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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.