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Story pick: The only openly gay male athlete

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I don't know much about rugby. But I do know it's among the roughest, craziest, drink- and testosterone-fueled sports. (One afternoon melee at a friend's wedding, as the groom's rugby buddies drank the bar dry and tore up the dance floor in a loud, lewd, men-only kind of gyrating scrum, is about the closest I've come to the sport.)

But a friend told me the other day that I just had to read the piece in the new Sports Illustrated about Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas, the only openly gay male professional athlete. And it's by Gary Smith. I'll read just about anything by Gary Smith.

From the opening line, as Smith dives right into the culture of rugby and channels Thomas, I was hooked.

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. And, among active players in major professional team sports, he's ...

Wot, butt? You come to this tiny village in this tiny country and tell me that I'm the only gay man in a major team sport who's out of the closet?

The man was missing eight teeth. Sometimes he would slip out his false teeth when you weren't looking and deposit them in your pint of ale.

All the diversity in America, and no one there has done this?

His blue eyes twinkled and his laughter was infectious and his body was a riot of muscles and he'd been known, if he suspected someone in the pub was talking about him, to rise from his table and drop him.

Smith goes long and deep in his reporting, and he writes as if he's sitting directly inside the head of his subjects -- and speaking from their souls. He tells the story of Thomas' wrenching struggle to come to terms with the truth about himself. And at the same time, Smith asks the larger question: "Where is our pioneer? Why hasn't one gay male athlete in a major professional team sport in our country -- one who's still playing, not one retired -- ever come out?"

"Sometimes you have to go far away to see yourself," Smith writes. "Sometimes you have to go to a land where people use different words and have different rituals and sing different songs. Sometimes you have to watch people play an unfamiliar game to see your games.

Above photo from The Washington Post archive. Gareth Thomas not pictured.

By Brigid Schulte  | May 13, 2010; 8:13 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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