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07th Nov 2020

Nigel Owens opens up on the time he saved a fan’s life

Patrick McCarry

“And that’s why when people tell me, ‘Oh, you can’t be yourself in rugby’, I say, ‘Well yes you can’.”

Back in 1997, Nigel Owens was struggling to come to terms with his sexuality and attempted suicide by filling up on whiskey and over-dosing on paracetamol. He was discovered on a mountainside, brought by helicopter to the hospital and his life was saved.

Owens was battling deep anxiety about his homosexuality and felt there was no-one that he could confide in. Had he been found 30 minutes later, Owens believes, he would not have survived.

In those days he spent recovering, in hospital, Owens’ mother told him, “If you ever think of doing that again, you might as well take me and your father as well. Because we wouldn’t want to live in a world without you.”

From that moment on, Owens says, he felt acceptance and a new-found determination to live his life openly and to share his story in the hopes of showing others that may be struggling, as he once was, they are not alone.

On the latest episode of House of Rugby Ireland (from 22:00 below) the Welsh referee joined Ian Madigan and Eimear Considine and spoke about the lovely letter he received that convinced him he was doing some good out there.

Nigel Owens is one of the leading referees in world rugby. (Credit: Getty Images)

“When I do a lot of talks around LGTBQ stuff and mental health stuff,” says Owens, “you get so many people coming up to you afterwards. Or people getting in touch with you and saying they heard your story or they read your story and it helped them a lot. So, yeah, I am quite aware of that.

“It’s not the reason why I talk about it. It’s not the reason why I came out. I came out for my own mental health and wellbeing. And the reason I talk about it, is I know it does help people.

“But then rugby and the people within rugby – people like yourselves – it’s allowed people to be themselves, really. And that’s why when people tell me, ‘Oh, you can’t be yourself in rugby’, I say, ‘Well yes you can’.

“Sometimes the issue may be with the individual is not accepting themselves for who they are. That’s something that I struggled with for many years. The reason why I started talking so openly about it was that my autobiography came out in 2008 – the Welsh version – and then in 2009, the English version. And there were a couple of extracts in the newspapers about it, just after it came out, after the 2007 World Cup.

“And I had a letter from a lady from down just below Exeter, in a small village down there, and she wrote me this letter to say, ‘Read your story and I’d like to thank you, because you’ve actually saved my son’s life’. And it was quite a touching letter, really.

“What had happened was her son had tried to take his own life – he was about 16 years of age. And he had a second chance, like I did. And he wouldn’t say why and they didn’t know why. They were living in fear every day that he was going to do it again.

“Just after I came out, and the announcement of the 2007 World Cup referee squad, there was a bit of a surprise. Myself and Wayne Barnes were outsiders to go and be picked as referees. And the family had some friends over, one evening, and the general conversation around the table was, ‘Oh, have you heard they picked the referees for the World Cup? There’s two surprises. Nigel Owens and Wayne Barnes are going’.

“The family friend said, ‘Nigel Owens, isn’t he the gay referee’ and I think the father or mother said, ‘Yeah, yeah he is. Oh it doesn’t matter. As long as he’s good enough to go to the World Cup, then it doesn’t matter’.

“So the son was hearing this. He didn’t know anything about me. So, he heard my name, went upstairs, Googled it and read about it.

“Then, the following day, he picked up the courage to tell his mum and dad, exactly the same reason as Nigel Owens did it (came out) was exactly the same reason why I’ve done it. And he knew, now, that the language his mum and dad had used around the dinner table, he knew that he’d be okay and that they’d accept him.

“She wrote me a letter and thanked me for that – and that it had saved her son’s life. And it really touched me, that did, and that really is the main reason why I do speak about it now. Because I know it does help people.”

“If I had somebody like to talk about it openly, when I was struggling with it,” Owens adds, “it would have helped me a bit and I wouldn’t have gone to those dark places as well.

“No matter what the issues are in your life, that’s what I think is hugely important. That you talk about it and you share those worries.”