There are six words you will see again and again over the coming days as so many of us try to make sense of the senseless: He was the best of us.
Grant Wahl was that. As a person, he was ceaselessly kind. As a reporter, he was bursting with courage and an unerring sense of right and wrong. As a writer, he was so deeply alive. And as a friend, mostly as a friend, he was undyingly devoted and loyal. The best of us. Every way.
His sudden death on Friday while covering the World Cup in Qatar has left so many of us shaken and numb and empty inside. He was 48. He seemed younger than that. Throughout a turbulent and often sleepless night, I thought of scores of car rides together in distant cities, World Cup matches, Final Fours, Olympic Games and so many times when we magically just ran into each other in New York where he lived or Kansas City where he grew up or some other unexpected place. I thought about him repeatedly and enthusiastically introducing me to his wife Celine Gounder, a half dozen times at least, and how Celine and I would each say with exasperated amusement, “Yes, Grant, we’ve met.”
In every fragment of memory, I see Grant smiling.
He so loved writing about soccer, talking about soccer, thinking about soccer. He was mostly a basketball writer when I first knew him; you probably know he wrote the famous Sports Illustrated story about a high school basketball star named LeBron James. We sat at many a college basketball game together.
But, soccer was at his core. He liked it growing up in Kansas City but fell in love with it in college, at Princeton, where coach Bob Bradley befriended him and encouraged him to study abroad in Argentina around some of the most passionate soccer fans on earth.
Grant became the truest believer in the sport and its beauty and its possibilities. That’s not to say that he backed away from soccer’s darker sides — the corruption, the incompetence, the burning rage on the sport’s edges. No, he fearlessly attacked those things like no one else; the last World Cup Daily that he wrote for his newsletter “Fútbol” began like so:
DOHA, Qatar — They just don’t care.
The Supreme Committee in charge of Qatar’s World Cup doesn’t care that a Filipino migrant worker died at Saudi Arabia’s training resort during the group stage. He suffered a fatal blow to the head during a fall in a forklift accident (information that was kept under wraps until being broken by The Athletic’s Adam Crafton).
They just don’t care. At the beginning of the World Cup, Grant wore a rainbow shirt in defiance of a Qatari government edict designed to prevent any criticism of their laws against same-sex relationships. He was detained for 30 minutes. He regretted nothing.
Grant railed against so many injustices in and around the sport, but none of that ever seemed to dampen his enthusiasm and love for the beautiful game itself. He wanted Americans to love soccer the way he did and his eagerness to share the sport with anyone even mildly interested was boundless. Over the coming days, you will hear so many stories from soccer newbies, like myself, who spent way too much time asking countless dumb questions and having them answered, one by one, by an endlessly patient Grant Wahl.
You’d be surprised how rare that is in the sportswriting world. Throughout my life in this business, alas, I’ve found it more common for sportswriting experts to hoard their hard-won knowledge, to guard their enthusiasm, to view anyone new and curious as a potential rival.
Grant didn’t see it that way. He celebrated the triumphs of other soccer writers. He invited young writers to lean on him. He encouraged those who concentrated on baseball and football and basketball and hockey to give soccer a try. He was a fountain of soccer knowledge for anyone who wanted to know. The way he figured it, the more Americans who wrote and talked about soccer, the more Americans would hear about this glorious sport.
“Hey, I’ve got a story idea for you,” he used to say to me all the time, and then he would pass along a marvelous idea that he undoubtedly would have written better. I know Grant wouldn’t want the credit, but so much of the burst in soccer popularity in America directly goes back to him, his words, his zeal, his generosity, his passion.
As I sit down to find these few words, I think about what Grant would want us to say about him now. I think about a theme so many of his friends have hit upon, how Grant left behind more than just words and friendships and love; he left behind a challenge. Be braver. Be bolder. Be kinder. Stand up for what’s right.
Yes. He was the best of us.
But beyond that, I am paralyzed to come up with any answers. I find myself thinking about a collage of encounters, a hundred conversations, a thousand little exchanges, and how after every one, I felt just a little bit better. I can’t believe he’s gone.