'SCRUM' brings the story of Queens' diverse rugby team to the big screen
The whole project started as simply a small favor. Thomas Morgan had some extra time. He’d known Frank McKinney for 26 years, and wanted to help his friend record some videos to help with recruitment for McKinney’s Queens University men’s rugby team.
So Morgan, an accomplished documentary filmmaker, began showing up to Queens rugby practices.
And it wasn’t long before he realized there was more there.
“When I got there and I started talking to some of the players and we started having these conversations, I said, ‘This is an incredible story. Like, these stories are unbelievable,’” Morgan said. “And Frank didn't believe me.”
“I’m just a coach,” McKinney told him.
“No, there’s definitely a story here,” Morgan countered.
That story is now “SCRUM,” a movie that debuted Wednesday on www.scrummovie.com for $12 per view. The film is about rugby in the same way that “Rocky” is about boxing – meaning, it’s really about life and adversity and the underdog.
Specifically, it’s about McKinney, one of the few Black rugby coaches in the country, and how he purposefully recruits diverse students to form his team – a team that won the 2019 USA Rugby Division II 15s national championship (rugby is not an official NCAA sport). Queens added rugby to its sports program in 2017.
The filming took place over the last two years, meaning smack in the middle of COVID-19 restrictions and during the murder of George Floyd and the protests against systemic racism and police violence that followed.
The pandemic led to some creative filmmaking – on a few occasions, Morgan’s 10-year-old son and college-aged son ran sound for him – but the focus on race in the past year-plus encouraged some unfiltered conversations that might not have happened otherwise.
“There were so many times where Frank would tell me these stories and I was like, ‘That happened to you?’” Morgan said. “You don't think of it that way because they're your friend and because he had become so used to issues around his race and discrimination and things like that, that it was almost like it was his normal.”
One night during the filming, Morgan called McKinney around 10:30 p.m. because he’d been thinking so much about their conversations.
“Has there ever been a time in our relationship where I made you feel like you were lesser of a man or did something to insult you or to make you feel bad in regards to race,” he asked. “Have I ever said anything that offended you?”
McKinney was dumbfounded as to why he was receiving those questions out of the blue, but Morgan said it was necessary.
“We had these very real conversations about race that really made us both think about how what happens to us and how we experience things is so completely different,” he said. “And that was eye opening.”
And, of course, the story of race connected directly to the Queens rugby team that McKinney had built. It's a team that features players from everywhere from New Mexico to Argentina to South Africa to Alabama. And it plays for a small school in the middle of affluent Myers Park.
“When I played rugby, I rarely saw anybody that looked like me. I rarely saw any Asian people, any Latino people. And when you did, it was like, ‘Hey,’” McKinney said. “And I had this goal and this dream of having a diverse team – like a bunch of guys working together for a common cause and not seeing color. It just something I always dreamt of. This is the dream – to have a bunch of people working together that didn't look like each other.”
Morgan shopped the film to many of the usual suspects – Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime – but didn’t get any offers he thought were deserving, so opted to release it directly via a website. But there’s promise for a wider release for a variation of it: A scripted feature film has been optioned, and Morgan is working on getting that ready for a potential 2023 release.
Film executives are excited, Morgan said, calling it the rugby version of “Remember the Titans.”
And McKinney is eager to find out which actor might portray him. “He thinks Michael B. Jordan or The Rock would be two great people to play him,” Morgan said, laughing.
“The fact that there's a there'll be a scripted film that will be about him, I think is a bit surreal for him,” Morgan continued. “And it certainly is surreal that somebody wants to take my story and make it into something bigger. It's great.”
To think, it all started with Morgan simply doing a favor for his friend