Personal reflections on the 1-of-1 figure whose inimitable contributions to sports media were cut tragically short at the World Cup in Qatar at the age of 48.
This was Grant Wahl’s eighth World Cup. Doing the quick maths, you’d assume the guy was one of those ancient, moss-covered capital-J journos with a different pair of suspenders for each day of the week. But Grant was not ancient; he was 48 years old and just happened to be uniquely, relentlessly driven right out of the sports media cradle, that’s all. Prolific. Voracious.
And on Friday, the whole lot of us — journalists, soccer nerds, sports fans — lost a one-man institution and the dazzling omnibus of knowledge and verve he carried with him.
We’re gutted, we’re sad, and we’re short on details. There’s quite possibly key information we don’t know concerning Grant Wahl’s stunning, tragic death on the evening of Dec. 9 at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. But through all this stupefying, gobsmacking fog, we can say with full certainty that there is now an empty space in our business and in our fandom that’s going to stay empty.
If all Grant Wahl did was cover soccer as energetically and comprehensively as anyone else in American history, his icon status would be sealed — but he didn’t simply do that. Rather, Grant was the one who introduced tons and tons of us to one LeBron Raymone James. His Sports Illustrated Cover Story from Feb. 18, 2002 that anointed LBJ as “THE CHOSEN ONE” is singular in nature, and not for nothing, it’s the most pristine sort of snapshot of a time when ink on paper truly made the sporting world go.
I was 13 at the time and a weekly devourer of the famous old magazine; LeBron was 16. But Grant was every bit the phenom himself — in those days, he was still in his 20s but cooking with more gas than you could fit inside the Hummer H2 the Akron kid parked in front of St. Vincent-St. Mary.
I didn’t enter sports media for real until I was 26, so “being like Grant Wahl” was entirely out of the question from the word go. Nevertheless, fancying myself a soccer writer at the time, it was something close to an inevitability that I’d reach out to him at the end of my first year on the beat, even if simply to get some insider coloration from the guy who had that level of aspirational, best-case-scenario career in and around the game.
I was able to track down an email address. He ended up humoring me to the tune of a half-hour interview for the site I was managing at the time.
Seven years later, Grant Wahl’s contact is still in my phone.
When your iPhone has ghosts in it, well, that’s a shivery kind of thing.
And Grant’s going to stay there as a reminder of a few things that I hope to bring with me straight on through the heat death of the universe (or the eschatological crunch that may or may not precede it):
- The opportunities that emerge when your focus doesn’t stray from working hard as all hell
- The curious power that soccer fandom uniquely wields to bring us together
- How much it means when someone you admire gives you their time even when you’re an absolute screaming nobody and can’t offer much of anything in return
- “Stick to sports” is not a thing; don’t ever let it become a thing
Perhaps there’s much, much more for us still to learn about what happened at Lusail Stadium on Dec. 9. But it’s the stuff of immutable fact that straight on through his final days, Grant Wahl did not hold back with regard to what he thought was right. The least we can do in the world he leaves behind is to continue to do the same — even if it costs us access, clout, or all manner of material trappings dangled under the sun.
Anything less than that and the Beautiful Game isn’t beautiful. It can’t be.
I suppose we can’t all be “THE CHOSEN ONE,” Grant. But we can still choose to accept the challenge to speak, write, and broadcast truth to power unwaveringly as you did.
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