Field of Queens

The life and loves of Eric Merfalen, a gay athlete who forged his sexual identity while playing America's most macho, bone-crushing sport

Eric didn't believe it was possible. He'd known few gay men who enjoyed relaxing at a bar and watching the game—any game— or playing pickup basketball in the park. There were certainly gay men at his gym, just as there were entire gyms in Chelsea used only by gay men. Eric found these men even more difficult to deal with than the "queens" who ruled the bar scene; they cared, somehow, even more about their appearance. It was a cult of narcissism.

Eric turned to Google. As he planned a way to explain his return to Cleveland to his friends and scoured the Web for new jobs, he took 10 minutes to do a quick search: gaysports new york.


The following Saturday, Eric walked out into the cold and jumped on the No. 1 train heading downtown. He got off at 14th Street and walked over to Sixth Avenue, where he was supposed to wait for a ride to Randalls Island, the home of the Gotham Knights. He noticed several other men waiting on the corners of the intersection and corralled them.

"Any of you know anything about rugby?" he asked. They all shook their heads. "Anybody know what this is going to be like?" Again, no. The ride to Randalls Island, wedged between Manhattan and Queens, was quiet too. They found the field, and Eric's hopes sagged. Whatever wasn't covered with snow had turned to mud, and trash dotted the entire playing surface. The pitch, as it is called in rugby, was a disaster. Head coach Harold Bahr, a quiet, brooding man, gathered the new recruits, who numbered about 25. He showed a short video that described the basics of rugby and showed highlights of crushing tackles and tries (the equivalent of touchdowns) followed by celebration. From there the group did drills and worked its way into a short scrimmage.

Rugby can be a startlingly beautiful game when played well. Fifteen players work in unison without a single stoppage, and teams flow from offense to defense, shifting in and out of formations, all of it accented by tackle after tackle. This scrimmage did not go like that. It was startlingly absurd, a mishmash of fits and starts and illegal plays. Eric didn't even take part. He was sitting in then president Adam Josephs's car. He'd been so anxious to show off his athletic skill—few of the other newcomers had played a sport before—that he tried to make every tackle during drills, ended up spending much of his time in the mud, and got soaked within the first few minutes. By the third hour of practice Eric's shivering was out of control, and he asked for a change of clothes and a few minutes to rest and warm up. He watched this strange game from the sidelines. It was cha-os, and Eric was not at all sure he'd enjoy it.

The team went back to the Eagle, a dive bar, and began drinking. All of the new players received shirts proclaiming they'd survived boot camp, and got their drinks paid for by the current team. Before long, each new player was being paraded back to a pool table and forced to flash his ass to the rest of the team or take off his shirt. Eric declined to show his ass; he often demurred from taking part in the team's more sexual rituals.


On April 2, after only a month of practice, Eric suited up against two Metropolitan rivals. But he missed the bus and didn't reach New Windsor for Gotham's first matches until midway through his team's 69-0 loss. He arrived in time to see Jeff Simpson, another new player who had become one of Eric's best friends, severely fracture his ankle just five minutes into his rugby career. The other players were kind enough to carry a frantic Simpson right past Eric. Thus initiated, Eric prepared for his own debut. It went slightly better than Simpson's, in that Eric was able to walk off the field.

Winston, one of the founding members of the club, held the party at his house in New Jersey later that night, and the entire team drank and swam in the pool. Eric doesn't know how to swim—he almost drowned when he was young and has feared water ever since—and didn't pack a suit. The pool was only a few feet deep, though, and Simpson, who came back from the emergency room sporting a large cast, wasn't going to use his suit, so Eric borrowed it. He walked out onto the deck in the black, square-cut Speedo to the sound of whistles and applause. The way he remembers it, every player on the team who didn't have a longtime partner hit on him that night.

Martin Smith, a boyishly handsome architect from Virginia, refrained, at least while in the pool. Eric and he had argued earlier that day about politics, and Martin didn't like the rookie's tone. A member of the team since 2002, Martin had played club rugby at the University of Virginia. He was a quiet leader on the Blue team. He believed new players should be patient and pay their dues. Eventually those who lived in the city left New Jersey and gathered at the Chelsea apartment of Adam Josephs to continue the party.


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