Soccer writer Grant Wahl’s unusual greatness was obvious early

Editor’s note: This column was inspired by a series of tweets IndyStar’s Gregg Doyel wrote after learning of former colleague Grant Wahl’s death on Saturday morning.

Do yourself a favor, if you don’t know much about U.S. soccer journalist Grant Wahl, and search for his name online. See the response to his death early Saturday morning at the World Cup in Qatar, at 48. It is overwhelming. His death is overwhelming. His life was overwhelming.

This happens, though rarely, because Grant was rare. Someone dies unexpectedly, before the world has had a chance to give him or her their flowers, as the saying goes, and the outpouring is bittersweet. You love to see the impact, but wish they were here to see it too. To know.

But now I’ve decided: Grant knew. He wasn’t smug about it, but he knew the greatness he had shown, and I’m not talking about journalism, though he was GREAT, all caps. Quick aside: I met Grant in 1996. I’m the Marlins beat writer for the Miami Herald. He’s an intern.

I was 25, young and decent at my job and a bit cocky. Grant was 21, younger and a lot better and so humble it hurt. He once wrote a sidebar from the Marlins game we covered together with some reference to the Pleistocene Era, and he made it sing. He had no idea how good he was.

Sports Illustrated hired him out of college, which didn’t happen in 1996, when print journalism was still our main thing and SI was everyone’s dream job. But he was unusually great. Read him once, and you know. But this is about another kind of greatness.

This sort of reaction happens rarely, as I said. Happened in 2012 when one of my bosses at CBSSports.com, Craig Stanke, died in his sleep at 56, hours after running a 5K in 22 minutes, 41 seconds. Oh my gosh I just found the obit I wrote at CBS. It was one of many, which is why I started mine this way:

For years I fooled myself, lied to myself, that Craig Stanke and I had a special, unique relationship. Well, don’t get me wrong. It was special. Almost every relationship he’s ever had, near as I can tell, was special. But what we had wasn’t unique, and I thought it was — and that discovery doesn’t make me sad. It is uplifting, inspiring, something good to hold onto today as people like me — and apparently there are a whole lot of people like me — try to process the tragedy that was Craig Stanke going to bed on Monday night and not waking up on Tuesday morning.

It always hurt me that I’d never told Stanke what he meant to me, that I’d never given him his flowers. I’ve seen this outpouring in my business a few times since, when ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure died in 2020 at 48, and Yahoo Sports NFL reporter Terez Paylor in 2021 at 37.

This sort of nationwide or even global outpouring of love — mourning the underlying goodness of a great talent — happens in other areas, of course, but it’s rare. Actor Robin Williams (“Good Will Hunting,” among other films) in 2014 at 63. “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman in 2020 at age 43. Basketball coach Skip Prosser in 2007 at age 56. Singer Selena in 1995 at age 23. Princess Diana in 1997 at age 36.

Now, Grant Wahl. But only now, with Grant, have I come to decide: Truly good people like this don’t live their life needing their goodness rewarded. Their goodness is their reward. They get joy from it, and down deep, I suspect, they know how we feel about them.

So read about Grant Wahl. See the life he lived, and the worldwide mourning — from friends and family, FIFA and the U.S. Soccer Federation, world-class players, LeBron James and Billie Jean King — he has inspired.

How do you want to be remembered by your circle, whatever its size? Then live in a way that deserves it. Enjoy those flowers.

Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at  www.facebook.com/greggdoyelstar.

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