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Volume 4, Issue 46: Chris Duncan
"Taken from us so soon, he had so much more to give."
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The first person in my life I remember dying was Kevin Jones. He was a teammate of mine on my Jaycee League baseball team, the one my dad coached, just 10 years old. A nice kid, he played some third base, was always friendly to everybody, had freckles—I don’t remember him well. One day, after the season was over, he died. He had complained to his parents of a stomach ache, and then he began running a fever. It turned out that his appendix had burst. By the time he got to the hospital, it was too late. A couple of days later, my parents put on fancy clothes I didn’t know they had to go to the funeral, and when they got home they took my sister and me out for ice cream and wouldn’t stop hugging us. I didn’t really understand what was going on.
There was a girl in high school, Greta Something I Don’t Remember, who I’d once held hands with for a few seconds at the county fair back in junior high before she ran off with friends whose parents didn’t have them on an 8 p.m. curfew. She was in my biology class my junior year, and one day she didn’t show up to school, and then the next day our teacher told us she had died. About a week after that, a kid who had just gotten his drivers license was joy-riding out on a country road and went tearing down over a hill at 100 mph. There was a farmer who had pulled his combine harvester onto the road to back around onto his field, and the kid plowed straight into it at full speed. I was in drivers ed myself at that time. They made sure we heard all about that one.
I didn’t process any of those deaths at the time. Both of my grandfathers died before I made it to high school, but as sad as I was about them (and I was very sad), you could wrap your mind around their passings: They were, in the eyes of a kid, old—with old essentially meaning “older than my parents,” which, when I think back on it now, basically meant “over 35”—and when you are young, old people, however you envision them, are the ones who die. Young people? People your age? People who are a part of your daily life, who are just here one day and then gone, forever, the next? People you can’t imagine dying, because why would they? They’re right there, after all. That kind of death. That’s impossible to process for a kid.
It is distressing to note that this does not get easier to process as you get older.
My friend Grant Wahl died last night, after collapsing in a press box in Qatar, covering the thrilling Argentina-Netherlands match for his soccer newsletter. That’s the newsletter I was begging you all to read just last week, which is another way we try to process sudden death; I was just talking to him the other day, or we had plans to meet up when he was back in town, as if either of those things could serve as some sort of proof that a person couldn’t be dead, as if the plans we make with each other in life are some sort of obligation that the dead don’t realize they’re supposed to be honoring.
My friend Grant is gone. I wonder if you will allow me to attempt to process it for a moment.
I didn’t know Grant until I started Deadspin back in 2005, because I didn’t really know any sportswriters when I started Deadspin; that was sort of the point of Deadspin back then. Most professionals were threatened by Deadspin, by its tone, by its outsider nature, by its newness, by the very nature of it being online. But not Grant. Grant reached out to me within days of our launch, curious and open to the whole idea of the Deadspin project, and he was forever encouraging. (He also expressed surprise that we were roughly the same age. “I thought you were gonna be, like, 17,” he said the first time we met.) He was my first-ever interview on the site, part of the Authors With Pure Souls series, and he was the reason I named it that in the first place. (Deadspin, a website that died in November 2019 and never published again, has a porous, disheartening archive that currently makes it impossible to find this piece for me to link to.) I always thought it was brilliant when Grant ran for President of FIFA, and I told him I’d vote for him if I had one to give; he told me all it required to get one was a billion dollars and a fundamental lack of human ethics. But I really only knew Grant professionally back then, as a reader and a fan of his, as someone who was impressed by how affable he was.
It turned out, as I got to know him better, that Grant Wahl was my kind of guy. He was a Midwesterner, from a small town in Kansas, who loved writing about sports and knew he was going to have to leave home to do it. He was an obsessive worker, constantly writing and podcasting and always pushing himself to do more. He knew we shared this, it was one of the reasons we were friends, and, over dinner one time, we actually put a name to it, a name I still use today: The “Yes, And” Principle. “Yes, And” is actually a founding ethos in improv comedy, which directs performers to react to whatever their fellow performers are doing with, “Yes, And,” allowing the improv to expand and build, to accept whatever new premise has been introduced and add to it so it might become something even larger. This was our strategy for surviving a constantly shifting media landscape, a tumultuous terrain Grant knew as well as anyone. “Yes, And.” Are magazines going online now? Yes, and I will now start a blog and a podcast and regularly interact with my readers. Is everybody pivoting to video now? Yes, and I will now make a soccer television show and work on my sideline hosting skills. What more can I do? What more can I make? What more can I say? Yes, and, yes, and, yes, and.
That was always his strategy, and mine: No matter what happens, no matter what twists and turns this industry, or really this life, throws at you, just accept them as out of your control and keep moving. Just keep making shit. Grant was always, always making things. He did them with the same passion and integrity in Qatar as he did covering his first World Cup in 1994. Covering sports is a grind; I’d argue the worst thing about sportswriting is how, if you’re not careful, it will suck the joy out of watching sports, the joy that inspired you to want to write about sports in the first place. Grant was an excellent, dogged reporter, and a brisk, approachable writer, but that’s not what made him great: What made him great is that he never lost the joy. He loved writing about soccer. And he made you love it too. It actually amused him how much I grew to love soccer myself through the years, but, as I tried to explain to him, he, Grant Wahl himself, was one of the primary reasons I loved soccer so much. You couldn’t not love soccer reading him. He even had me as a guest on his podcast talking about my Atlanta United fandom a few years ago, and while I tried not to embarrass him, that was the single thesis of my appearance: I’m here because of you.
Back when I did my Sports Illustrated show, I shared the studio with Grant, and even had him come on as a guest. We spent most of the show with a dumbstruck look on our faces: Can you believe we get to do this shit?
But more than anything else: Grant really was just a gem of a guy. I don’t have a lot of sportswriters friends, largely because, on the whole, they’re a little too cynical for me, a total understandable hard-earned edge that tends to calcify, particularly as you learn how all the sausage is really made. But Grant had an inherent lightness to him, a welcome-all curious nature that was in constant search of new voices, new perspectives, new friends. He also had an unerring bent toward social justice, in the most open-minded, good-hearted way imaginable; Grant was just always trying to do the right thing. When the Maven folks took over Sports Illustrated, you instantly knew they were the bad guys because of how they treated Grant: If they didn’t know what they had in Grant, they weren’t just out of their depth, they were flat-out jerks. If you didn’t like Grant Wahl, then you didn’t like anybody.
And now he is gone, a heart attack, at the age of 48. There has been widespread speculation about Grant’s death, particularly in the wake of his detention two weeks ago by Qatar authorities for wearing a rainbow shirt to a match. I don’t have much to say about that: I don’t know anything, we don’t know anything, and I’m really too sad about it, for him, for his family, for his friends, for anyone who ever came across him, to concentrate too much on that at this moment. There will be time enough for that.
All that matters is that a week ago Grant and I were emailing about the 2023 Women's World Cup, and now I’m never going to talk to him again. What matters is that a husband, and a son, and a brother, and a friend, and a colleague, and a neighbor, is gone. This is how it happens. One day they are there, and then they are gone, with no consideration to the earthy obligations, to our collective presumption that tomorrow will be just like today was. It could be you. It could be the person next to you. It could be the person you are planning, someday, to truly tell how much you appreciate them, or miss them, or love them, eventually, sometime down the line, it surely won’t be too late, you’ve got plenty of time. It could be anyone, at any moment. We try not to think about it, but I sometimes wonder if it’s all we should think about. It makes you want to take a person out for ice cream, and not stop hugging them.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
Your MLB Winter Meetings Takeways, MLB.com. Just posted this morning.
Reactions to the Aaron Judge Deal, MLB.com. I’m not sure the Yankees will end up happy with this deal in the end.
Takeaways From the First Day of the Winter Meetings, MLB.com. This was a fun week.
Player-Team Reunions That Would Be Fun to See, MLB.com. I’m not actually sure I want Matt Carpenter back on the Cardinals, all told.
The Atlanta Dream Gave Us Raphael Warnock, Medium. Where it all started …
Grierson & Leitch, we discussed “Violent Night,” “The Eternal Daughter” and “Aftersun.”
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we reviewed the SEC Championship Game.
Seeing Red, back, discussing the Willson Contreras signing.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“The Story of the Bishop Robbed During His Church Service,” Simon van Zuylen-Wood, New York. This is an absolute barnstormer of a read.
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CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Hell Is Chrome,” Wilco. One of my favorite Wilco songs, and, amazingly, someone interspersed clips from Andrei Rublev, one of my favorite movies, to go alongside it. Kind of amazing!
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
Get yourself to the ice cream and hugs, folks.