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May 03, 2010

Gareth Thomas ... The Only Openly Gay Male Athlete

He's 6'3" and 225 pounds of muscle. He's broken his nose five times, fractured both shoulders and lost eight teeth. He's drunk his mates under the table and brawled by their side. He's been named to the Welsh national rugby team more times than any other man. And, among active players in major professional team sports, he's ...

Wot, butt?You come to this tiny village in this tiny country and tell me that I'm the only gay man in a major team sport who's out of the closet?

The man was missing eight teeth. Sometimes he would slip out his false teeth when you weren't looking and deposit them in your pint of ale.

All the diversity in America, and no one there has done this?

His blue eyes twinkled and his laughter was infectious and his body was a riot of muscles and he'd been known, if he suspected someone in the pub was talking about him, to rise from his table and drop him.

America's the pioneer, butt! Am I right?

He plays professional rugby. No, he has dominated it, been selected to play for his national team more times than anyone else in his country's history.

America's at the top of the table in everything! So why...?

His sport has broken his nose five times, fractured both of his shoulders and his hip and his forearm and his palate and his thumb, and concussed him, on average, three times a year.

A rugby team ... in Wales. A country of coal miners. I thought THAT would be the harshest environment for a man to come out in, but no....

Rugby for pussies: That's what he and his teammates call American football.

Why has America created an environment that's not open to gay sportsmen, butt?

No helmets, no pads, just balls: That's how he describes his own sport.

So tell me, butt. I really want to f---in' know what's going on in America!

Sometimes you have to go far away to see yourself. Sometimes you have to go to a land where people use different words and have different rituals and sing different songs. Sometimes you have to watch people play an unfamiliar game to see your games.

So how do we answer Gareth Thomas? Where is our pioneer? Why hasn't one gay male athlete in a major professional team sport in our country—one who's still playing, not one retired—ever come out?

Even the U.S. military is preparing to cross the line that 25 other countries' armies already have. Will team sports be the last place in the U.S. where a gay man feels he must hide and lie?

Maybe, when we sit down in front of our games this weekend, if we peer into the players' eyes and realize that one of every 10 of them may be living the nightmare that Gareth Thomas has lived, the spell would be broken. Unless, of course, the one in 10 has long since been frightened away from our playing fields and courts and rinks and been winnowed to the one in 20 or 30.

Maybe, if we really understood what hiding and lying does to a man, what's still happening in American sports couldn't possibly happen.

He tried to become invisible as he took the field in Toulouse that Saturday four months ago, his first honest day in the two decades since sex hormones began flooding his bloodstream. He glued his eyes to the grass during warmups. He kept his headphones clamped on his ears. Once Gareth had been a fan favorite in this French city, starring for Europe's preeminent rugby club, but who knew what awaited him now as a member of the visiting Cardiff Blues, headlined in that morning's papers for having just revealed his homosexuality? Especially since he was gift wrapped in that pink jersey that the team occasionally—and by sheer chance, today—wears for away matches.

Hopeless: There was no hiding Alf, his nickname since age 14 when a friend turned to him as they watched an American TV sitcom featuring a furry alien creature by that name—an acronym for Alien Life Form—and blurted, "You're just like him!" Same unruly ginger hair, same prominent nose, same impish antics. Uncanny, even two years before Gareth found himself being pulled toward men, that his nickname caught exactly how he'd end up feeling: alien. Gay man on rugby team.

There was no dematerializing the most imposing physical specimen on the rugby pitch, the chiseled 6'3", 225-pound body as large as any forward's but faster than almost any back's. No camouflaging the second-leading international scorer in Welsh history, the captain who had led Wales to its greatest triumph in 27 years, renowned for slapping both palms to his skull three times whenever he flew over the goal line, for catapulting onto teammates' backs when they scored.

The brotherhood. That's what magnetized Alf to rugby, what he felt in the marrow of his oft-broken bones. No other sport on earth demanded that a man lay his unprotected body on the line so relentlessly for his mates. Rugby, like the NFL, was a weekly car wreck, only its season lasted twice as long, and its games, with no stoppages for gathering one's breath or wits or heart, were two 40-minute streams of running and colliding that ground down every man, flushed his vulnerability from its hideaways and compelled even the strongest player to realize how much he needed the weakest. No other sport matched rugby's fervor for bonding; no other's coaches directed their buses to the nearest pub for team sing-alongs, drink-alongs and the occasional chair-flying free-for-alls after away games, or ordered their players to report for unscheduled conditioning sessions only to stab a finger at the beer cases stacked in the corner and cry, "We're not leaving till the last beer's done, boys!" ... all in the name of forging brotherhood.

Sure, such revelry had diminished since 1995, when the Welsh game had gone professional, but Alf had been initiated as a teenager in the premier division a few years earlier, playing for his hometown Bridgend Ravens. He'd already stripped naked and had a pillowcase pulled over his head to run relay races in pubs against fellow newcomers, dashing from one end of a table to the other to gulp sheep's eyeballs, raw kidneys and livers. He'd already had excrement rubbed on his face and Tabasco sauce in his eyes and between his legs, already fallen in love with every blind-drunk minute of it.

Because, unbeknownst to team captain Ian (Compo) Greenslade and the grizzled vets who were baptizing Alf, nobody needed the brotherhood more than he did. Where better to hide than within a group, a gang of ruddy, red-blooded Welshmen whom everyone admired and whose bedrock ethic was "One in, all in"? He lived in the thrall of that code. He'd get legless with the boys every Saturday night and again on Sunday, then train till he turned yellow and spewed. He'd be the first one making a newcomer to the team feel at home, the first one bolting into the stands when he saw a teammate up there in a brawl, the guy saving everybody's tail by streaking across the field for the game-saving tackle. He needed to believe that the boys, as Welsh ruggers invariably called their teammates, would be right there for him too, even if they found out that he ... no, he dared not put them to the ultimate test. Because if the brotherhood didn't pass, he'd be annihilated. Who I am, he'd say at every chance, is rugby.

The day before big international games, he'd often drive the 15 miles of winding road from his ancient stone-and-oak farm cottage outside Bridgend, park and walk through the sheep and clumps of dry grass up Bwlch Mountain to perch on Devil's Chair. From that jutting rock he could see and feel the trees and hills and villages in the valley where his great grandfather and uncles had lived and worked the coal mines, where blackened men had emerged from the earth and streamed to rugby pitches with lunch tins beneath their arms for a century and a half to play the sport they'd wrested from posh Limey private schools and made theirs, the game that became the fullest expression of the togetherness and earthiness that the Welsh treasure. From that rock he'd vow to go to war the next day for all those ghosts and abandoned mines, for all those trees and hills and villages and valleys, to play with a ferocity that would make all of them glow.

From that rock he could see where his father, the postman, was born, and the school where Alf could never sit still, and the yard outside it where teachers let him take his rugby ball all day and pretend he was playing for Wales rather than have him buzzing their classrooms with paper airplanes and catcalls from the rear row. So happy-go-lucky and lovable and swift to laugh at himself, that rangy kid in the schoolyard. Why, only Alf could fail to show up for the postal route his father lined up for him when he finished his education at 15 and claim he'd been locked inside his house all morning ... and get laughter and head shakes instead of a pink slip. Only Alf, when he got his driver's license, would tool around Bridgend wearing a Jar Jar Binks mask, bouncing and bellowing along with the rock songs that howled from his speakers.

Only Alf, surely no one else—the teenager with the alien's name and the alien's mask—would catch sight of a man passing by as he slowed for a red light and feel those gusts, those early ones, going through his groin....

Abruptly he'd rise from Devil's Chair and stride down the mountain. How he hated being alone.

He felt an angel on one shoulder telling him to turn on his heel and walk away, now. A devil on the other hissing, No, go inside, hurry. He was 18. The world felt as if it were cleaved that way. The pub on Old Compton Street in London loomed before him, its windows cloaked, muffled male voices on the door's other side. His maiden voyage. His guts a trembling knot of dread and desire. Wot, Alfie, not taking the team bus? No, he had told Compo and the boys, he had a few things to attend to and would drive the 2½ hours from Bridgend to London in his own tinny white bucket o' bolts. He had showered after Saturday's game against the London Wasps, then left the brotherhood behind, grabbed something to eat and thrown some beers down his throat, liquid bravado.

His devil won. He walked inside. He lowered his eyes, mumbled an order to the bartender. He wasn't gay. A man in his late 40s approached and began to chat. Alf had no idea why he was pulled to older men, any more than another man knew why he was pulled to blonde hair or long legs or full breasts. He murmured brief replies, a few small lies, nothing of rugby. He left alone, knowing that the man would return the following night.

Sunday crawled. He couldn't bring himself to leave London. Darkness fell. Same pub. Same man. They ended up in a hotel room. Then came Monday morning, and the nausea all the way home on the M4. Jemma ... how could he face her?

He'd met her a few years before at a friend's birthday party. No, his knees didn't go rubbery, the way other blokes' did for girls, but she was so kind, so nurturing and organized, a caretaker, just like his mom, who'd allow Alfie to go on being the eternal child, the man who couldn't send an e-mail or coax cash from the hole in the bank wall, the one addressing everyone as butt—short for butty, the old Welsh miners' word for workmates—because he couldn't remember anyone's name, the one still showing up on his mother's doorstep in his mid-30s for his breakfast, dinner and laundry, his socks and underwear ironed! How could Jemma not be besotted by him, the rippling lad who ran over everyone on her local rugby pitch on Saturdays and yet who would call twice a day to check up on a friend stuffy with a cold. The lad leaping her neighbors' hedges each morning, running a sackful of mail down her street and leaving notes in her mailbox if he was too early to pop in for biscuits and tea: Hope you're sleeping good and dreaming big, Jemma!

He arrived home from London, reeled into the shower, began scrubbing himself harder, harder, harder—ohmygod. His thighs were bleeding! He jammed his toothbrush into his mouth and raked his teeth and tongue till he vomited.

How could he keep hiding this from her, from himself, from all of Wales? All of Wales? Bloody 'ell, it was more village than country: Somebody farted in Llanelli, someone heard about it five minutes later in Merthyr Tydfil. Imagine what ran through Alfie that day at the post office when his dad handed him the letter from the Welsh Rugby Union inviting him to the national team's training camp for the 1995 World Cup at the raw age of 20. Barry Thomas—normally so laid-back he was horizontal—was prancing and cawing, "Open it! Open it!" as Alf plastered a smile on his mug and quivered, spooked by the fruition of his childhood dream.

His talent was a riptide sweeping him where he couldn't risk going: in front of everyone's eyes. Sarn, his gritty little village crammed into a narrow valley on the crust of Bridgend—an industrial town thronged with shift workers at the Ford and Sony plants—was no nest for a homosexual. Some gay Bridgenders avoided streets with pubs where "rugger-buggers" drank, for fear of being gang-jumped. But Bridgend knew Alf as a rugby player, looked right past the Adam Ant regalia and face paint he'd put on as a teen. The farther from Bridgend he went, however, the more he feared that some expression on his face or inflection in his voice would betray him. On the way to that first national team practice, all of 20 minutes up the road in Cardiff, he took wrong turns, pulled over to buy a chocolate bar and sat on the side of the road for two hours, gnawing ... then slinking home.

No coach or official murmured a word about his absence when he worked up the nerve and slipped in a day later. That good, he was. He exploded on the international scene, seeing space where no one else did and scoring three times in his debut against Japan in the World Cup. But now he was a gay man embedded on two rugby teams. Now he had two groups to hide him—or expose him. Shoveling abuse on one another, taking the mick out of mates, was mandatory on Welsh teams; secrets blistered and leaked in the hothouse of a rugby locker room. Why, wondered the boys, did Alf stay in the hotel bar drinking with the married vets rather than peel off with the other pups to prowl the nightclubs? Why did he lurch from one extreme to another, one night diving headfirst onto a pub table covered with pints, the next night tugging a cap low over his brow, excusing himself to take a leak, then vanishing? One night throwing down all 12 shots off a tray meant for half the team and materializing in the deejay's booth wearing sunglasses and a headband with two metal springs poking from it like antennae, scratching records like a street rapper, getting the whole joint jumping ... the next week unreachable, stonewalling everyone's texts and calls?

Where did it spring from, the false rumor that Alf and a national teammate had been caught together in a locker room? To outsiders, of course, the boys circled the wagons, scoffing at every insinuation, but on the inside they had to be careful, because one offhand remark might uncage the elephant in the dressing room.

You gay bastard! He ran off the field and tried to hurtle a barrier to reach the section of the Bridgend crowd where he'd heard a man scream that in 1998, the year after he'd jumped teams to play for Cardiff; thank God the referee intercepted him. You queer! The next year he played an entire game in a blind fury after a Newport Dragons player called him that and hit him in the chops. He's a faggot! He wheeled and flattened a man who hissed that as Alf departed from a pub a few years later, but at least this sonovabitch—unlike other pub patrons he'd slugged for just looking at him because he imagined what they were saying—had earned it.

He'd lie in bed, mind fogged by the alcohol that eased the stress of the constant sweep of radar required to anticipate that word before it arose, mind fried by the need to dominate a room or duck it altogether rather than risk the uncertainty in between, by the strain of concocting some new heterosexual exploit to peddle to the boys. F--- it, he couldn't live in a closet. It cried for the devious mind, the cautious man, not the one who punted balls at the p.r. director's head. He had to compress his homosexuality into a smaller and smaller lump, shove it lower and lower until he actually pictured it and felt its location: a small black ball lodged in the lower left side of his abdomen. Please, God, change me tonight, let me wake up normal, he'd beg as exhaustion finally began to overtake him, when ... wot? It was the strangest thing. Now he could feel the little black ball oozing fluid.

"Shall we get married?" he blurted to Jemma, bursting out of bed one night in 2000 after years of agonizing. Yes! Beautiful. But that wasn't enough. Those false teeth he got to fill in the eight blanks in his grill? Screw 'em. The gaps looked more macho. Those massive tattoos blooming on his back, arms, legs, flanks? More, bigger, more; no one stops to wonder if a psycho is gay. That little white Vauxhall Nova he drove? Park it. Enter Alf straddling 955 cc's, his Triumph Sprint rattling sheep's teeth as he hurtled through the valleys at 100 mph. The soccer chants he'd bellow from the bathroom so loud you could hear him at the bar? In the Swansea slums they look in the dustbins for something to eat/They find a dead rat and think it's a treat! Even louder, because the more he didn't seem to give a monkey's ass about anything, the less anyone would suspect his agony over the biggest thing. Those muscles erupting everywhere? Not sufficient. He'd drop and do 300 push-ups and 500 sit-ups a day, besides the hour-and-a-half weightlifting session with the boys, besides the hour and a half at his fitness center. Pumping iron just hours before game time, rising on four hours' sleep after bingeing with the boys to run four miles and vomit, surpassing their treadmill speeds and max bench presses on the sly so no egos would be wounded and he'd remain one of the gang. A closet trainer, they whispered. Turning his body into a sledgehammer of the stereotype, should the hour of his unmasking ever arrive—Yeah, well, guess what, the pufter's the strongest and fastest man on your national team! Fueled every step of his journey by the same seeping fluid that panicked him: I'm the only gay person here. I'm the minority. They don't accept me. I'm going to outmuscle them, outrun them, outdo them.

The wife, now with child. The armor, now exquisite. The objective far larger than convincing the world that he wasn't gay: convincing himself. So much psychic energy, and so much lager, being deployed against that foreign body in his abdomen that his coaches began to notice him, more and more, just going through the motions in practices and team meetings. And still, the fluid spreading, rising to his throat....

London calling! Thank God, another game there! Having to hide there too, of course, now that his mug was always on the telly. Having the taxi drop him off a few blocks away from the gay pubs on Old Compton Street in case the cabbie recognized him, inventing a name on the fly when anyone asked, ordering pints in a flimsy foreign accent and extending a handful of coins to the barman as if he didn't know the currency. Almost relieved that, as of 2000, he was rarely included on the national team, his career on the skids in his prime, because of all the carousing. Almost certain that no one could recognize him, because he couldn't recognize himself.

Sometimes it takes someone from far away to see you for yourself. Someone from the other side of the planet with a funny accent and long blond hair and no mind made up about who or what you are. Someone in baggy shorts, nicknamed Johnno, who looked more like an aging surfer than a rugby coach, even though he was the new man in charge of the backs on the Welsh national team. Someone who had lost his wife to leukemia and raised two children on his own and come to look at human beings and relationships in a different way, and who sensed, as he sat across a café table from Alf in 2002, that Alf wasn't normal, whatever the hell that meant ... and didn't want normal. A coach from Australia named Scott Johnson, who understood that in a circle of men in the hour before battle energy might be filling every chest in the room, but if it remained behind clamped teeth, as male energy often did, it wouldn't become group energy. That it needed a trigger.

One berth remained on the 30-man national team. Forget Alfie, he's too much on the piss, all the wise heads of Welsh rugby had told Johnno and head coach Steve Hansen from New Zealand, the two men Wales had brought up from Down Under to rescue its flailing program. But months of watching league play had convinced Johnno: Alf was the best player, the best athlete, in the whole country. Now that he was staring at that Adonis physique and realizing the fiendish dedication that had to have been poured into it, and contrasting that with Alf's rep as a pub lizard and with his test results for strength, speed and endurance—all merely average—well, hell, nothing added up.

Look, we don't want you to just blend in, Johnno told him. We need you to stand out, mate. We want you having fun, setting the temperature in the room. If you're ready to set the physical standard for all the boys instead of being a follower, the spot's yours again.

The damnedest thing happened. Alf seized the challenge. The love of his wife and the respect of Johnno and the boys began to ease the need for those dozen pints of beer, and he flourished, becoming Wales's alltime scoring leader and astounding his own teammates in 2004 when—wot?—Alf was named captain! Alf? Team liaison with new head coach Mike Ruddock and the Welsh Rugby Union, front man with the media, play-caller on the field? His gifts bloomed when he was in charge. It's not illegal to smile, he kept reminding the boys, busting out a break dance or Mamma Mia! at the top of his lungs, but it was the depth of his feelings that hit them in the heart. He gathered them for his first pep talk before leading them in front of 74,000 fans at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium against the mighty Springboks of South Africa. "Boys, I am just asking you to stand with me for 80 minutes," he implored, eyes wet with emotion. "Bollocks to the result. Bollocks to the scoreboard. Be proud that we are together and that we have this opportunity to play together. Puff your chest out. Stand tall with me!" They lost 38--36, but they believed. A few months later Alf captained them to a historic sweep of Italy, France, England, Scotland and Ireland in the '05 Six Nations Championship, the first time since 1978 that Wales had completed the Grand Slam.

The British and Irish Lions—the cream of English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish rugby—selected him captain during their 2005 tour of New Zealand, and the boys howled when the p.r. chief handed his cellphone to a disbelieving Alf to receive the congratulations of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "F--- you, who's this taking the piss, then?" Alfie blurted into the phone, until—convinced at last—he exclaimed, "How's it going, butt?" and whooped, punching the air and running off for a five-minute chat before returning and closing with, "O.K., then, butt. Next time I'm in London, I'll give you a ring and we'll go out for a couple of pints."

He was 31 years old. Besides captaining his national team and the U.K.'s team, he had just helped take Toulouse—the 16-time champs of French rugby, who had signed him a year earlier for a $350,000 salary—to the Heineken Cup crown, the club championship of all Europe, and had been voted runaway winner of BBC Wales Sports Personality of the Year. And the reason the boys would always give for rallying round the man living a lie was the oddest one of all. "Because," they'd say, "he's so honest."

It's time for the demolition, of course. The remarkable thing is not that the little black ball in Alfie Thomas's lower left gut is about to erupt and nearly kill him. It's the string of events that detonate it, each one seeming to bear no relation at all to the other or even to his sexuality.

It all began ordinarily enough, on a Saturday afternoon in January 2006. Just another uppercut to the neck as Alf scored for Toulouse against Pau. Just another concussion, brain scan and medical clearance to play on.

Two weeks later, in the midst of the Six Nations Championship, Ruddock resigned as national coach just a year after steering the boys to a Six Nations sweep. Wales was traumatized, its media sizzling with accusations that the players, led by Cap'n Alf, had gone to the national rugby union and undermined Ruddock in hopes that assistant coach Johnno would get the job.

Enter Alf, still a little light-headed from the concussion, flying home from Toulouse to rejoin the Welsh team for its next Cup match, heading straight from the airport into a hornet's nest: a BBC Wales TV studio panel of three journalists, spearheaded by a formidable former national player named Eddie Butler. Insisting he had a source, Butler barreled through the captain's denials, insinuating that Alf had backstabbed the coach who'd named him captain. Alf, about to burst out of his leather jacket and black Motorhead T-shirt, kept shouting, "Tell us your source, Eddie! Tell us your source!" as the show careened toward the brink of fisticuffs—"Car-crash telly at its best," teammate Martyn Williams would call it.

Panic gripped Alf as he headed home. A man who fears there's a devil in his belly cannot risk a witch hunt. His eyes bulged, his face flushed as he prepared to watch the telecast—taped for airing an hour later—with Jemma, his parents and Compo. He bolted upstairs and grabbed a stuffed Alf doll that a fan had sent him, returned and paced with it as the show began, then leaned against the fireplace. Pins and needles were running down his left arm. He sagged into a chair in the corner. His whole arm went numb. He realized, suddenly, that he couldn't move his neck, that his entire left side had no feeling, that the room was going dark. He opened his mouth to call out, but his tongue wouldn't move. His body slid to the floor. "Gareth, stop being so bloody stupid!" he heard his mother say, thinking he was playing the fool again.

"No ... no," he finally gasped, and it occurred to him, as he clutched Compo's leg and heard Butler accuse him of treachery on the screen, that those might be the last words he'd ever hear on earth. Then his breath stopped, and his mother screamed and grabbed her phone to call for help. "Keep breathing, Alf!" Jemma implored as Compo, who'd heard somewhere that it worked for babies, began blowing on his face.

An ambulance screamed into the driveway and rushed him to the hospital. Not a heart attack, doctors decided when he stabilized. A ministroke. Stress had rocketed Alf's blood pressure so dramatically that it had collapsed an artery carrying blood to his brain, an artery that had been weakened by the blow he'd taken to his neck.

When could he play rugby again? The doctor shrugged. He could play again, right? Another shrug. A man has but two arteries conveying blood to his brain, Alf was told. For the next six months he was to do nothing more strenuous than walk.

All his life he'd incinerated his anxiety with rugby and feverish workouts. All his life he'd fled stillness and aloneness. Now they had him cornered. Now he sat there, knowing he was the conversation topic in every kitchen and pub in the land, and each consoling hug from his wife only brought him belly to belly with his other fear, his deeper one: the baby inside her. Their third. Their first two pregnancies had ended in miscarriages, and his guilt over his sexuality had convinced him that it was he who had twice brought down God's sword.

Two weeks after the ministroke came the third and final verdict, the stillness of the sonogram. Walk, the doctor had told him? Alf walked ... and walked ... and walked, his guilt a conflagration now. Three hours a day ... four ... five ... six. He could keep lying to everyone else, keep lying to himself, but to her, to that innocent woman devastated for a third time? He walked through St. Brides Major, past Pitcot and Southerndown, beyond the beach to the cliffs. Closer to the edge each time, the launching point for nine suicides in a recent three-year span. Returning again and again to the unstable limestone ledge, staring down the sheer 200-meter drop to the rocks below, heart pounding, thoughts racing—This life is s---, this life is s---, this life is s---. If only a gust would blow him over, if only a car would crush him on the road....

Jemma grew suspicious. She'd dismissed the rumors about his sexuality before, but now his long absences and guilt-shot eyes made her wonder. No, he wanted to scream, he wasn't seeing a man, he was seeing himself, and loathing it. Two sleepless months on the precipice passed, and then one summer morning, during an out-of-town rugby academy he was directing for children—the youngest ones nearly the age that his first child would have been—he telephoned her. "We need to talk when I get back," he said.

"Tell me now," Jemma said.

"Later."

"Tell me now."

At last, for the first time, he said, "I'm ..." and then choked out the word that had repulsed him all his life.

He came home, and they both wept and walked around in a daze, trying to comprehend what the sledgehammer blow meant. She accompanied him to Toulouse when he returned to play a few weeks later. The marriage was hopeless, they knew, but the moment they ended a relationship that seemed so harmonious, they'd have to explain. "Tell them I cheated on you," Alf pleaded.

Jemma flew back to Wales. He cried out her name in the dark. He kept the lights on all night. He forced vodka down his throat. His body melted away, 20 pounds gone in a few weeks. The rumors about his sexuality ran wild. He came home for a test match against Australia. Reporters parked outside his cottage in Wales and pressed his national teammates, itching for the break. He walked onto the field at Millennium Stadium on Nov. 3, 2006. Jesus, thought Johnno from the opposite sideline, having returned to Australia for family reasons and now the Wallabies' assistant coach. Alf was a ghost.

It shredded Alf's heart to play rugby that way. He'd violated the code of the brotherhood, shown up unready to cover anyone's back, lied about who he was and forced them to lie in his defense. He sat in front of his locker in tears after the 29--29 draw, as Wales's coaches and officials, deeply worried, sent their team manager across enemy lines to request Johnno's help.

Johnno entered the Welsh dressing room. "What's going on, mate?" he asked softly.

Alfie blinked up at him. The little black ball, like an embolism, had traveled to a place where it would kill him if he didn't get it out, but ... but this was baring himself to rugby now, risking everything.

"Jemma and me have split," he murmured.

"Look, it's one of two things," said Johnno. "Do you want me to make it easier on you, Alf? Do you want me to say it for you?"

Alf nodded. "Either you cheated on her with another woman, which I don't think you have...."

Silence.

"Does it have something to do with your sexuality, mate?"

Tears filled Alf's eyes. "You knew all the time," he said.

"So ... you're still Alf, right? We love you. This doesn't change anything about you as a person or how the boys feel about you.... But you'll need support, mate. You can't hold this alone. I'm going to speak to a few of the boys. They need to know."

Alf shuddered, hung his head and nodded, then went to a bar in the team hotel and waited in terror for two hours. Johnno checked into a room there, invited in two of the most senior and respected members of the team, Martyn Williams and Stephen Jones, opened a bottle of red and poured out the truth.

The two players finally entered the bar. Williams put a hand on Alf's back. "Hey, mate," he said, "no big deal. We don't care. Cheers for getting it out. Why didn't you tell us before?"

Free at last? No. For the next three years Alf lived in a halfway house. He made tearful confessions to close friends and family, who all embraced him. But he wasn't sure which of his teammates knew he was gay—either on the national team or on Cardiff, which signed him after he fled Toulouse with no warning to teammates or coaches—and he couldn't risk widening the circle. Most found out, but they didn't know if he knew that they knew, so everyone had to keep the elephant caged, unsettling them all.

The Internet hummed with speculation, and both his teams got phone calls from tabloids on the verge of outing him. But he just kept holding his breath and no-commenting, and his teammates loved him too much to forsake him. So few precedents existed to embolden him. A rugby player on the other side of the world, Ian Roberts, had come out in 1995 while he was still playing, and he heard plenty of slurs from crowds and opponents but had been awarded the Australian Sports Medal five years later for his contributions to their game. An English soccer player, Justin Fashanu, had stepped forward in 1990, but his brother had disowned him and crowds had been vicious.

What Alf feared most, besides being ridiculed right out of his sport, was the effect that disclosure might have on his family. His teenage niece had already come home in tears when taunts from boys in her school about her uncle had grown graphic. He knew his fiery mother would rise up, all five feet of her, against anyone who insulted the youngest of her three sons, but he dreaded his parents having to brace each time they entered a pub. So whenever rumors crested, he'd take one of his dearest friends—Compo's partner, Catherine Millard—shopping in Cardiff, looping his arm around her as they strolled, and she'd say, "I know what you're doing, Alf."

Finally, as 2009 drew to a close, a now-or-never feeling gripped his chest. He was 35, his international career finished, and he trusted his Cardiff Blues teammates and coaches. He could wait until he retired to come clean and salvage some shred of authenticity for the rest of his life, but if he did it now, its impact would multiply tenfold, and if just one young man could be saved from what he'd endured, wouldn't his long horror suddenly have worth?

He got his parents' blessing. He went to his grandparents' graves and talked it out with them. He vowed to spill the secret, chickened out, vowed again. At last he took a deep breath and told his agent to contact London's conservative Daily Mail, his father's newspaper, and he made his declaration. On Dec. 18—two months after an Irish hurler named Dónal Óg Cusack had outed himself—Alf warned teammates as they flew to a game in France that the story was going to break the next day, and he barely slept that night.

By chance they were playing his old team, Toulouse. He waited till the last possible moment to take the field, but when his name was announced, the roar that went up overwhelmed him. When the team's plane returned to Cardiff that night, he headed straight to his parents' house, and they popped a bottle of champagne.

"What are we toasting?" he asked.

"The start of the rest of your life," said his mother.

Alf lifted his glass, drank ... and awaited the anvil. On the street he pulled his wool beanie low or his hood up. At home he Googled feverishly, scouring every thread of the Web to see what happened when millions of people came into collision with their conception of what a man is.

The brotherhood, of course, counted most in the public trial of Alfie Thomas. His cellphone blazed with congratulatory texts from old teammates. His current mates rejoiced that Alf's preferences finally were fodder. They teased him about the pink jerseys that Cardiff wore against Toulouse: "Oh, they knew you were coming out today, Alf?" They pointed to the music video on the team bus—Freddie Mercury of Queen, dressed as a miniskirted maid, vacuuming a house and singing I Want to Break Free—and hooted, "Oh, look, Alf's on the telly!" Coach David Young growled, "C'mon, boys, you're playing like a bunch of fairies!" and started to cringe at his word choice, only to see Alf giggling hardest of all. Now Alf could take the mick on his hotel roommates, claiming that Gareth Cooper had spent the whole night in Toulouse sleeping with one eye open and his back to the wall.

"We probably love him even more now because of how hard we know it's been for him," says Lee Byrne, a former national teammate.

"For me, he was the most ungay person who ever was," says Trevor Brennan, a former Toulouse teammate. "Our coach would point to him and say, 'There's an example of a real man.' I don't make gay jokes anymore since I found out about Alf."

Rugby officialdom checked in, with the chief of the Welsh Rugby Union, Roger Lewis, texting, "The world is yours now, you really are brave."

Then came his soon-to-be ex-wife's response from her new home in Spain, blared in the London press. "I couldn't feel prouder of him than I do now," Jemma said.

But the fans, Alf couldn't predict. Just how deeply did Wales believe in its deepest core value: that a man should never put on false airs, should be himself? He got a few wolf whistles at Swansea, but the vast majority of crowds cheered his name louder than ever. The newspaper and television coverage was unrelentingly positive. Support on the Internet came like a wave, 20,000 people signing up for a Support Gareth Thomas group on Facebook and a Twitter community gathering around him overnight, along with the expected sprinkling of scrum jokes. Letters thanking him poured in from across the world, from old gay men who'd lived in fear all their lives and young ones who'd abandoned sports. He became an instant spokesman, discussing homophobia at universities and on TV, partnering with ChildLine—a phone bank for youths troubled by sexuality and abuse—and becoming a patron of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History Month.

At last came the anvil. "Most right-thinking people would be appalled that sex in any form and sodomy in particular is being thrust down small children's throats, yet that is what Gareth Thomas is now promoting," declared Stephen Green, director of Christian Voice, a small fundamentalist group. But by then the positive tide was so strong, Alf could shrug it off.

Paul Burston, the 44-year-old editor of the gay section of London's Time Out magazine and a fellow Bridgender, was floored. "I never thought I would live to see a gay rugby player from Bridgend, never mind one applauded," he says. "I fled that town because the rugby culture was so macho and brutal. Local coverage of anyone who was outed was almost always snide and mean. But there's been none of that with Alf. Something really deep is changing. There's still a lot of homophobia, but it's not something you let out in genteel company now. It's been stigmatized."

And Alf? He felt so energized that rather than retire, as he was preparing to do, he signed a two-year contract last month with Wrexham's Celtic Crusaders in northern Wales to play rugby league—a faster and even more physical version of the rugby union game he's played all his life. "It's like waking up on Christmas Day, walking down the stairs and seeing Father Christmas," he says. "The horizons are wide open. I'm like a teenager again. People keep asking, 'What's the negative of coming out?' But there's none so far.

"If this taboo had been broken before me, I would have known better. I created this hool monster that didn't exist. The fear of rugby being taken away from me, my hool life being taken away ... people talking about me behind closed doors ... I created it. It's mad. Now I know I'm not an alien and God isn't punishing me.

"I would love to help kids who are going through this, because we're all kids, butt. I want to be the gay role model I never had. The note I got from a guy who gave up rugby years ago because he was gay and has returned to playing it since I came out—that outweighs lifting the biggest trophy as captain of Wales.

"The e-mails and letters and Twitters I get tell me there is so much confusion, so many gay kids who love sports but get pushed away. A lot of the notes are from America. I love the United States, butt ... but why wouldn't the people who run your sports and who sponsor them make a public announcement that they welcome gay people and will support them? Because even if they feel that's bringing too much attention to something that should be a private matter, at this point that's what's needed."

Someday, a gay male athlete in a mainstream U.S. sport will step forward and cross the threshold that lesbian athletes did long ago. And when that day finally dawns, Alf has this crazy idea. He'd love to go to the U.S. and climb onto the highest rooftop with that guy. Not to jump off. To stand tall beside him, to break the link between homosexuality and weakness, and to scream, "I'm gay! He's gay! We're gay!" And see how far the echo carries.

 
 
 
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