Grant Wahl, joy, respect and admiration — mostly joy

On March 8, 2016, a DM popped into my inbox:

Hey! I’m interviewing Messi in Barcelona on Thursday. Anything you’d really like to know?

It was from Grant Wahl and my first reaction was stupor, because all I could think is “Why would a writer and journalist such as this be asking me anything at all?”

My second reaction was admiration because the best journalists I know are relentlessly curious. They treat life like a smorgasbord of knowledge, hungry to learn whatever they can, on any given day. I know one who takes a different route home every day, in the hope that something interesting will strike his eye and spark a story.

But part of that curiosity is being utterly unafraid to admit that you don’t know everything, and talking to people who might, just maybe, have an answer or two for you.

That DM from Grant developed into a kind of “relationship” that pops up in these remote times of social media, where we know people we have never met. We chatted about life, fitness, life plans, his moves after Sports Illustrated, all kinds of stuff and his tone was always open, curious and joyful.

He was famous, not in that weird celebrity way but instead in a way that someone who has accomplished so much yet remained hungry to accomplish more could be. People talked about his hustle, but it never struck me as that as much as the actions of a curious, hungry person, consuming the world with an infectious glee. And he understood, always, that just because you were at the top didn’t mean there wasn’t still plenty of room up there.

When the news broke of his sudden passing while covering a match at the World Cup, like everybody else who heard it, I couldn’t, didn’t want to believe it. People that full of life don’t just go, don’t leave like that. As the tributes started to flow, most striking was not only the variety of homages in different languages, but how many people said that Grant helped them.

“When I was just starting out … “
“I’m where I am because of him … “
“He didn’t have to … “

We are on this world, in this thing called life, for about a minute. How we choose to spend that time doesn’t really define us as much as it defines how we leave a mark. Uplift, bring joy, go where others dare not, ask the right questions, tilt at power like a Quixotic windmill. You knew he would try to enter a stadium in Qatar wearing a rainbow shirt because that’s the kind of journalist he was. And then he wrote about it in a way that was relentlessly human. His last post was about human rights, even as the pressure to just “focus on the football” was relentless. We can multitask, can ask uncomfortable questions about an event, and then go cover a match from a purely sporting angle and belt out exquisite prose defined not by a florid quality but by the way it moved. Grant’s writing had that rare quality of flow, reading as though he was reading it to you.

Mere weeks ago, another person who touched my life in a similarly joyful way, a cyclist from New Mexico named Tony Byatt, suddenly passed away during a training ride. “Cardiac event,” was the bland language. And as with Grant, people said “He died doing the thing that he loved,” and it’s really something worth thinking about, that idea.

People like that — Tony was relentlessly curious, always full of joy as well — can’t really die doing the thing that they love because they seem so full of life, full to the point of bursting. It feels like they just love life and everything about it. Living a life like that is so unspeakably beautiful because of the joy that it brings to others. Those who met Grant, who had the opportunity to appear on his show with him get that feeling, almost like an electric jolt. But the warmth that he exuded made you feel comfortable, welcome and so, so steady. No matter who you were he treated you as an equal, and that is an extraordinary thing for a person to be able to do. You can’t act being that genuine and extraordinary, especially from behind a smile that always threatened to split his face.

We always think about people who have an effect like that, when they are no longer with us, in terms of the “after.” It’s seismic. Human rights, women’s sports, U.S. football, nothing will be the same after his passing. It can’t be. And maybe, just maybe, that is the ultimate tribute that can be paid to such an amazing man, person and journalist — nothing will be the same, will feel the same.

We all strive to make a difference, but often don’t know how. We forget that it’s easy, as easy as extending a hand, smiling and saying, “Hey. How you doing? Let’s talk about something interesting.”