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Remembering Grant Wahl: A Sterling Example of How to Work With Principle

A titan in the industry, he will be remembered for more than just his coverage’s passion and vigor.
Doug Zimmerman/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Wahl working at the 2022 World Cup.

In the summer of 1997, an amiable kid from Kansas with the physique of a car antenna walked into Sports Illustrated. My new office mate came bearing a bag of Krispy Kreme doughnuts for us to share, a Kansas ball cap, a quiet confidence and an evangelist’s passion for soccer. 

Grant Wahl, who died suddenly after collapsing at the World Cup in Qatar, was quick to explain that this great love—foreign to so many in the office and in his beloved home state—stemmed from an undergraduate trip to South America. He saw club teams train, snuck into stadiums, watched Boca Juniors and somehow got to write about it for credit. Little did any of us know this genial convert (with little ability to kick a ball) would go on to become the greatest soccer writer of our generation, covering the world’s biggest sport more like a foreign correspondent than a beat writer. More Nicholas Kristof—a journalistic idol of Grant’s—than a keyboard warrior in the press box.

Grant’s first World Cup for SI was 1998 in France. He returned with giddy stories, his faith in the sport more fervent than ever. He was no less excited the following year when the U.S. women did their thing.

For almost 25 years at SI—and just as critically the last three years on his own—Grant has covered the sport with vigor, rigor and affection, domestically and abroad. He covered people and places, not just the vectors of the ball. He devoted time and attention to both men’s and women’s soccer. Even for those he couldn’t fully convert, we came to appreciate the sport more because of him. More important, it was hard not to be inspired by his approach to the work.

Grant’s other great love (apart from the adorable dogs that sat on his lap as he wrote in his Chelsea apartment) was Céline Gounder. They met at Princeton, married in 2001 and never left each other’s side. As proud as Grant was of his sports ascent (and his body of work), he was more proud of The Doc—as he called her—and the life-altering, humanity-bettering work she did, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Losing Grant is just that: a loss. An unfillable hole in the lineup—for journalism, and not least for humanity. If he were 30 or 40 years older, we could tidily say, “He died doing what he loved,” and find solace there. That seems to ring hollow today. Grant leaves us a sterling example of how to work with compassion, and principle—and how to live with it, too. 

Go Jayhawks.