A version of this story originally appeared in Charlotte Five. The author is a former classmate of Matt Pacifici at Charlotte Catholic High.
With one part of his life closing, Matt Pacifici chose to open another.
The former soccer star at Charlotte Catholic and Davidson College was forced in 2017 to end his professional career due to the onset of a heart condition apparently caused by an injury. It was then that the one-time goalkeeper for the Columbus (Ohio) Crew of Major League Soccer decided to reveal publicly that he is gay.
Up to that point, Pacifici felt, the timing had never been right. But at 24, and in the middle of a worker’s compensation process with MLS, Pacifici found himself alone with his thoughts.
“It forced me to be honest and think, for the first time really think, about the type of person I wanted to be with, the type of life I wanted to live and what made me happy,” he said.
Up to then, Pacifici says he had held off on a public acknowledgment of his sexual identity in fear of how it would affect his soccer career, first at Charlotte Catholic, then at Wake Forest and Davidson, and on to MLS.
“Both Wake and Davidson are your classic Southern, conservative schools. Both are pretty small and campuses on which if a story gets out, everyone has heard it in the next 30 seconds — not unlike Charlotte Catholic,” he said.
“I thought it was much more simple to lead the life I was living rather than go through this whole change and not know how people would react. It was about being comfortable in the moment.”
So, he made a pact with himself to come out after college. But then things again got complicated. After stellar seasons his junior and senior years at Davidson and making All-American, his lifelong goal of playing professional soccer came into reach. In 2015 after graduation, he joined the Crew.
“Playing professional soccer has always been my dream, since I was 4 years old,” Pacifici said. “I thought, ‘I’m not gonna come out now. I don’t know what that environment is like. I don’t know if there are homophobic people in the sports world.’”
At the time, MLS star Robbie Rogers, now retired, was the only openly gay athlete in men’s professional sports in the United States.
But while Rogers was a role model in many ways, he was also a star. Pacifici was just starting out.
“I was never going to be the superstar that no care cares about anything else because he’s so good. Knowing that my role on the team was replaceable, I didn’t want to do anything to bring undue attention to myself,” he said.
No more waiting
His perspective changed in 2017. After a concussion, he developed postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS, a condition that affects blood circulation.
“In non-scientific terms, when you go from a sitting or lying position to a standing position, your heart rate jumps more than it should,” he said. “As a goalkeeper, especially, when you’re diving, it’s one of the worst things you could possibly have.”
So at 24 and with suddenly no more games to play, Pacifici stopped delaying the inevitable.
He came out to his mom Susan first, during an emotional conversation while at lunch in south Charlotte. He told his dad Dino next, then his closest friends.
“Everyone was just very surprised because — we can get into stereotypes about the gay world and gay community — but I guess I don’t necessarily check off a lot of those boxes,” Pacifici said. “I had dated girls during high school, and in college I actually had a girlfriend I dated for about two years.”
Susan Pacifici recalls that the conversation about her son’s sexual identity left her with “complicated” feelings, but also with a sense of optimism.
“It sort of gave me some hope that maybe he was going to be happy. That’s all you ever really want your kids to be is happy,” she said.
“I think what’s different about us is by Matt making these revelations at 24 ... you really trust your child. You know, if he’d been 16, I’d have probably said, ‘Aw, really? Are you sure? You know you haven’t dated many girls ...’
“But he’s had fairly good life experiences, lived in different places, gone away to college, dated girls, and so it was obviously something he’d thought of for a long time ... Overall I felt happy for him to be moving forward with his life, as did his dad.”
The feeling spread. Susan Pacifici says after Matt went public, she heard from about 20 families she’d met through soccer or at Charlotte Catholic thanking her for her son’s candor. “It was very overwhelming, in a good way,” she said.
Pacifici also spoke with his former coach at Charlotte Catholic, Oscar Del Pino. The conversation left Del Pino thinking of the thousands of players he has coached.
“The single biggest takeaway for me is that there are kids right now who are struggling (with coming out) as LGBT in their teens — already a really hard period for anyone,” Del Pino said.
“That’s gotta be very hard for kids who don’t have role models to look up to. Young men and women can look up to Matt and know that he didn’t let being ‘different’ be a reason he couldn’t succeed.”
A few months after coming out, Pacifici met his boyfriend, Dirk.
On Jan. 20 this year, Pacifici and Dirk put up photos on Instagram. Pacifici’s post featured a faded shot of the two holding hands and smiling with the caption: “What do you mean ‘I didn’t tell you’?” Dirk chose a photo of the two in New York with the caption: “They say it’s great city to be single in … I guess I wouldn’t know.”
“We both took the more subtle approach of, instead of ‘Hey look at me, I’m coming out,’ Pacifici said. “It’s ‘I’m in this relationship with another guy, and it’s pretty normal.’”
The reaction, he says, has been overwhelmingly positive — and far-reaching. Pacifici says the Instagram posts drew responses worldwide, from close friends and total strangers who wanted to share similar stories about their relationships.
“The culture is changing and there’s a lot more visibility for gay relationships than there used to be. But a lot of people seem to be of the mindset that if you’re an athlete you’re straight, which is just silly,” he said.
“My teammates, my friends, they didn’t respect me because I was straight. They respected me because I’m a good player and a good friend.”