I’m watching the replay of the Argentina v. Netherlands World Cup quarterfinal as I write this. I just learned that it was the last game this man ever covered.
At first it was just a strange Instagram post from his brother and some broken-heart emojis from former United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) player turned broadcaster Taylor Twellman. Then the reports came in from CNN, the Wall Street Journal, TMZ, as well as the tributes from Major League Soccer and the United States Soccer Federation. Grant Wahl, one of the best sportswriters in America, was dead.
Part of me is shocked this has affected me so much, but perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise, even though I never met the man personally. However, he was a writer that I truly admired.
Past readers of this site already know about my obsession with soccer. It was a few years after my fandom with the USMNT began in 1994. I was an avid reader of Sports Illustrated in the waning days when magazines and print were still king and the Internet was just an oddity. Most of the pages were filled with pro football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and the college sports. Only very occasionally, in those days, did coverage of soccer exist. On those stories having to do, for example, with the fledgling Major League Soccer or the ups and downs of the USMNT, I began to notice the byline of Grant Wahl.
There was really nobody writing about soccer with as much depth of knowledge as Grant did. He could help you understand the sport both from a technical standpoint as well as the behind-the-scenes business of soccer, the wheeling and dealing of sports owners and the machinations of federation officials.
I didn’t realize at the time that he had begun his career as a student journalist at Princeton University, where he covered a men’s soccer team coached by future MLS Cup-winning coach and USMNT head coach Bob Bradley. That connection gave him the chance to travel to Argentina for a summer and study the legendary Buenos Aires club Boca Juniors. He had some great opportunities presented to him and he took them.
In comparison, my journalism career was much more modest by comparison. But, like the political writers who descended on my state every four years to cover the boondoggle that was the Iowa Caucuses, I never resented someone else’s success. I just appreciated learning more about the game I loved over the years.
Wahl eventually ended up covering eight World Cups, four Olympics, and 12 NCAA basketball tournaments. He wrote the definitive book on English superstar David Beckham’s arrival in the US and his effect on the American league, as well as another good book on 21st Century soccer, too.
The idiots who were publishing Sports Illustrated at the time kicked Wahl off the magazine back in 2020 when he started speaking out about their budget cuts. That was a too-familiar story to me as well, after seeing newsrooms throughout Iowa shrinking because short-sighted bean-counters wanted to keep their high profit margins and squeeze as much profit from their businesses before they collapsed in exhaustion.
But Grant kept going, working for CBS and Fox Sports as an on-air analyst. He’d gotten on Substack a while ago and was continuing to produce great writing. It was cool for me to be on the same platform as him and other great writers, such as some of the great Iowa print journalists I had worked beside years ago and were now finding new life on a new medium.
I had just signed up as a subscriber to his Substack last week. Yesterday, I was pondering whether to become a paid subscriber to his site. And, now he’s gone.
I hadn’t realized that Grant was just a year younger than me, and from all I’d seen and heard of, I’d thought he was in a lot better shape than I was. I’d known of a few writers who ended up dying on the job, but this one hit me hard.
I admired his writing. It was part of my education as a soccer fan and as a writer. If it were not for his writing, I don’t think I would have even attempted to write a fiction project about an American soccer player. But, I did.
If his dying reinforces anything for me, it is to treasure the experiences you have and the time that you have in this life. For the past few years, I have been trying to become a better writer, to hone my craft and become something more than I was. In whatever time I have, I want to make the best use of it. From what I read of his work, Grant Wahl did just that.