"For me, he was the most ungay person who ever was," a rugby teammate says of Welsh star Gareth Thomas, who came out as gay last year. "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."
That line is near the end of Gary Smith's exhaustive profile of Thomas (nicknamed "Alf" for his resemblance to the TV character) in this week's Sports Illustrated. Thomas' story is familiar to Outsports readers, but Smith's profile is the most thorough that shows the unrelenting fear and pain being in the closet caused Thomas, and how being out has made him reborn.
Rugby is a tough sport (the Welsh call American football "rugby for pussies," Smith writes), and no one was tougher than Thomas:
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.
The majority of the article details his struggles with reconciling his sexuality with his sport, which led to massive drinking bouts, surreptitious visits to London gay bars, marriage, thoughts of suicide and a physical breakdown. It's a wonder Thomas made it through all that in one piece. But since coming out (a three-year process), he has found happiness and a peace of mind.
"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. ..."
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."
Thomas has a new lease on his sporting life, having made the transition to playing rugby league. Life does begin at 35, especially when one doesn't have to hide any more. Thomas is an example that it is possible for a big-time pro athlete to come out and continue to compete.