The first time I met Grant Wahl was at an MLS playoff game in Kansas City in 2000. He was there because it was near his family in Kansas. I was there because I had a choice of games to cover and chose that one.
As the game meandered back and forth before a small crowd scattered in Arrowhead Stadium, Grant turned to me and said, “Are you sure you chose the right game?”
Grant got soccer. He understood the rhythms of the game and of its supporters. We’re a bantering bunch, sometimes cantankerous. He could disagree without being disagreeable. He had the acerbic wit we journalists strive to maintain, but he never drifted off into cynicism.
I didn’t always agree with his analysis for one simple reason. We’re soccer journalists. We don’t agree with each other 100% of the time.
But I enjoyed his company 100% of the time. The memory that has been in my mind today is of traveling at the 2008 Olympics and wandering around a distant stadium a few hours before game time. I have two memorable photos from that day. First, he and I marveled at a bunch of fish in some sort of feeding frenzy.
Second, he took what is, to this day, my favorite photo of myself.
I’m not showing this picture out of vanity. I think he simply composed it perfectly.
After that game, I had the Big Olympics Travel Misadventure that resulted in me taking a standing-room-only overnight train back to Beijing. He, of course, was nestled nicely in a hotel in Qinhuangdao. That was emblematic of the difference between Sports Illustrated and USA TODAY. He also reminded me of the difference in our publications at a media availability later in the Olympics in which he asked me to give him space to do a one-on-one chat with Hope Solo. He was working on a magazine feature-length piece, and USA TODAY was going to give me a tiny space in which to summarize everything.
I would have been mad if not for two things. First, he was right. USA TODAY was still in its milquetoast days, cranking out brief content for hotel-goers nationwide. Second, he was so damn nice. He had gone out of his way to tell me I was one of the people in soccer journalism who knew what I was talking about, praise that I still cherish.
And though his magazine, boasting a formidable 1-2 combo with him and Brian Straus, was more glamorous than USA TODAY, he and I bonded over our status as soccer writers before the “soccer writer” job existed. We had other responsibilities. He was a great basketball writer, too. We had to push for more soccer coverage, not just so we could focus on the sport we loved but because we felt the sport we loved deserved more love.
This may sound like Grumpy Old Man talk here. But this gets to why yesterday’s news is so shocking. Grant wasn’t old. He wasn’t even 50. I’ve written my share of remembrances — my mother (well after the fact, because she didn’t live long enough to see the internet), my father, my dog, my music teacher, Duke’s jazz ensemble director, Duke’s Wind Symphony director (aged 101), etc. I was in tears when I wrote one for my stepmom because she was too young, and I had just attended a memorial service that reminded me what she meant in my hometown.
The only time I’ve written one for someone younger than I am was the one for USA TODAY’s Dave Teeuwen, and that was mostly one anecdote that hopefully captured his spirit a little bit. Dave’s death was tragic but less of a surprise. He had dealt with cancer for several years and had defied his doctors by continuing to live.
The only time I’ve written one for someone whose passing came from out of the blue was for Dan Borislow, whose complexities I attempted to capture. As I said in the opening, I couldn’t make sense of his sudden death, and I still expected him to text me to gripe about the media.
In Grant’s case, I keep thinking that I should send him a message to express my sympathy. I can’t process that the fact that he can’t answer. When my wife came running up to say, “Grant Wahl died,” I heard what she said but couldn’t understand those three words in that order.
I try to make these things positive and uplifting. This one is difficult. I hope I’ve captured a bit of his spirit. As easygoing as he was, he could also be tenacious, as exemplified best in the last days of his life when he stood up to the discrimination and cruelties of Qatar.
As ridiculous as it is to hold a World Cup in Qatar, he couldn’t miss it. But in a just world, he would’ve seen the next one, and the next one and many more after that.
Instead, in all of these World Cups, we’ll be the ones missing out. We’ll be missing him.