Matt Pacifici, a North Carolina native, was a goalkeeper for the Columbus Crew in 2016 until his dream since he was kid was cut short due to injury. After some time spent away from the sport he loved and self-reflecting, Matt publicly came out as gay in January 2019. Now, he lives in New York City and has teamed up with organizations like Athlete Ally to help end the stigma around the LGBTQ community so that other LGBTQ athletes have a safe space to truly be themselves. Ahead of Matt joining Athlete Ally in a pre-game panel at NYCFC's Pride Night, here's more of his story...
“I’ve been playing soccer my whole life. A few days after the draft, I was brought on by Columbus Crew as a trialist. I went to two preseason camps with them, spending about six weeks as an undrafted, free agent. It was a nerve-wracking time but I was lucky enough to get a contract and continued playing with them. I absolutely loved it. It’s every young athletes dream to be able to play at that level so it was really exciting for me. That first month or so was surreal, experiencing the culmination of all the hard work and everything. Unfortunately, the injury put a damper on that but I look back extremely fondly of my time there.
It was definitely tough to have to walk away from the sport I loved. I think the hardest part for me was it being so soon. Being in your rookie year, you have that initial excitement of fulfilling a childhood dream and then very quickly it being soured by injury. We went through a long diagnosis process, looking at the options, so it wasn’t just one day I woke up and couldn’t play again. But of course, when you’ve been playing soccer for 20 years it was very difficult. I’ve had a great support system, so it makes it all easier.
The injury gave me time to be back at home for the first time in a while and just really sit and listen to the thoughts I’ve had in my head since I was a kid. I was always busy – being in college, being a student-athlete, being a professional athlete. I never allowed myself the time to sit back and really prioritize what I want, who I want to be with, and things like that. In a weird way, it’s like the silver lining in the injury. Throughout the injury process everyone was telling me, “Everything happens for a reason,” and at the time it would make me so mad. Recently, someone pointed out to me that maybe this was the reason. I definitely do think that the injury gave me the time to assess where I wanted to be and come out of all of this with something I can be proud of.
For a lot of people who come out, it is a process. You come out to your family, or a close group of friends, and then judge how that goes. Then you open it up to a bigger group of friends. So, by the time I publicly came out in January my close circle knew. I think it was a surprise for a lot of them, but everyone really took it in stride and I was really happy to see that. My family has been amazing. I couldn’t have asked for a better reaction from them. I really had no intention of this becoming some super public, but it just kind of caught wind in January and I was able to align with organizations like Athlete Ally. It has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s been really cool to see the gay community embrace it, especially the gay community within sports. It’s really exciting to hear stories from people who were in similar situations but might not have wanted to vocalize it yet for whatever reason and be a part of their story.
When I was growing up and going to local sports games, pride nights weren’t a thing. Even in entertainment, gay people weren’t represented. Overall, society is doing a better job of awareness. I’ve been teammates with hundreds of people, so for me to be the only gay athlete that I knew at the time I always thought that surely someone else had to be in similar shoes. That’s one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to pair up with organizations that are bringing awareness to the the LGBTQ community. Had some of my friends, or other big-time athletes come out before me I think it would have made it easier. I think every time you hear a story like Robbie Rogers, or mine, or whoever it may be, it makes it easier for the next generation. Everyone has that deep down fear they won’t be accepted, so the more athletes that can come out and have a great response it’ll be easier for future people to follow.
For those who might be in a similar situation I was in, it’s easy and cliche to say, “Everything will be okay.” But chances are it would. If I was to come out while I was playing in Columbus, I guarantee everyone in that locker room would have been 100% fine with it. They would have been just as respectful as they were before because they knew me as Matt, as a soccer player. Coming out doesn’t change that. The interesting piece that some people take for granted is the effect it has on performance. If you’re going into work everyday hiding who you are to your coworkers or your teammates, it can weigh on you. When you’re going into the locker room and you’re not 100% focused on getting better or making the team better because you’re worried about fitting into that locker room or being accepted, the culmination of that takes a toll on you. It allows you to play freely and that’s what every player wants. You don’t want to be restrained or burdened by anything when you’re playing.
There’s no perfect time to come out. I waited until I was 24. Now, I’m absolutely at the point where I’m very willingly and happy to help raise awareness in any way for the LGBTQ community, and New York is a great place to do that. There are a lot of organizations that are doing great work and Athlete Ally is definitely one of them."