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Grant Wahl's wife remembers the late soccer journalist

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As the World Cup comes to a close, a notable voice will be absent from the press coverage. Sports journalist Grant Wahl was covering the quarterfinal match between Argentina and the Netherlands when he died of an ascending aortic aneurysm. He was 49 years old.

To many of his colleagues, Wahl was one of the most respected soccer authorities to cover the game. He was fearless, knowledgeable and passionate, on a mission, it seemed, to help people love and respect the game as much as he did. After leaving Sports Illustrated in 2020, where he worked for more than 25 years, he started his own Substack called Futbol With Grant Wahl, focused on talking with leading figures in the sport.

As readers, fans and players mourn the loss of Wahl, Dr. Celine Gounder, his widow, wants people to know the man she knew, someone who approached the world with openness and love and enjoyed walking his two dogs, Coco and Zizou, after French soccer legend Zinedine Zidane. And she was kind enough to join us now to talk more about him and his legacy.

Dr. Celine Gounder, we're so sorry for your loss. And we just so thank you for being willing to spend a few minutes with us.

CELINE GOUNDER: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: And I know this is an impossible question to answer, and I apologize for how mundane it is, but I know that people want to know how you're doing. Is there anything you can tell us about how you're doing?

GOUNDER: I'm surviving. My family has been here. My mom is still here, my brother-in-law. My sisters will be coming back for the memorial service. And we've had lots of friends just cycling through here to support us.

MARTIN: That's good to hear. I get the impression that it's important to you, though, to share your story and tell the world more about your husband, Grant Wahl. Why is that important?

GOUNDER: I want him to be remembered for who he was, for what he did during his life and for what he stood for. Part of the reason soccer was so important to him was it was the world's sport. It was a way of understanding other people, other cultures, politics of different places, and really also understanding just the common man. Soccer is just the average person's sport in most of the world, and it's a great lens to get to know people.

MARTIN: Soccer has - or football, as it's said in the rest of the world, is something that I think has taken off in recent years. But Grant started covering it when it wasn't always the most popular sport. It's been a popular youth sport for some time, but you kind of get the sense that Americans are kind of catching up to where Grant already was. Do you remember him talking about like when he fell in love with it or why he loved it so much or when he made it his thing? I mean, because he'd covered other sports earlier in his career.

GOUNDER: Yeah. Grant really fell in love with soccer when we were in college. He got to know Bob Bradley back then. Bradley was a coach at Princeton. And then during college, he also spent time, first starting with the summer after his sophomore year, he had gotten a scholarship to study soccer. It was 1994, the World Cup that year. And he was comparing U.S. soccer with Argentine soccer. And then the following summer, he spent the entire summer in Buenos Aires studying the politics of the Argentine soccer club's work that was really inspired by the work of political scientist Robert Putnam, who himself actually wrote on the politics of soccer clubs in Italy. And he saw this as a way of understanding civic institutions, you know, how people came together and organized and really what were the roots of social and political organizing. And, you know, that shed some light onto how Grant thought about soccer. It wasn't just a sport. It was so much more. It had such a - much more important role in society.

MARTIN: You've been active on social media. I know that you posted a letter on your husband's Substack thanking people for their support. And many tributes have poured in. Did you know how many people his reporting had touched?

GOUNDER: I really hadn't. You know, I myself am not a sports fan or a soccer fan. I learned a bit by osmosis over the years. And I have French - my French family, my French uncles got a kick out of watching soccer with Grant, the '98 World Cup, the Euros. I knew he was the preeminent soccer journalist in the country, but I don't think I fully understood what kind of following he had. I mean, I just knew Grant as my college sweetheart. You know, I didn't think of him that much, really, in professional terms.

MARTIN: Dr. Gounder, I have to say that many of us have appreciated you for your deep humanity as well as your deep knowledge. And you became a trusted voice on our airwaves, especially during 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. That is, you know, certainly when I remember speaking with you and, you know, relying on you for your guidance to our listening audience. And that was a time when people were grieving quite a lot, both a way of life, losing a sense of freedom because of all the things that we had to do to protect ourselves and also losing loved ones to a virus that at the time we knew very little about. And I just wondered in this moment, did going through that, did it change anything about your perception of grief? Is there anything about that time that you can draw upon now as you face this time of trial for yourself?

GOUNDER: Yeah. I just - I feel like, frankly, it's been grief piling on grief, you know, and that includes the pandemic but isn't just that. My father passed away not too long ago. My brother-in-law, Eric, was there when that happened. Not long after that, my mother-in-law, Helen, died. And then during the pandemic, my father-in-law, David, died. We had multiple relatives in India die from COVID. So this is you, know, and the pandemic was just horrendous, the number of people we lost. And I just feel like this is just one long string of loss and grief for my family.

MARTIN: I'm so sorry. What has comforted you in this time? What can we do for you?

GOUNDER: I think just the outreach, the outpouring of love for Grant and for us as a couple has been amazing. And people who are wanting to do something to preserve his legacy, that has meant a lot. And, you know, part of what Grant stood for was social justice. It was really important to him to elevate the stories of people who were marginalized, who were discriminated against. And it was important to him to elevate women in sport, women journalists, people of color and sport and journalists and LGBTQ people in the same way. And I think that's a big part of the legacy I hope people hold in their hearts.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for talking with us. Thank you for your important work. Thank you for sharing the work of Grant Wahl with us. Thank you for sharing him with us. Because, you know, the time that he spent on his passion and sharing that work with the public is time that he did not have available for you. So thank you for sharing him with the world. Thank you for your work.

Dr. Celine Gounder is a senior fellow and editor at large for Public Health at the Kaiser Family Foundation and for Kaiser Health News. She also served on the Biden-Harris transition COVID-19 advisory board. She was kind enough to speak to us about her husband, Grant Wahl, who died covering the World Cup in Qatar. He was 49. Dr. Gounder, we so appreciate you. And our condolences once again.

GOUNDER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.