The worst thing a Cifelli could be was a faggot.

The word flew around Joey Cifelli’s home in suburban Chicago to describe anything negative.

His three older brothers used the word all the time.

“Growing up, every time I heard the word faggot, I felt it,” said Joey Cifelli, who is gay. “I never wanted to be a faggot.”

Joey used the word growing up, because that’s what you did in their house and their neighborhood.

By the time Cifelli played freshman football at Marian Catholic High School, he and his teammates thought using that word made them grownups, until a grownup made them stop.

Fed up with the “F” word, Marian Catholic freshman football coach Bob Novak pulled the 14- and 15-year-old boys together. Cifelli remembers Novak saying, “I don’t want to hear one more of you say the word ‘faggot.’ There could be someone in this group, someone on this line, who is gay and none of you guys know that.”

It hit Cifelli — hard.

“I literally was thinking to myself, ‘Damn. Thank you,’” Cifelli said.

As a high school freshman, the brown-haired, olive-skinned Cifelli had a slight build, and his football career ended after his first year at Marian Catholic. But eight years later as he wraps up his senior year as an all-American diver at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., he points to Novak as showing him LGBTQ support exists in athletics.

Purdue diver Joey Cifelli sits on a diving board at the Boilermaker Aquatic Center in West Lafayette, Indiana.

“I’m thankful for that football coach,” said Cifelli, one of America’s top 1-meter springboard divers after taking second place at the U.S. Championships in December. “Man, what a cool thing to do to a bunch of freshmen in high school. … It made a big impact on me, because I knew it related to me.”

Novak showed Cifelli there were people in sports that would accept him as a gay man, but Cifelli couldn’t accept it himself because everything at home showed him something different.

Nothing haunted Cifelli’s perception more than his grandpa’s comment: “If any Cifelli is gay, I’ll cut your balls off.”

John L. Cifelli Sr. — an Italian Catholic veteran of World War II — said that to Joey when he was 13.

“One of the greatest men I’ve ever known,” Joey Cifelli said of his grandpa. “But he didn’t accept being gay. That wasn’t something that was normal to him.”

A quarterback’s acceptance

Matt Mindak decided to prank his mom, and he incorporated Joey Cifelli.

Mindak played quarterback for the Marian Catholic freshman football team, and Cifelli played receiver. Cifelli met Mindak’s mom after a freshman football practice, and Mindak chose a creative way to introduce Cifelli.

“Hey mom, this is my boyfriend, Joey,” Mindak said.

Mindak saw his mom’s jaw drop, but he quickly let her know — “Mom, I’m joking.”

Cifelli didn’t know the joke was coming. He found the reaction by Mindak’s mom funny and felt something else.

Purdue diver Joey Cifelli stands on a diving board at the Boilermaker Aquatic Center in West Lafayette, Indiana.

“I played it off in the way that a popular douche bag would play it off. I accepted it,” Cifelli said. “But it definitely made me feel uncomfortable, for sure at first, because I was trying to hide it [being gay].”

Cifelli recognized his attraction to guys a few years earlier — spurred by seeking out “Boys Gone Wild” videos after seeing a “Girls Gone Wild” infomercial on TV. It was his deepest secret.

When Cifelli felt ready to open up to someone for the first time, he chose Mindak, his best friend and the top athlete in their high school class.

Cifelli and Mindak were at the Cifellis’ lake house the summer after freshman year of high school. They were both sharing secrets and personal stories.

“I wanted to be honest with him,” Cifelli said. “I played it off as experimental, because I was so afraid.”

Cifelli told Mindak, “I like girls, but I also feel like I like guys.”

Mindak prepared to support his best friend, but Cifelli never gave him the chance in high school.

“When he told me, it went away, and he never brought it up again in high school,” said Mindak, who played quarterback for a year at St. Xavier University. “He just buried it after that day.”

Though acceptance was there, Cifelli ignored it.

Publicly, Cifelli only dated girls during high school. Secretly, he had a male friend with benefits.

“Everyone I grew up around was always so vocal about what they’d done and who they did it with,” Cifelli said. “I was always weird about it because, one, I didn’t want to talk about any guys, and two, I stopped doing that because every time I did that about girls, I would do that to look cool.”

Joey Cifelli and his older brother Rob even had a bet if Joey could lose his virginity with a girl earlier than Rob had — Joey won the bet.

“Joe had everybody fooled, myself included,” Rob Cifelli said.

Purdue accepts gay divers

Max Showalter was the best diver his age when he joined Windy City Diving in eighth grade.

Joey Cifelli joined the same club diving team based at University of Illinois-Chicago during his freshman season diving for Marian Catholic.

Showalter and Cifelli practiced together and went to meets together. And most importantly to them, they wanted to beat each other.

“We both talked crap about each other,” Cifelli said. “We both definitely wanted to be better than the other. We did not really like each other, but we always had this weird basis of, ‘If you’re really struggling or really need help, yes, I’m here for you.’”

A big difference for the two diving prodigies was Showalter came out as gay as a high school sophomore. Cifelli was six years from admitting the same thing.

“I was always jealous of him being completely comfortable with himself,” Cifelli said of Showalter. “It seemed easier for him to be out and talk about it and not have to worry about that type of stuff.”

On top of Cifelli feeling his sexuality would not be accepted at home, his diving didn’t receive the support his brothers saw playing football, basketball and baseball. His brother Rob described diving as “a sport we knew nothing about.”

Cifelli’s dad coached his brothers in baseball and drove them to practices. But for Joey to get to diving practice at UIC Flames Natatorium, he traveled alone on the train about 60 minutes each way five times a week.

Purdue diver Joey Cifelli sits on a diving board at the Boilermaker Aquatic Center in West Lafayette, Indiana.

“Swimming was kind of my mom giving us something to do in the summer,” said Rob Cifelli, who did some youth summer swimming at their country club before high school. “My dad was more into the traditional sports, because that’s what he played.”

Though Showalter moved to North Carolina for his final 1 1/2 years of high school, Cifelli and Showalter both chose to dive for Purdue University. And their rivalry continued.

“If I went somewhere without as good of a coach, Max would get better than me, and I did not want that,” Cifelli said. “I was so petty.”

Away from his family, Cifelli started to pursue his interest in men. He hooked up with guys and even saw a guy for a few weeks his freshman year.

“It was always that he would do things (with guys), but he didn’t want to talk about them,” said Showalter, who didn’t feel he really got to know Cifelli until their junior year at Purdue. “He would show his authentic self around me very, very few times.”

Cifelli kept his sexuality an internal struggle, which caused bouts of sadness and loneliness throughout his first two years at Purdue.

The summer after his sophomore year, he started reading “The Book of Joy” by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. It encouraged him to begin meditation. The book also inspired the tattoo on his hip, which says “mudita” — a Tibetan word for finding joy in other people’s happiness.

“Starting to realize I was thankful for my life and thankful for the things around me kind of helped me out of those feelings of isolation or those feelings of depression,” Cifelli said. “I started being more comfortable with my sexuality. I started opening up about it a little bit more.”

‘I’m not straight’

Early in his junior year at Purdue, Cifelli received a phone call from his high school male friend with benefits. That guy had told his own family about them.

So that day, Cifelli took the same step. First, he called his brother Rob, who told him it would be OK. Next, Joey Cifelli called his mom.

“I never really had questioned whether or not my parents would still love me until that point, so it was very scary for me,” Joey Cifelli said. “I was lucky because I was always in a loving household and lived a very normal, very happy life, but I was afraid to lose all that.”

Cifelli used the same phrase to tell his mom, Sylvia, that he used with Rob. Joey said, “I’m not straight.”

His mom, who is half Mexican and half Cuban, was not surprised and said she had “kind of known.” She said she would be the one to tell his dad, John Cifelli Jr.

John Cifelli Jr. was an iron worker and played college baseball for the New Mexico Lobos. Rob described their dad as “blue collar as can be” and “masculine as it gets.” Joey said his father is “an old-school, traditional guy.”

Purdue diver Joey Cifelli, right, talks to teammate Ben Bramley at the Boilermaker Aquatic Center in West Lafayette, Indiana.

That night, Joey received a text message from his dad, dismissive of his feelings. His dad said Joey was “confused,” that it was “probably a phase” and that for whatever reason, everyone his age wants to be bisexual.

While his dad responded negatively, his mom never wavered and made him feel “loved and accepted.” His mom always called him “Smiling Joe,” and she just wanted him to be happy.

“That’s what got me through it,” Cifelli said.

Cifelli wasn’t ready to embrace a label for his attraction to men, so he continued telling friends and family: I’m not straight.

Around Easter of 2018, Cifelli started a relationship with a woman — his first since high school. She was a close friend, and their relationship lasted through that summer. He cared for the woman, who Cifelli asked not be named, but he realized it wasn’t what he wanted.

Cifelli knew he related the most, felt the most comfortable, and wanted emotionally to be with a guy.

He broke things off with the woman in August 2018.

Cifelli spent so many waking hours torn apart thinking about his sexuality.

Then in a dream, he had a conversation with a friend, who asked, “Why aren’t you coming out to people?”

Joey’s vision of himself said, “I am, I slowly am.”

“Well, you never came out to your grandpa,” the friend responded. (John Cifelli Sr. died Sept. 12, 2018.)

In the dream, Joey got angry. He yelled and cursed. He distinctly remembers saying, “Fuck you.”

When he woke up, he wasn’t angry anymore. Cifelli felt sad. “Damn, that does suck,” Cifelli remembers thinking after he woke up.

The dream ate at Cifelli, and he needed to talk to someone.

At his house in West Lafayette, Indiana, Purdue diver Joey Cifelli holds the trophy he received for finishing sixth on 1-meter springboard at the 2017 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships.

On the way to class at 11 a.m. on Oct. 1, 2018, Joey sent his brother Rob a text, “Hey Whatsup. We should talk soon I’ve got some stuff I wanna open up about that I think would help me.”

For the first time, Joey told Rob that he is gay. The first time Joey used those words to anyone in his family.

His parents came to see him dive a few days later, and he then revealed he is gay. His mom knew already from Rob, but with his dad, it caused tension that took time to work through. Both parents’ biggest hesitation came when he said he wanted to share it on social media. They tried to talk him out of it.

Joey got angry. He was done hiding.

“I have lied to you for my whole life about certain things, because I’ve been afraid to tell you them,” Joey Cifelli said to his parents. “And I can’t keep doing that. I lied to you about my struggles. Every time I said I was OK, I was OK, but I wasn’t always doing well. I felt very alone at times.”

He came out to more friends and family throughout October, culminating with a 290-word Instagram and Facebook post Oct. 28, where the picture was the Human Rights Campaign’s yellow equals sign logo. He ended the post by saying, “For Gramps. Love, Smiling Joe.”

The crux of Cifelli’s post said, “Even with the amount of support around me and the amount of love I constantly feel from friends and family, I felt alone at times because of the lack of acceptance I had for myself. It’s taken me a long time to feel comfortable enough to publicly share that I am gay.”

The Purdue diving season also started in October, and Cifelli’s continued to succeed since coming out.

“I did what my dad always instilled in me, put my head down and worked,” Cifelli said.

So far, his highlight of the season came by taking second on 1-meter springboard at December’s USA Diving Championships. Recently, he placed fifth on 1-meter springboard at the 2019 Big Ten Championships on Feb. 28.

Purdue diver Joey Cifelli stands on a diving board at the Boilermaker Aquatic Center in West Lafayette, Indiana.

The 5-foot-10, 165-pound Cifelli now heads to the NCAA postseason, which starts March 14 at Purdue. He enters the final meets of his college career with a self-acceptance he never felt before.

“I’m thankful for being gay,” Cifelli said. “I’m thankful for going through those lows.

“The route that I took to try and be happy has helped me in ways that are unimaginable. I’ve really never thought I could be as grateful as I am. … Those little things that I learned throughout the process have really shaped me into somebody that I’m very proud that I am.”

Joey Cifelli is a senior on the Purdue University men’s diving team. He can be reached on Instagram @Joey_Cifelli.

Erik Hall is a member of the Associated Press Sports Editors and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. He can be reached on Facebook, Twitter @HallErik or by email at [email protected].

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