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"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.