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Vermont Sportswriter Alex Wolff Helms an Anthology to Honor a Late Colleague


Published June 5, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

Grant Wahl in Argentina - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Grant Wahl in Argentina

The death of 49-year-old sportswriter Grant Wahl, who suffered a ruptured aortic aneurysm while covering the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, shocked journalists around the world.

"I was knocked flat by the news," New Yorker editor David Remnick, one of Wahl's favorite professors as an undergraduate at Princeton University, said in an interview with Seven Days. "I'm now at the age my contemporaries die, and it's sad but not a tragedy. With Grant, it was — he was in the thick of his life and his passions. It broke my heart."

Wahl's longtime colleagues at Sports Illustrated, where he thrived for more than two decades, responded with disbelief — among them, Cornwall resident Alex Wolff, 67. A staff writer for the magazine until 2016, Wolff had moved to Vermont more than a decade earlier and in 2005 founded a professional basketball team known as the Frost Heaves. Wolff helped assemble Wahl's finest work for the impressive new anthology World Class: Purpose, Passion, and the Pursuit of Greatness On and Off the Field, which he coedited with fellow Sports Illustrated alum Mark Mravic.

Wolff and Wahl were fellow Princetonians, and the former was the senior college basketball writer at the magazine when Wahl joined the beat in the mid-'90s. Wahl quickly made a name for himself, and in 2003, he wrote a discriminating cover story on a high school phenomenon named LeBron James.

But soccer proved to be Wahl's true domain. He became not only Sports Illustrated's resident expert on the world game but also the preeminent soccer journalist in the country. He recognized the women's sport early on, as evidenced by his sterling profiles of Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe.

Wahl thrived writing traditional magazine features, profiles and game stories, yet he also adapted to the more intimate, direct style of writing for the web. He embraced podcasting and, when he left Sports Illustrated in 2021, launched a popular Substack newsletter.

The idea for the anthology came to Wolff in late December 2022, during the celebration of life ceremony held for Wahl in the auditorium of the New York Times building in Times Square. He was one of several speakers to pay homage to Wahl that night.

As Wolff collected his coat at the end of an emotionally enervating evening — an event attended by legions of Wahl's Sports Illustrated colleagues — he approached Wahl's wife, the prominent epidemiologist Céline Gounder, and suggested the idea of a book.

"I think he wanted to do more," Gounder told Seven Days. "There was this momentum with the service, the way everybody wanted to do something. I thought it was very kind. Like, 'What can I do?' That's what it felt like to me."

Wolff proceeded with Gounder's blessing — she also wrote a thoughtful, impassioned foreword to the book — and the cooperation of Wahl's agent, Chris Parris-Lamb, and his book editor, Mary Reynics. He enlisted the services of Mravic, a Sports Illustrated editor who loved soccer as much as Wahl did.

Wolff needed Mravic's "forensic skills," he said, to track down Wahl's pieces through the digital archive known as the Wayback Machine.

Mravic handled the soccer stories, and Wolff tackled college hoops; each entry is introduced with behind-the-scenes details that give the reader a deeper appreciation for how journalism is made.

Alex Wolff | World Class: Purpose, Passion, and the Pursuit of Greatness On and Off the Field by Grant Wahl, edited by Mark Mravic and Alexander Wolff, Ballantine Books, 368 pages. $30. - COURTESY OF CLARA WOLFF
  • Courtesy Of Clara Wolff
  • Alex Wolff | World Class: Purpose, Passion, and the Pursuit of Greatness On and Off the Field by Grant Wahl, edited by Mark Mravic and Alexander Wolff, Ballantine Books, 368 pages. $30.

"Alex is meticulous in his reporting," Mravic said. "He found great things in the Princeton archives," such as the story Wahl wrote for the Daily Princetonian about legendary basketball coach Pete Carril, praised by most writers upon his retirement but less than beloved by his players because of his abusive behavior.

Wolff took notice of Wahl at Princeton and for many years thereafter in locker rooms across the country. "He would ask the tough, pointed question," Wolff said. "But it was hard to get mad at him. He had no bad motives; he was just doing his job and was a fundamentally decent human being."

Chris Stone, who knew both men for two decades and eventually became the editor in chief of Sports Illustrated, noted Wolff's qualifications to helm the anthology, calling him "a kind intellectual, one of the smartest people I know, and a true North Star for Grant."

Stone said Wahl was never shy about fighting for his stories at a magazine that had an institutional resistance to covering "the beautiful game."

"Soccer was an opportunity for Grant to see the world," Stone said. "Imagine a career that gives you that opportunity? He saw that he could make a life out of watching, thinking, digesting and disseminating knowledge about soccer. He was great at crowdsourcing his audience, getting to know them on a personal level. He used every tool and resource available to him to advance soccer coverage."

Wolff recognized Wahl as a kindred spirit. "Alex is an internationalist," Mravic said, "taking the wider lens of sports, a wider view of its role in society and on people and populations. I don't think Grant needed mentoring that much, but they were of the same perspective on sports."

Wolff's elegant introduction to the anthology brings readers into Wahl's working-class family upbringing in Kansas City; his parents had their sons decide between cable TV and a subscription to a magazine of their choice. When "homework loomed, [Wahl] would tie his shoelaces together in the basement until he got it done."

"I learned so much about Grant reading the introduction," Mravic said. "Even people like me who knew Grant very well — it filled out his personality in a way that only Alex could do."

Wolff said in an interview that "the delta between young Grant and older, mature Grant was small. He had a calm voice on the page. It's the same voice he had in real life. You're willing to trust him; he's very good company. The same calm works in a profile because he doesn't impose himself between the reader and the subject."

The value of this remarkable anthology lies in showing readers how a guy with chops did it all, navigating hurdles, biases and political agendas — all at a time when journalism was starting to lose its moorings because of cataclysmic changes in the industry. Toward the end of his life, Wahl used his Substack to write critically of how migrant workers were treated in Qatar and to support LGBTQ+ people who were regarded with great hostility there.

"You can see all of that as you work your way through the collection," Wolff said, adding that the proceeds from the book "will go toward a fund, named in Grant's honor and administered by the Daily Princetonian, to cover the travel costs of aspiring student journalists with an ambitious idea but otherwise without the means to report it."

There is no escaping the sadness of Wahl's death and the loss felt by those he left behind. As Wolff put it, "when you die at 49, you never know what your ceiling is." Yet this collection is a beautiful, conscientious salute, one that shines a light on a sportswriting legacy that will only grow with time.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Final Assist | Vermont sportswriter Alex Wolff helms an anthology to honor a late colleague"

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