When the victorious Rugby World Cup semi-finalists enter the battlefield in next weekend’s showpiece final, there is every chance they could be led out by our very own iconic, world-class and much-loved referee.
Most difficult time in his life
Having grown up in the small Carmarthenshire community of Mynydd Cerrig, Owens is regarded as the one of the top officials in rugby union, and is loved for his quick-witted retorts to any player brave enough to argue a decision.
Off the field, Owens became one of the first people to come out in the world of rugby as gay, and has openly spoken about the huge challenge in accepting who he is – including his suicide attempt, at the age of 26 – in the past.
In an emotional new interview, which will be screened on Monday evening in a BBC programme called Nigel Owens, True to Myself, he opens up further about the most difficult time in his life.
Didn’t really know what being gay was
The referee, now 44, grew up in a community where he “didn’t really know gay people and what being gay was,” and struggled to cope with his own, changing feelings as a teenager 25 years ago – the “biggest challenge” of his life.
“At 18, 19 years of age I was becoming different,” explains Owens. “I was starting to have feelings for somebody of the same sex as me, and this was alien to me. This is not the way I’ve been brought up. This is not what I know.
“And that was a very, very difficult time in my life.
“I remember doing something for the first time with another guy and I felt… physically sick and ashamed afterwards.
“All of a sudden this was making me depressed, was making me ill. With that I become bulimic, because I wasn’t looking healthy – I wasn’t looking well enough to attract another man, I guess.”
Dark place with no way out
Hooked on steroids, Owens described how his problems escalated, having to deal with depression and becoming short-tempered due to his steroid abuse.
“I was going downhill very fast, to a very dark place where there was no way out for me,” he added.
“I did something one night I will regret for the rest of my life. I left a note for my mum and dad and said I can’t carry on any more with my life. I didn’t tell them why.
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“I left the house that night with a shotgun loaded and with boxes of paracetamol and a bottle of whisky, and just walked around the village of Mynydd Cerrig for the last time.
“If I hadn’t have gone into a coma I have no doubts whatsoever I would have pulled that trigger of the gun.”
And it was the words of his mother Mair that struck Owens, as she told him if he was planning to try and take his life again he was to take his parents with him, because they would not be able to live without him.
“I told myself you have to grow up here and accept who you are.”
Telling your mum you’re gay is not easy
But, Owens kept his homosexuality secret for a number of years after that, and although his life seemed much better from the outside – his refereeing career flourishing along with a co-presenter role on S4C programme, Jonathan with Jonathan Davies – he was still “lying” about who he was.
He said: “It’s only one three letter word ‘gay,’ but believe me sitting down and telling your mum that you are gay is not easy. I told my mum and she cried, and I cried.”
Came out of closet to chorus of I Am What I Am
In public, Owens came out on the S4C show, entering the set by coming out of a closet – quite literally – to the background theme track of I am What I Am.
Ex-Wales star-turned pundit Davies, presenter of the show, said: “I had a text off him saying he was gay and coming out… I knew it was a difficult time for him so we tried to make light of it, really.
“I said you’ve got to come out on the show.
“He was a bit dubious at the start and I said ‘right, you come out of a closet and we’ll put on I Am What I Am, and then we won’t mention it and see if people catch on!’”
Homosexual abuse on the pitch ‘hurts’
Fastforwarding years later, Owens also spoke about the incident at Twickenham in 2014, when he was subjected to homophobic abuse from the crowd during the England-All Blacks match, which had been brought to light in a letter to the Guardian newspaper from an England fan who complained of “shameful” comments aimed at the Welsh official.
Owens added: “It does hurt when you hear these things.
“I can’t make the difference. The people who make the difference are the people in the stadium, who wrote that letter to the paper, who stood up and told people this is not acceptable.”
He’s been a catalyst, says Eddie Butler
And it is that viewpoint – now widely and wholly accepted in the game of rugby union and sport as a whole – which much-loved Welshman Owens has helped create, says sports commentator and former Welsh International Eddie Butler.
“I think he has been the catalyst, the only person who has accelerated sport towards the point where if you find out somebody is gay, you just say… so what?” said Butler.
The man in the middle will discover on Monday whether he gains the honour of refereeing the Rugby World Cup final of 2015.
Nigel Owens, True to Myself airs on BBC One Wales on Monday, October 26, at 10.35pm.