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

"I love you," Martin said again. "I love you. I love you. I love you."

It took Eric a month to be able to say those words back.


photo: David Yellen

Details

The summer of 2005 was about Martin Smith. There had been an early attraction and continued flirtation. Both experienced the exhilaration of new possibilities that spring and it all seemed right. They went to baseball games together. They sat at Gym Bar and drank beer while discussing politics. They ducked into the restaurants that interested them on Eighth Avenue in Chelsea and enjoyed long dinners. Eric became so content that he started writing a blog. His blog chronicled his relationship with Martin and his thoughts on the Knights. He was unaware that anyone was reading his work, when, in fact, one player had found the information and spread it to the whole team. Martin became upset that Eric had revealed such intimate details about their lives on the Internet. Up until that point he had attempted to downplay the relationship—the Knights learned early on that relationships between players would be prevalent in and detrimental to a gay club. Martin wanted to guard against that. He is also a private person. So private, in fact, that he had not been completely honest about his own romantic situation, as Eric would soon find out.

As the more rigorous fall season began, Eric felt ready for a permanent spot on the Knights' elite Blue team but was relegated to the less prestigious Gold squad. The coaches said they needed his leadership and aggressiveness for the less-skilled team. He suspected they didn't believe in his ability. Whatever the reason, Eric's development stagnated. What bothered Eric the most, though, was his growing opinion that most of the Gold players were simply out to have fun. They demurred when he gave fiery speeches or snapped in anger, and Eric began thinking that many people saw the team as nothing more than a social club. Martin, a veteran rugby player who'd joined the team early in its development and witnessed the best rugby of its history in late 2004, buttressed that opinion.

The blog also sidetracked Eric from being able to concentrate on rugby. Martin withdrew from the relationship and turned to Justin, an ex-boyfriend he'd never quite gotten over. Martin and Justin actually still lived together. Eric held out hope until he found out the two had renewed their lease. He booked tickets to go home for a few days, fully planning to leave the rugby team and extricate himself from Martin's life altogether. But when he arrived at LaGuardia, Eric was unable to retrieve the ticket he had booked online. After speaking with a ticket agent, he discovered the problem: In his haste to make reservations, he'd booked a flight for the wrong weekend. Just as he readied to pay for a new flight, Martin called and said he should stay and play in the next day's game because the Blue squad would need him.

Eric showed up at the pitch the following morning but was not in good spirits. After playing the end of Blue's match he suited up for Gold and, in his own mind, played like a jackass. He hit anything that moved. In rugby you can only touch the ball carrier, and Eric wasn't under control enough to reach him. At one point Eric's teammate kicked the ball down the pitch, a maneuver meant to relieve pressure. As instructed, Eric chased after the ball and arrived in time to make the proper play. He angled toward the man who caught the ball, looking to make a tackle, but couldn't adjust fully to the ensuing pass. His body went horizontal and he collided head-on with an opponent's knee.

Everything went black. Eric had been hit in the right cheekbone but could not feel the left side of his face. He brought his hands to his head, worried that the blow would cause him to have a seizure.

He sensed a crowd gathering around him. All he could pick out were voices. He strained to listen to the instructions from the medical staff and for reassurance from the veteran players he respected. After 10 minutes his vision began to return and he was helped off the field. He felt a hand on his shoulder, but couldn't make out the face of the person to whom it belonged. It was Martin.

"It's going to be OK," Martin said. "I'm here and I'm going to take care of you."

Martin went with Eric to the hospital, where they spent the next 10 hours together.


It is early and cold on the morning after the best drinking day of the year. Piles of puke dot the Manhattan streets in the hours following St. Patrick's Day, though Eric Merfalen never sees them. He rises at 6:30 a.m., takes the No. 6 train up the East Side, and then catches a ride across the Triborough Bridge to Randalls Island. Though the Knights have practiced just once outside and a few times in a cramped high school gym, the Blue team is taking part in the third annual Four Leaf Fifteens, a tournament sponsored by the Village Lions. The Knights have turned down invites to the tournament in past years because it occurs so early in the season. This year, though, the coaches believe the Knights need to prepare for the rigors of tournament play so they can be ready for the Bingham Cup.

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