugby family in ?London, where rugby was the sport in private schools and soccer was the sport in public schools. “You’ve probably heard the ?saying, ‘Soccer is a gentleman’s sport played by thugs, and rugby is a hooligan’s sport played by gentlemen.’ So for me to see inner-city kids from public schools so devoted to the sport is unique,” he says. “It is uplifting to hear our youth share that rugby gives the discipline for other aspects of their lives and has put them on the path to college. That is really meaningful. It is not how I grew up with rugby.”
Like Sexton, Anthony Nardolillo’s introduction to rugby was not in a high school gym in the South Bronx. Nardolillo, 24, joined a team during his sophomore year at Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick, R.I. He now works full time for Rhode Island Rebellion Rugby League in Providence and was driven to start the company and its nonprofit group AYRLA because of an experience with one of the first inner-city teams his high school senior year.
“There was a team down in Washington, D.C., called Hyde Rugby,” he recalls. “And this team was an inner-city school, predominantly people of color, and we would play them every year. And one year they came up to Rhode Island and we hosted them all at our houses. It was one of the best experiences of my life. That was a huge factor in deciding to put our youth program in the inner city: to give our local kids the same chances that the students at Hyde had.”