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 was still enjoying his mild celebrity status, talking to a group of four teammates when Martin walked by and said, "I bet you have a small dick."

Eric followed Martin out to the balcony and looked out into the busy street 11 stories below before he even spoke.

"That's fucked-up that you said that," he told Martin. "I can see we're not going to . . . "

photo: David Yellen


"I don't care," Martin interrupted. "I just wanted you to follow me out here. I wanted an excuse to talk to you." Then Martin kissed Eric. The two went home together.

Off the pitch, Eric had started working at the art house part-time to earn a little cash and was rapidly taking on more responsibility. He was also taking three courses at NYU and dating a man named Todd whom he'd met at a bar. As a result he could only practice rugby one day a week, and his development was slow. When Martin failed to show further interest in him, Eric began sleep ing with Eric Walter, another teammate.

All of that changed on the weekend of April 23, when a small squad of the Knights traveled to Washington, D.C., to play the Washington Renegades, one of the first gay rugby teams in the United States and the Knights' most hated rival. They lost both matches, and for the team as a whole, it was the lowest point of the season. "We had played against ourselves," Eric says. "We had let the rivalry get to us, and we had let everything get out of control." Most of the players who stayed in D.C. didn't go out later that night. Eric and a few other teammates had never experienced the gay scene there—known for attracting a professional, intelligent crowd—and decided to go bar-hopping. Midway through the night he received a call from a number he didn't recognize. Martin's voice came through the speaker, and Eric's heart jumped. Martin came from his parents' house in Virginia, where he had been eating dinner, and met up with Eric.

Later that week Eric got two tickets to a Mets game and sent Martin a text message asking him if he wanted to go along. Eric now considers that their first date. That same week Eric's play earned praise from his most respected teammates. Toby Butterfield, the experienced rugger from England, pulled him aside. The two hadn't spoken much up to that point.

"I've got to tell you," Butterfield said, "that I like your game. You're new and have a lot to learn, but I can see you really going somewhere with this." Eric began taking the game more seriously. He bought books on strategy and watched games on television. He stopped focusing so much on making the big hit and, under Bahr's direction, learned how to transition smoothly between attacking and defending. "Finally, I was a real rugby player," he says.

In May, when the team was in San Diego to play the Armada, another gay club, Eric looked to the stands throughout the game. He was expecting his uncle, aunt, and cousins to be there. He'd had dinner with them the night before, and they had all relayed stories about the rest of the family and relived past memories. Eric searched for them after the game to no avail. He walked out to the parking lot to see if either of their cars was there. Then, just as he was about to call to make sure everything was all right, he remembered that he had outed himself rather nonchalantly the night before.

"So who are you dating these days? Who's the new girlfriend?" his aunt had asked.

"Actually, I have a new boyfriend. I'm gay," Eric had replied. That had been the extent of the conversation. This family, like his own, practiced Catholicism and believed in socially conservative values. He knew this is why they didn't come. Eric dealt with the pain by pushing it away and flooding his life with things to do. With the season over except for informal games and tournaments, he and Martin spent every night together.

Late that summer, Eric and Martin went out to dinner at their favorite restaurant, La Belle Vie in Chelsea. They drank two bottles of wine. As they left the restaurant and walked down Eighth Avenue, Eric grabbed Martin's hand. If he'd had a problem with the relationship so far, it was that Martin shied from affection in public. He grew uncomfortable if he felt the people watching him might disapprove. Eric not only didn't care, he wanted to flaunt it if it made anyone uncomfortable. So gregarious, he had trouble holding back his feelings.

This time, though, Martin held Eric's hand tightly. They walked for several blocks without talking. Other couples, both gay and straight, walked past them. Then Martin slowed and stopped at the entrance to the small park in Abingdon Square. He kissed Eric hard, and Eric leaned in to keep going. When Martin pulled back, he said, "I am in love with you."

Eric couldn't talk. He knew he loved Martin too, but didn't think he'd ever hear those words and be able to believe them. He had said it to women and to his other boyfriends, but always with a big smile, with a veneer. That was gone.

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