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🕯️ Remembering Grant Wahl
I wrote this for me, but maybe it will help you too.
There’s a saying in our circles that “A sportswriter is nothing but a failed athlete.” For me, that saying was never true. As I got hand-me-down copies of Sports Illustrated from a neighbor, six-year-old me was sure he was going to be in the pages of the most important, most serious publication about sports as the storyteller, not the subject.
And as a kid sitting in Northeast Kansas obsessed with college basketball (duh, it’s Kansas) but also craving more contact with the world beyond what I knew, it didn’t take long for me to start paying attention to bylines. I followed writers as much as I rooted for teams. S.L. Price, Gary Smith, and, of course, Grant Wahl, whose work on soccer took me beyond the borders of my state or country into a whole other culture.
For quite some time, I didn’t know he, too, was a Kansas kid. All I knew was he wrote about the things I loved and did it in a way that made me sit up and feel like they mattered.
I chased that dream of being a journalist, continuing to devour SI, and was stunned when I joined Twitter as a college student and found I could just - directly speak to some of my journalistic idols. Grant only got cooler to me as he gave readers a behind-the-scenes look into the Hex before the 2010 World Cup, from being mugged in Honduras to telling the stories of the U.S. team and other squads in the first African World Cup. I thought ‘running for FIFA president’ was so clever. I wanted to be like Grant. I wanted to be his teammate.
Even after some interaction on the microblogging site, I remember my voice being shaky as I introduced myself to Grant for the first time. I had traveled to Kansas City to cover a Gold Cup group doubleheader for a now-long-defunct blog. I’d just graduated. Had no job. Was crashing on my grandparents’ couch to make the KC trip work and trying to find someone to pay me to write about … anything.
I know Grant was there covering the U.S. I wrote a long feature on Guadelopue (on-brand), which the U.S. would beat 1-0 the next day. I’m not sure how we ended up walking to the parking lot at the same time, but when I saw we were on the same path, I knew I had to get up my nerve and introduce myself.
I fanboyed. I babbled something about following from the college basketball days and not wanting to bother but if you wouldn’t mind a quick photo and, and, and, and… You’ve met a celebrity before. Grant was my celebrity.
From that moment to every other interaction we had, Grant was so kind to me.
I’ve struggled to make any sense of Grant’s death in the last two days. Grant felt ubiquitous in U.S. Soccer. If it mattered, he’d be there. Even after the SI departure, he found a way to make it feel like he’d always be chronicling the game in our country.
But how much was this loss my loss? Of course I considered Grant a friend, but we weren’t close. And any loss I feel seems so unimportant when I think of his wife, his brother, the colleagues he worked with in the past or the present.
I looked for the photo we took but can’t find it. I think I was too stunned to post it. Maybe we just didn’t post pictures as much in the ‘Twitpic’ days.
What I found instead was that just two years after that first starstruck interaction, Grant was tweeting to his huge community of followers congratulating me, his friend, for putting in the hard work it took to land a soccer journalism job.
And isn’t that the thing with Grant? If you loved soccer, if you were willing to put any effort into growing this game we all love in a country frustratingly resistant to embrace it, you were his friend.
It didn’t matter if you preferred women’s soccer or the men’s game, if you rooted for Mexico or the U.S., even if you took a shot at him in the past, he was out there working for you. He was telling the stories he felt you wanted and needed to hear. And if you wanted advice or needed a signal boost, he was there for you along the way.
The last time we spoke in person was aboard a U.S. media shuttle at that final WCQ in Costa Rica. We talked about the newsletter business, how viable our projects were. We tossed around the idea of doing some sort of crossover project. Grant didn’t need my newsletter to give him any exposure. Anything we did obviously would’ve benefitted my project more than 10 times what he would’ve gained from Getting CONCACAFed. And yet, he approached it as a partnership rather than doing me a favor.
I don’t think I was ever willing to accept Grant’s earnestness. No matter how kind Grant was to myself or to my peers, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I kept waiting for him to be the big-dog media superstar I knew he was. I guarded myself against truly meeting my idols. Maybe that’s another saying in our circles that turns out to be shit.
Looking back, I think Grant was ready to be more of a friend to me than I allowed myself to believe. I still felt like the nervous 21-year-old asking for a selfie. Grant saw my growth into a 33-year-old reporter with an eye toward the same kinds of stories he wanted to tell. I just couldn’t quite grasp why he was being so nice. Reading more and more tributes to him, that was just who he was.
Even if Grant refused to think of me as anything other than an equal, he was obviously on another level. I was thrilled to land a Zoom call with the Trinidad and Tobago international who helped a team in a separatist region of Moldova beat Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League. Grant started his piece on Sheriff from that player’s apartment.
I couldn’t believe my luck that enough people paid for this newslettter to furnish my travel to a pair of World Cup qualification matches in the region outside the U.S. Grant went to every single one. And to the Concacaf W Championship. And to Qatar.
And, you know what? He deserved it.
I was trying to contextualize what Grant meant not just to me but to the industry last night and settled on the word “trailblazer.” He was the voice of the sport to non-soccer fans. He showed that covering soccer and doing it well could be something of value to major media brands.
He was the person who showed that taking this sport seriously in this country could work. He was doing it, and he was taking us with him.
You end this type of thing by saying you move on because that’s what the person would’ve wanted. But really, what choice do we ever have? We must move on. Tomorrow, I’ll send a newsletter about who should be the next Mexico manager with the Conca-catch-up attached. I’ll give some gambling picks on Covers. I’ll keep looking for a place to tell these big-picture stories I really believe in.
We all move on. We have to.
But what a loss our little corner of the world, our soccer subculture, has suffered. The stories we won’t hear from the end of this World Cup, from Australia-New Zealand in 2023. The institutional knowledge from someone covering this game as long as nearly anyone in this nation. The willingness to advocate, fight for and help those of us striving to find a place in this grim industry and to do it without asking anything in return.
And, of course, the husband, brother, co-worker, friend to those who loved him most.
Grant Wahl was 49. What a life he lived. What a shame we won’t live more of ours with him in it.