Remembering Grant Wahl
When the U.S. Women's National Team played back in the day, captain Julie Foudy felt a certain calmness and assurance when a tall, bald writer showed up to cover a game.
"I just remember whenever Grant would pull up in his pageboy hat, there really was a level of comfort," she said. "It was like, 'Okay Grant's here. All is good in the world of football.'
"He was omnipresent."
Indeed, Grant Wahl was.
At National Team matches.
At Major League Soccer and National Women’s Soccer League games.
At World Cups.
At many major soccer tournaments.
Grant Wahl was an original.
Wahl passed away on Friday, Dec. 9, enjoying one of his passions - covering a soccer match - during the Argentina-Netherlands quarterfinal at Lusail Iconic Stadium in Lusail, Qatar.
He had just tweeted about the Dutch's late comeback in regulation: "Just an incredible designed set-piece goal by the Netherlands."
Minutes later, he collapsed and died.
Wahl was 49.
Wahl's death reverberated throughout the soccer universe, home and abroad, eliciting reactions of shock and sadness from fans, readers and listeners of his work, from the players and coaches he had written about through the years and from his media colleagues.
"He's been a staunch supporter of soccer in this country, a supporter and fighter for women's rights, LGBTQ rights," U.S. Soccer President Cindy Cone said. "He brought so much wisdom with his writing. He wrote about the sport itself and also everything that surrounds our sport. He's already so badly missed."
Said U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Gregg Berhalter: "Grant was a passionate journalist who helped bring soccer into the mainstream. He combined a professional drive with a personal commitment to the growth of the sport, and through his efforts brought respect both domestically and internationally. On a personal note, Grant was always gracious with his time, and I will remember our conversations with fond memories. His legacy will undoubtedly live on."
Added former USMNT captain Michael Bradley: "It's there for everyone to see in the outpouring of love, admiration and respect that has been shown for him these last few days. The mark that he left on the on the football community was special."
Everyone who was interviewed spoke about Wahl's passion and commitment to the game. They noted his influence on helping bring the women's game to a higher orbit from the margins of sports pages and TV coverage to the mainstream as well as how he wasn't afraid to tackle controversial issues using his platform writing at Sports Illustrated for more than two decades and working as a correspondent for FOX Sports and CBS Sports.
"Grant was what I call an original OG in terms of being there in the 90s when the Women's National Team started our ascent into the mainstream," National Soccer Hall of Fame goalkeeper Briana Scurry said.
"What I always respected about him was that he covered the men's game, but he also very much covered the women's game, and not just the field stuff," USWNT defender Becky Sauerbrunn said. "He also was very interested in the off-field things that we were fighting for as a team, especially on the women's side. I always really appreciated that he saw us as players but also as people."
At the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Wahl interviewed and wrote about the plight of migrant workers who built the stadiums. Prior to the USA's opening match against Wales on Nov. 21, he was detained by authorities from entering a stadium because he wore a LGBTQ pride shirt that featured a soccer ball surrounded by a rainbow.
"This was Grant," Bradley said. "He was going to take everything head on and it was the only way that he knew."
Wahl also went out of his way to talk to and help younger journalists find their way and find jobs.
"A lot of us don't have jobs without Grant being there first, showing a path for covering the game and making it a legit thing to choose to do," said Meg Linehan, who covers women's soccer for The Athletic.
Wahl helped lead the way.
"All the stakeholders are working to grow the sport," USMNT legend Landon Donovan said. "That doesn't mean we always agree, doesn't mean that we don't have bumps along the way. In the case with media, it doesn't mean that it's always positive and always rosy. But Grant was as big a stakeholder as anybody in that process. “
Donovan noted the growth of Major League Soccer and youth soccer.
"Players that have come and gone. Agents, media, fans. These are all crucial stakeholders that contributed to where the game is today,” he added. “When Grant pivoted away from college basketball and moved into the soccer world it changed a lot for coverage of the sport in the country because this was a mainstream big-time writer, who now was focusing his time and energy on soccer, which was unheard of at the time, for someone at Sports Illustrated to do that. It's hard to overstate how impactful he was in that way."
Carli Lloyd, a two-time FIFA Women's World Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist, said Wahl "just always stood out as a true pioneer that helped really shape soccer in America on the men's and women's side, what he did to highlight and tell stories of so many players around the globe. It really helped elevate the sport. I don't think that the game of soccer in America would be where it's at without him."
Foudy, a member of two world championship teams and two Olympic-winning teams herself, was grateful Wahl wrote about the 1999 Women's World Cup as well as the 2000 and 2004 Summer Games, which helped the team to be recognized by mainstream media.
"He was the catalyst behind it," she said. "The willingness to report on the women's side of the game by such a big name reporter was always admired and respected and appreciated from our side."
Added former world champion and USWNT head coach April Heinrichs: "He really put us on the map."
Sports Illustrated co-editor in chief Ryan Hunt saw that commitment on a regular basis.
"The biggest thing about Grant is that he cared," he said. "He cared about telling great stories. He cared about the truth. He cared about growing the game in all ways, men’s and women’s. He cared about equality. I think that emanated in his writing, in the way he carried himself and in the stories he chose to pursue.
"He was passionate in all parts of his life. I think that he made an impact on his readers, on players, on coaches, on the entire U.S. soccer community. It's hard to realize that impact in real time what it meant. Grant was always fair. He was always balanced. I think everybody respected the way he approached his work because he was one of a kind."
Wahl's influence on the beautiful game was not lost in Qatar. A day after his passing, two dozen flowers and a framed photo of Wahl was placed at his unoccupied seat in the media tribune of the France-England quarterfinal at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor. Wahl's picture also was displayed on the video board.
"He brought great enthusiasm both for the game and the work, which is not always the case with journalists who stay too close to a sport for too long and lose their sense of balance and focus," said renowned international soccer journalist Keir Radnedge, who was the editor of World Soccer for many years. "He enjoyed everything which was right, pointed out what could and should be done better and never swerved from targeting whatever was wrong - and in FIFA circles for many years that amounted to a great deal."
Wahl was among 82 journalists in Qatar who were honored by FIFA and the International Sports Press Association (AIPS) for covering at least eight World Cups.
"Most enjoyable was an AIPS/FIFA presentation ceremony here at the World Cup in Qatar for all those journos who were present in Doha and had covered at least eight World Cups," Radnedge said in an email from Doha. "Some journalists don't like these events, but Grant appreciated that his World Cup reporting record earned him the right to be acknowledged, enjoyed the event, was enjoying the World Cup . . . and that will be a positive way for his colleagues present that day to remember him."
Born on Dec. 2, 1973, Wahl was a Kansas City Comets (Major Indoor Soccer League) fan growing up in Mission, Kansas. He was an Eagle Scout and graduated from Shawnee Mission East High School.
Wahl attended Princeton University and covered the Princeton soccer team. At the time, Bob Bradley, who would go on to direct the USMNT and currently coaches Toronto FC, was the head coach of the Tigers.
On Princeton's Twitter page, Bradley talked about how Wahl, then a sophomore, visited his office a few times a week to write about the team.
"He was still learning about soccer," Bradley wrote. "But he was smart, curious and a brilliant writer. His goal was to work for Sports Illustrated. To be the next Frank Deford, E.M. Swift, Alexander Wolff."
After earning a Bachelor of Arts in Politics in 1996, Wahl realized his goal and worked at SI for more than 20 years, covering college basketball and soccer. After he was let go by SI in 2020, Wahl continued writing on Substack and had his own podcast, Fútbol with Grant Wahl.
In 2019, Wahl contacted Heinrichs for a podcast interview prior to the Women's World Cup to talk about the 1991 championship side.
"I said, Grant, 'That's 30 years ago.' He said, 'I'll send you all the games.' He literally sent me all the [U.S.] games from the 1991 World Cup. I don't know how he had access to it. I didn't have it. I've never once watched the '91 World Cup prior to Grant giving me the access to the games."
As a former player and current ESPN commentator/reporter, Foudy can appreciate what Wahl and other media members go through.
"He wrote for the most prominent sports magazine back when there were actual magazines. He was doing cover stories that he would push and advocate and pitch women's stories," she said. "I don't think you realize just how important that is while you're playing until you get into journalism. The fact that he was in there pitching and fighting at the biggest sports magazine to tell those stories was enormous for the women's game and its acceptance.”
Many fans talk about Wahl’s SI cover story about 16-year-old LeBron James, before James was just “LeBron.”
Wahl penned many notable cover stories, such as when the USWNT won the 1999 Women's World Cup, punctuated by that iconic photo of Brandi Chastain taking off her jersey to celebrate.
Ditto for Carli Lloyd and her magnificent 16 minutes of brilliance, striking a hat trick in the 2015 Women's World Cup Final. A day after her virtuoso performance, Lloyd talked with Grant at LA Live.
"Everything was a blur," she said. "It was a whirlwind of a moment and we were all operating on not a lot of sleep, but I can remember taking the time to sit down with him and pretty much just walk him through that final and how everything transpired for me, what happened when I woke up.”
After she was elected U.S. Soccer president, Cone recalled part of a Wahl story that was "hilarious."
"He wrote a story in. 1999 that basically said if you look at the '99 team, who would be president of U.S. Soccer. He said something like I'd be the last person," she said with a laugh. "It was a very positive article about me, but it was just a really funny moment... It was fairly accurate. I don't think anyone would have chosen [me]."
Wahl authored two books: The Beckham Experiment and Masters of Modern Soccer. Donovan was a member of the LA Galaxy when the Beckham book was published, having lived through the behind-the-scenes controversy, drama and tumult.
"That was real, not just writing a fluff piece,” Donovan said. “There’s no bigger example than in The Beckham Experiment where he kind of went deep and uncovered some stuff. He was passionate for sure. I don't think anyone can argue that. He worked hard to be really good at what he did. He was an expert."
Wahl wasn't afraid to ask the tough questions, as many players can attest.
"He was never going to shy away from asking me the really tough questions, going into podcasts or interviews with him, especially about equal pay," Sauerbrunn said. "He had done his research. He had already spoken to other players and U.S. Soccer officials. He really knew his stuff, always asking the right, tough questions like: ‘Why does this matter? How do you do this? How does this affect other people?’ I felt like I had to be really on my game when I was speaking to him. That's a testament to how well-prepared, how smart and just how well-read he was."
Philadelphia Inquirer soccer writer and Washington, D.C. native Jonathan Tannenwald likes to tell a story about covering the USWNT at a group stage match during the 2003 Women's World Cup at RFK Stadium. He had attended games at the venue as a fan but was covering a major soccer tournament for the first time.
"I wasn't quite sure how to get back up to the press box because it was all ramps,” he said. “I started walking and I saw Grant from behind. It was impossible to miss him because he was 6-4 or 6-5 and a bald head. I just followed him. And thus, my first major soccer tournament that I was covering I was literally riding Grant Wahl's coattails up to the press box."
That was the case for many a writer since then.
"He knew that he was in a position of great privilege by virtue of being the lead guy at Sports Illustrated and a TV guy for FOX," Tannenwald said. "He made sure to lift up a lot of other people as best he could. I think that is one of the things that has been a theme in so many of the tributes to him.
"One of his greatest character traits is that he made you feel like you knew him well because he wanted to get to know you. When he did, he wanted to champion you. You felt like you knew him, that was a testament to his character and his openness. He was willing to work on behalf of younger people and aspiring journalists.”
Seeing a man covering the women's game with such conviction inspired many women writers.
"Having someone who covered women's soccer right alongside men's soccer and didn't really skip a beat between covering the two, treating them with equal respect was a really important thing for not just us as potential media members but for fans of the game to see," Linehan said.
"Grant was the guy for a lot of us who was the first person that we interacted with for our introduction to the sport, whether that was because of a Sports Illustrated cover story or because of Twitter. He was kind of that person out in front and a person who then used that position to pull a lot of the rest of us in alongside."
After the USWNT's 2-1 loss to England at Wembley on Oct. 8, Linehan and Wahl sat together on the subway back downtown discussing the game and ideas.
"That's the stuff that going to be hard not to have anymore, where you're just bouncing ideas off of each other," she said. "He's not going to be in mixed zones in New Zealand [at the Women’s World Cup], and that's really hard to think about."
Wahl helped journalists of all sexes and ages.
Glenn Crooks, who hosts a SiriusXM FC show and is the New York City FC play-by-play radio announcer, had an assigned seat next to Grant during the USMNT group stage matches. He sought out Wahl's help and advice about writing after completing a 14-year tenure as head coach of Rutgers’ women’s soccer team.
"I asked him to look through my writing and critique it for me, just to give me his full-blown honest opinion and he did," Crooks said. "That was immensely helpful to me. I've heard so many people say some of the same things about when they first started in the business.”
Wahl also mentored SI’s younger generation.
"He would work with younger people in our staff about how to interview, how to ask questions, the right questions to ask, when to ask them," Hunt said. "He was generous with his time. It showed he cared. He treated everybody the same, whether it's a colleague, a friend or somebody who he was covering.”
That respect worked both ways with his peers.
Several years ago, JP Dellacamera, a FOX Sports and Philadelphia Union commentator, and New York Red Bulls analyst Shep Messing had a short-lived podcast. Wahl was their first guest.
"We were excited to have him as the first guest," Dellacamera said. "We could have asked a bunch of people. We just chose to go with him first. That shows a lot about who we thought he was in the soccer world that we wanted him on first.”
Off the field
Sometimes there were things we don’t see or hear.
When the Sally Yates report was released in October, USWNT defender Alana Cook and Sauerbrunn were part of a Zoom press conference prior to the friendly against England in London.
"He was there, and he asked, like he always does, the right questions," Sauerbrunn said. "When I got back to my room on my phone, there was a message waiting from him, saying like, 'You guys were so immense on that press conference.' I mean, he really didn't have to do that. For him to go out of his way to leave that message meant a lot. Just from looking across social media this is not a regular occurrence. He did this with so many people.”
As USMNT captain, Michael Bradley had plenty of interaction with the media, and especially with Grant. Bradley is the son of former Princeton and USMNT coach Bob Bradley.
"There was a little bit of a Princeton connection that wasn't doing me any favors because Grant was strong," Michael said. "Grant watched and listened and had his own opinion. He wasn't afraid to write it, to say it. He was smart. He surrounded himself with the game. He had real opinions. He'd have an opinion and maybe I wouldn't quite agree.
"The amazing thing about Grant was always that he never hid from it. At certain moments, we crossed paths in the hotel. I asked him about something that he wrote. With total strength and confidence, we'd talk. There would always be professionalism and respect from both sides. Sometimes we'd agree, sometimes we agreed to disagree slightly. Grant was real. Grant wasn't afraid to be himself."
Wahl forged relationships that he carried off the field. He had dinner when various players visited New York City.
Donovan cherished them.
"At times we bonded over food, because he really likes good food, and I do, too," he said. "When I would travel somewhere that he had been, he would let me know about a good restaurant that I might like and vice versa."
It was more than just food.
"Just good conversations," Donovan said. "We live in a world where we're all digital and on our phones and tweeting and texting. We would just sit and have good long conversations and I really valued that. And I'm going to miss that a lot."
So will Scurry. She and her wife had dinner with Wahl when she was in NYC promoting her book, “My Greatest Save,” in June.
"It was the first time I ever hung out with Grant as a normal person breaking bread, having a meal," she said. "He was so amazing. He was so kind and so complimentary. He read my book from cover to cover; absolutely loved it, had me on his podcast, he was raving about it."
Scurry never got an opportunity to meet Wahl's wife, Dr. Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist. Grant spoke highly of her.
"The most amazing thing about Grant the person was how much he loved his wife," she said. "It was really cool to see how much he adored his wife. He had so much respect for her. She's a giant in her field and he greatly appreciated her abilities and her as a person.
"He talked about how much they love to cook dinners and together and it was really cool because my wife and I were the same way. We thought it would be so awesome to hang out with those guys."
When Scurry was in New York City, Gounder was out of town. They talked about getting together in the future, then Dec. 9 happened.
"It's really sad for me because we had that standing appointment for a double date," Scurry said.
Celine and Grant were married in 2001. She popped the question.
"I had just gotten into med school and I had decided I was going to head back west where my parents lived at my state med school [University of Washington School of Medicine]," Gounder told Gayle King on CBS Mornings. "I felt like if I'm going to ask Grant to follow me, I should be the one proposing."
Asked if she was a soccer fan, Gounder replied: "Not really. I'm not much of a sports fan. I absorbed, obviously, some by osmosis over the years with Grant. We'd get into the World Cup a little bit with him, but that's not what connected us really.
“Our lives together were about so much more than our work. What drew us together were shared values. Shaped by strong women like his mother Helen and the late New York Times war correspondent Gloria Emerson, Grant was a feminist, by which I mean he was a staunch advocate for equality, and not just on the basis of sex."
There will be plenty to write about in 2023. There are the two upcoming USWNT friendlies in New Zealand and a pair of USMNT matches in the Los Angeles area in January. There's the SheBelieves Cup in February, Concacaf Nations League games in March and the Women's World Cup in July and August. That doesn’t include the MLS and NWSL seasons.
"It would be so weird not to have him at an event," Foudy said.
For so many reasons.
Several individuals spoke about Wahl's legacy.
Ryan Hunt, Sports Illustrated co-editor in chief
"He tried to fight for so many different things, whether it was social justice or equality, the growth of the sport. We've been just talking about soccer, but he was doing a lot of the same work around college basketball. He dove into that just as hard as he did around soccer. That was another passion for him. Grant was somebody that cared deeply about storytelling. He cared deeply about his work. He cared deeply about fairness. I think that will be his ultimate legacy.”
"The growth of football and our country has been incredible, but nothing has come easy. Trying to grow the game in the right ways has been a challenge for any of us who have been involved. Grant believed in the game and in the people and was totally committed to telling stories and growing the game in our country. In the last few days, you see the regard that so many younger journalists hold Grant in. They speak about how supportive he was. He always found time to talk with them, to read, to subscribe to their blogs, to read their stories. For someone who had reached the [top] level, he still found the ways to help the next generation. That part is incredible. We can all only hope to leave the mark on the game that way Grant did."
John Strong, lead FOX soccer announcer at the FIFA World Cup
"It's affected all of us in different ways. I'm going get choked up again the way I did on air the other day, so I'll pivot away just to say that I think the challenge for all of us is that very little of what people have said has been ‘Wow, what a great writer he was,’ or ‘he had this wonderful rhetorical flourish in the third paragraph of the story in 2009.’ It's about who he was as a person and what he meant to other people around him. That's a good reminder to all of us about the work that we do. It pays the bills. It's how we get known. It's why you all are letting me talk to you right now is because of the work that I do.
"But the work that we do is ethereal. That goes away. It's more about our interactions with people, those that we know in the business is what matters most at the end of the day. So that's been another wonderful reminder to the rest of us to make sure we're leaving behind the right kind of legacy. It's a shame that we have to have a conversation about Grant now, but how wonderful the conversation has been."
Becky Sauerbrunn, USWNT defender
"He was an excellent writer with whatever he covered. It wasn't just for sport, but it also was so much about humans and what made humans tick. He also stood up for all these injustices. It was so amazing to see him fighting for LGBTQ rights, even in Qatar, speaking with the migrant workers and asking really hard-hitting investigative questions. His legacy should be that. It was things that happened in between the lines and outside of the lines. I respect him so much for that."
April Heinrichs, former USWNT head coach
"I always appreciated his commitment to women's soccer. It was very clear early on he was on the boat and never getting off the boat. As we start inducting a lot of players that I coached into the National Soccer Hall of Fame, here's a reporter that belongs right in there with all those women."
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, recently was published. It can be purchased at https://tinyurl.com/2p8rzhpy.