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.