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."