On April 3, 2004, the center of the American sports world was San Antonio, Texas, where Duke and Connecticut were about to play in the Final Four.
Grant Wahl was there, working as a national college basketball writer for Sports Illustrated. Yet a game between two historic teams, featuring legendary coaches and future NBA players, didn’t excite him too much. He kept saying he wished he was covering the then-fledgling Major League Soccer, where a 14-year-old named Freddie Adu was about to make his career debut.
Forget Coach K, Grant excitedly described the potential historic impact of the day for American soccer, his interest in seeing a hyped phenom in person and his general passion for soccer. He said he was going to figure out how to become a full-time soccer writer, at Sports Illustrated.
I told him I didn’t know if that was such a great idea, even if I knew him enough to know he wasn’t going to listen.
In sportswriting, this was not wise career ambition. Grant was already established as a growing force in basketball, which is far more popular in the United States and has far more jobs available covering it.
A whipsmart, canny reporter who could really, really write, he had already established himself. Two years prior he famously wrote a cover story on a high school kid from Akron named LeBron James.
Soccer? A soccer writer? Almost no one could make a career doing that in America.
Well, my friend did. Grant Wahl did. He died Friday after losing consciousness in a press box at the World Cup in Qatar, ending far too soon an incredible and impactful life.
He was 48 years old but had long ago established himself globally as one of the sport’s premier journalists and an absolute voice of authority here in the United States.
There will be endless testimonials to his skill as a writer and reporter. “It was a pretty cool thing,” James said Friday night, “and he was pretty cool to be around.” The Kansas native and Princeton grad with the distinct shaved head, deserves them all. Yet he is a rare figure who goes beyond that. It’s not a stretch to say that soccer would not be as popular in America without Grant Wahl.
Through the years his coverage of soccer actually helped grow the game here, both with the most ardent fans and mainstream audiences alike. Soccer fans had few thoughtful, professional options, until Wahl came around. He amassed millions of social media followers, delivered an insightful podcast and wrote countless columns, features, investigations, books and breakdowns of the game and the sport.
He worked for SI, CBSSports.com, Fox Sports and finally his own subscription site, GrantWahl.com, which was booming. He helped make soccer matter, helped nudge it a little bit more into the general consciousness via those SI cover stories and served as a beacon for younger writers that followed.
He did that because he believed it needed to be done — that he needed to do it — not because it was the easy career path or the simple career path or even that he was following in the steps of anyone else’s career path. Grant could have written anything. He chose soccer.
“The entire U.S. Soccer family is heartbroken,” U.S. Soccer said in a statement. “We could always count on Grant to deliver insightful and entertaining stories about our game, and its major protagonists: teams, players, coaches and the many personalities that make soccer unlike any sport.”
He proudly proved me completely wrong and enjoyed reminding me that when we covered future Men’s and Women’s World Cups together.
Grant was no shill for soccer. He was a journalist. Perhaps too much of one for some broadcast opportunities. He was a multi-decade thorn in FIFA’s side.
He covered the game the way the NFL or NBA is covered, certainly celebrating its best moments but never shying away from controversies — be they lineup changes or human rights abuses.
His coverage from Qatar was a mix of helping readers understand the tactical moves on the pitch and calling out Qatar for the deaths of migrant workers. The respect he commanded from coaches and players was enormous.
“A giant voice in soccer,” said Tyler Adams, the USMNT captain.
“His contribution to the development of football in the United States has been absolutely immense,” said Wayne Rooney, the former star of Manchester United and the English national team and now coach of D.C. United.
Wahl pushed SI and others to treat the U.S. women’s team as the juggernaut it is, not just cheering the team on, but covering all of it — 안전놀이터 the personalities, the rivalries, the setbacks as well as the championships. It was a stamp of legitimacy.
“The soccer community lost a real one today,” said Becky Sauerbaunn, longtime USWNT star. “And for women’s soccer, one of the originals who helped drive our game forward. Grant Wahl never shied away from asking the tough questions, the right questions, the ones that got to the heart of the matter.”
“Completely shocked,” said Carli Lloyd, the USWNT legend. “Truly heartbreaking.”
Grant Wahl was an incredible sportswriter, but really he was an original. He saw an opportunity and took it, he followed his interests and made it work, he never backed down from his principles and never compromised his work.
His loss is stunning. For his wife, Celine. For his family and friends around the globe.
And for a sport that he believed in before almost anyone else here in America.