Between the deadline stress, the disagreements, and the laughs at The Daily Princetonian in the mid-1990s, there were times when staff members couldn’t help but stop and admire the work of one of their colleagues.
Before Grant Wahl ’96 was a world-famous soccer journalist, he was a Princeton student with a special talent. His colleagues could see it in how he did the work, and the readers could see it in his elegant writing and smart reporting.
“For a very small group of us who were in that room with [Grant] every afternoon and a lot of evenings in ’94, ’95, and ’96, it was a golden era,” said Justin Pope ’97, co-sports editor in 1996-97. “There was this energy and kind of cockiness, and it came from the top, and he was the person who sat on that tower. Grant created an environment that people wanted to be a part of and wanted to do ambitious work.”
“The chest pressure he experienced shortly before his death may have represented the initial symptoms,” she wrote. “No amount of CPR or shocks would have saved him. His death was unrelated to COVID. His death was unrelated to vaccination status. There was nothing nefarious about his death.”
A reporter for Sports Illustrated from 1996 to 2021, Grant wrote about college basketball and LeBron James before devoting himself to soccer. His impact on the game in the U.S. has been immense. Many of the tributes from around the world have credited him with being a visionary. Prominent soccer figures, athletes, and politicians expressed their heartache and sent condolences to Celine and Grant’s family.
I got to know Grant through my wife, Malena (Salberg) Barzilai ’97, who worked with him at the Prince, and in my previous life as a sports journalist. I was thrilled when he wrote a profile of Leeds coach Jesse Marsch ’96 for the November issue of PAW. We talked about the World Cup and how he was looking forward to covering it and continuing to grow his Substack website, “Futbol with Grant Wahl.”
His death has deeply hurt the Princeton community and reminded many not only of his immense skills as a journalist but also his kindness and warmth.
Grant was also fiercely courageous. Whether it was running for president of FIFA in part to highlight corruption within the world governing body of soccer or wearing a rainbow T-shirt to the U.S.-Wales match in Qatar on Nov. 21 to support LGTBQ rights, he did not shy away from a good fight.
“He had such a mature sense of journalism,” said Nate Ewell ’96, who was a co-sports editor in 1995-96 and worked with Grant on one of his most memorable, and courageous, stories at Princeton.
Writing in the Prince for the last time, Grant authored a thorough rebuke of future Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach Pete Carril shortly after his retirement. “Privately, in practice or in the locker room, what you haven’t seen is the daily hell promulgated by ‘Princeton’s professor of basketball,’ whose vicious assault on the characters of his ‘students’ would have gotten any real professor fired, on the spot,” Grant wrote.
Ewell said that several months before that story ran, “he and I met with the whole basketball team and heard their concerns. [Grant] was asking how we should approach this story? What was the right way? What was the ethical way?”
Said Pope: “He delivered the goods. He did the reporting. He talked to people. He wasn’t just [an] undergraduate firing off a story. It was the difference between activism and journalism.
“That piece inspired people to be more courageous and showed what student journalists can do. But at the end of the day, he was just a better reporter than everybody.”
Ewell, who is now vice president of communications for the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, said he learned from Grant how to be a better journalist — and that he shouldn’t be a journalist.
But like a great teammate, Grant made those around him better.
“He had this innate goodness,” Slater Tate said. “Not that he didn’t have an edge, but that edge is why he would wear a freaking rainbow shirt to a game in Qatar. He was like, ‘Screw it, I'm going to do the right thing,’ and we all admired and loved him for that.”