NEW YORK -- Grant Wahl was remembered for his peripatetic life as a sportswriter, pursuit of social justice and lasting impact on family, friends and people he mentored.
Wahl died at age 49 from aortic aneurysm on Dec. 10 while covering a World Cup match in Qatar. A two-hour celebration of his life at The Times Center on Wednesday drew several hundred people, including colleagues and soccer officials.
"Grant and I were really just kids when we met at Princeton," said his wife, Dr. Celine Gounder, her voice cracking at times. “I was 18. He was 21. In many ways, we finished growing up together. ... He hadn’t traveled the world, yet. In fact, he’d only been out of the country twice at that point, both times to Argentina. But as much as I made fun of his provincial palette back in those days, there was something worldly about him, this curiosity he had about the world."
Wahl grew up in the Kansas City suburb of Mission, received a bachelor’s degree from Princeton in 1996 and became a fact checker at Sports Illustrated. He was promoted to writer and covered college basketball and soccer before switching fulltime to soccer.
“Grant really did write to Sports Illustrated in late elementary school to say: `My name is Grant Wahl and I want to write for your magazine,'” recalled his brother, Eric Wahl. “And he really did get a response that said something like: Dear Grant. Thanks for your letter. That’s cute. Keep writing.' But the fact that he received a reply stuck with him.”
Wahl's rebuke of retiring Princeton basketball coach Pete Carril in the Daily Princetonian in 1996 was recalled as an early sign of Wahl's moral backbone and his 2002 SI cover story on LeBron James as an example of his prescience. Later in his career, Wahl advocated LGBTQ rights and criticized FIFA and Qatar's government for their treatment of migrant workers.
Wahl stayed at SI until he was fired in 2021 during a time of the magazine's retrenchment, then started his own website. Wahl also had a Planet Fútbol podcast.
“Grant’s effort to be Anthony Bourdain of soccer without ever trying heroin," said Joel H. Samuels, dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Arts and Sciences, host of the celebration, a friend from Princeton days and the officiant at Wahl's wedding.
“It was not easy to be Grant’s editor even then,” Samuels said of their Princeton days. ”Every word that Grant Wahl wrote was gold. And I know that’s true for all of you writers, but for Grant, he would push back on any word we wanted to edit, ever."
New Yorker editor David Remnick, who taught Wahl at Princeton, recorded a video tribute. Among the speakers were three of Wahl's colleagues from Sports Illustrated: Alexander Wolff, L. Jon Westheim and Mark Mravic. The celebration included video of Wahl speaking and photos of many of his SI cover stories.
Wolff recalled “the high pitch his voice took on when he recounted an absurdity committed by some blazer-wrapped buffoon of world soccer.”
“In the past week, some have called our love epic. Was it an epic love story?” Gounder said. “I suppose it depends on what you mean. We had to overcome obstacles. I wasn’t a sports fan, which confused many of our friends when we first got together."
“Ït was hard at times sharing Grant with the rest of the world," she added. ”Until this past week, I didn’t realize just how much he’s shared of himself with all of you."
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