‘I didn’t think I needed help because I didn’t think I could be helped’

The Irish Times

Fri, Sep 10, 2010

Unable to accept his homosexuality and terrified his peers in the macho world of international rugby would discover it, 14 years ago referee Nigel Owens decided to end his life. Given a ‘second chance’, he is now fronting a campaign that urges men to seek help for their problems, he tells Keith Duggan

NIGEL OWENS was understandably thrilled when he was appointed to referee the first ever rugby international to take place in Soweto last month. It remains a highlight even if he did feature in a spectacular, clattering tackle that he can watch on replay if ever he needs to reassure himself of his status within the sport.

Owens got caught in the maelstrom of a developing New Zealand attack and was pushed by South African flanker Juan Smith into the path of the All-Blacks’ hefty scrum-half, Jimmy Cowan. Seconds later, he was flattened by both Cowan and South Africa’s 17-stone Schalk Burger, who had committed to the tackle. Owens was totally unprepared and his head bore the impact. Immediately, players from both sides gathered around the Welshman, their concern evident and genuine. Owens was probably too dazed to consider the implications of the moment.

Here was a man who had risen through the ranks of rugby union refereeing while privately fretting about how players would react if they ever found out he was gay.

Here was a referee marked out as talented, capable of controlling two sets of aggressive athletes but who deep down felt he couldn’t control his own life.

Here was someone who had come to the brink of suicide because he was convinced that people couldn’t accept him for who he was.

This week, he has been fronting the Men on the Ropes campaign, backed by British Rail and Iarnród Éireann, which focuses on high suicide rates among young men.

Fourteen years have passed since Owens attempted suicide in his home town of Mynyddcerrig. A combination of chronic weight gain in his early 20s, subsequent steroid abuse and an internal struggle to understand, let alone accept, his homosexuality, led him to conclude he had no alternative.

“I didn’t really know what it was to be gay: I was an old fashioned country boy. It all came to a head in my mid-20s. I was worried what people would think, I felt ashamed and didn’t like who I was. But I didn’t think I needed help because I didn’t think I could be helped. So one night I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I loaded up the gun and left at about half past three in the morning. I walked around the village looking at the places I had grown up. It was meant to be a kind of goodbye, really.”

He climbed Bancyddraenen Mountain where he took some pills. He drifted off before he acted out his intention to shoot himself and was fortunate to be found, comatose but alive.

“IT WAS A SECOND CHANCE. There is no doubt in my mind that I was going to take my own life. And if I hadn’t overdosed, I would have pulled the trigger.

“And then, waking up in the hospital and seeing my parents there and how upset they were made me realise it was time to grow up. They said: ‘What the hell have you done? If you try that again, you better take us with you.’ That was a shock. And just being able to say that I needed help was the start of it.”

Owens persevered to become one of the most respected and popular referees in international rugby. He regards refereeing the Leinster/Munster European Cup in May 2009 at Croke Park as an absolute highlight.

“Because of the history. It was just a privilege to be part of sporting history. Because those teams will probably never play at that stadium again.” Last year, he was in Thomond Park to referee the Munster/Northampton match. He had bought Ronan O’Gara’s autobiography for his father on the way over and when the Cork man happened to call into the referee’s room to thank him for the match, he asked O’Gara to sign it.

By then, Owens’s story was public knowledge. He had revealed that he was gay in 2007, the first rugby union professional to do so. To his immense relief, nothing had changed: there was no awkwardness, no homophobia, nothing.

“Nothing I had feared ever happened. I was treated the same. It has reached the stage where you might even get the odd bit of banter in the changing room and that is part of life too.”

He didn’t read O’Gara’s inscription until he got back to Wales. It read: “To Geraint. Hope you enjoy the book. Best wishes and you can be very proud of your son.” Those few words illuminated to Owens how far he had travelled and made him realise how much more content he is in his job and life now that the subterfuge has been lifted.

“When you are happy with yourself, you do your work well. It is something I tell students when I speak in school about bullying or matters like that. You have to know who you are. When I was worrying about what the players would think my mind wasn’t fully on refereeing.”

OTHER ATHLETES, including Welsh rugby international Gareth Thomas, have followed Owens’s example in coming out. But his brush with suicide and the daily reports of those less fortunate, from the concentrated series of suicides among young people in the Welsh town of Bridgend to the sporadic isolated stories in newspapers, have made Owens think about others going through difficult times or in distress.

“We have 4,000 to 5,000 men [taking their lives] each year in the UK and Ireland. Statistics show they are more likely to be working class men in their 30s and 40s . . . men that might be under added pressure now because of unemployment.

“And men just aren’t good at talking about ourselves. We don’t like it. I hear about these people and I always think: ‘I wish to God you had just spoken to someone and realised that there is help out there.’ Talk to friends. Or do phone the Samaritans.”

Owens has a bright voice and – for someone tortured by an inability to speak up – is a natural communicator. He is plainly grateful for the turn his life has taken in the past decade and admits that some of it is about accepting things for what they are. “I look at some of my friends and their families and think I would like that. I live alone and that can be lonely. And I lost my mother, Mair, last year and that was terribly distressing and the thought, ‘Well, I won’t get over this and if I take my life, there will be no pain’ did occur.

“But I quickly realised I couldn’t let that happen again, that I wasn’t going to go back there. The thing is that I know how to deal with it now.”

OWENS’S PROFESSIONAL life is one of privilege and transience. His friends often envy his lifestyle: he perpetually seems to be travelling from one country to the next. “Holidays to me mean staying at home, walking the dogs in the hills.” And when he gets a chance, he likes to sit down with his friends and watch a game of rugby. This is Wales: there is no escaping the game.

He admits that he is still getting plenty of jibes about his famous collision in Soweto.

“They are not going to let me forget that,” he laughs. “I think I will be hearing about that tumble for the rest of my life.”

© 2010 The Irish Times



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