Departing friends

The unexpected deaths of two former journalism colleagues — Grant Wahl and Alex Yannis — have left me with a sadness, and a spell of that “this shouldn’t be happening” feeling. Grant I ran into frequently enough, but I was never close to him. Always pleasant to talk to, he brought a sharp mind to his soccer coverage, one of the new generation of soccer journalists who could, right from the start, treat soccer as a top pro sport, one worthy of serious, intelligent study.

I must admit I never had a deep discussion of the sport with Grant, but I could gather from his journalism that he held the sport in esteem and assessed it knowledgeably. The fact that he was, in those days, a Sports Illustrated staffer gave him — and the sport — a position of importance. Not least because in the past, SI had been wont to cover only the sport’s big events, and then to present soccer as an arcane ritual that seemed not to warrant any detailed attention from SI.

Grant Wahl, as SI’s soccer man, helped to change SI’s attitude, and that change was immensely important for the sport. Acceptance by SI was unarguable proof that soccer had arrived. Helped that process along. Grant was an important contributor to the growth of soccer in the USA. And now, as the sport’s popularity widens, just as the career of a soccer journalist begins to take on importance and even glamour ... Grant is gone. Please ... he was only 49 years old. No, that should not be happening.

Alex Yannis was a different story, very different. A very extraordinary story. I never ceased to ponder in genuine wonderment just how a Greek immigrant could so master the English language that he could find a job at the New York Times. But there he was, in the early days of soccer’s modern era in the USA.

Back in the mid-1960s, the USA suddenly acquired not one, but two ostensibly well-financed pro leagues. One — the North American Soccer League — survived. Long enough for the Cosmos to flourish and to sign Pele in 1975.

Yannis covered that story, and the subsequent Cosmos saga for the New York Times, where he had started work years earlier as a news assistant.

From that time on, Alex Yannis was a regular part of my life — we repeatedly met up at NASL and college games. But more than that — and this was something that I greatly admired in Alex, I used to meet him at local New York soccer events. These were decidedly non-glamour occasions, featuring basically ethnic-oriented teams. The soccer standard was not particularly good, and I can’t imagine that Alex ever had much success in convincing the Times to publish whatever he may have written about that scene. But the people who gathered for these games were diehard soccer devotees from just about every country you could think of. It was a great learning experience, for Alex and for me.

For sure, soccer was at the roots of my association with Alex. But there came to be much more. Alex was simply a delight to be around, a lovely man with a mischievous sense of humor. There was a tendency, in those primitive American soccer days, to take the sport too seriously. Because it was held in low esteem by the local press and seemed only to appear in stories that mocked it, the soccer fans often felt it necessary to be serious about their sport.

But Alex got the balance right — he got his stories published and he never lost the ability to see and report the lighter side of the sport.

And of course, just like Grant Wahl and Sports illustrated years later, Alex helped the sport conquer all that derisory opposition because he was writing good journalistic pieces for the much-respected New York Times.

Late in his life, Alex took up golf and I lost touch with him. The soccer scene was the poorer for his absence. I missed his cheery greetings and the not-too-serious but always useful (to me, anyway) discussions we used to have.

Thanks, Alex, for being around when it mattered, and for being able to resist the pressure to take soccer over-seriously, to remember always that it is an enjoyable activity for ordinary people. That seemed so right for this son of a tailor in the tiny Greek village of Kardaritsi who had taught himself English and climbed way up the career ladder to end up as a New York Times journalist.

6 comments about "Departing friends".
  1. cony konstin, December 16, 2022 at 6:35 p.m.

    Always remembered. Never Forgotten.

  2. John Polis, December 16, 2022 at 6:45 p.m.

    I did not know Grant, but Alex and I cross paths many times during NASL days and during the days of the NASL and later at the Federation. Paul, you captured perfectly Alex's personality and sense of humor. It was a shock for me to read today that we've lost him. I just had not heard. RIP to Grant and Alex. Our game is much better because you were both there to observe it.

  3. Dave Wasser, December 16, 2022 at 7:16 p.m.

    Thanks for your reflections on both men. They will be missed.

  4. Bill Riviere, December 17, 2022 at 10:09 a.m.

    Thank you for taking the time to share some terrific thoughts about Grant and Alex.  Their passing certainly does leave a sadness and a void.  And losing Grant in his prime at only 49 was unbelieveably shocking and sad. Grant's death motivates me to keep going as a soccer official until I simply can't do it any more.  (I turn 80 next April.) Grant, I'm blowing my whistle for you!

  5. R2 Dad, December 17, 2022 at 1:46 p.m.

    Thanks for your thoughtful recollections on these two important figures in the sport. People pass as a normal course of things, but when folks younger than ourselves go it's a difficult reminder of our own mortality. Older & wiser relatives have reminded me that I don't want to be the last of my generation without backfilling those gone with new, younger friends and associates. Stay strong, PG, and keep networking with those younger generations of journalists, coaches and players.

  6. John Yannis, December 20, 2022 at 10:19 a.m.

    I cannot express my gratitude for this piece, Paul. This is exactly what he deserved to memorialize him. I wish I had seen it before the funeral yesterday. Bless you for writing it though.
    I am sorry you lost touch with Alex. He simply decided to completely stop writing about the sport after taking the Times buyout. Nor would he consider updating and revising Inside Soccer, or becoming even an occasional commentator, in any media. I took consolation that during his working years, he seemed to work twice as hard as everyone else (excepting perhaps yourself). So, he was entitled to spend these last few decades on the golf course, not to mention driving back and forth to Boston to see his grandchildren play the beautilful game. MANY times.
    He certainly watched a tremendous amount of soccer on TV. Most recently, he correctly stated this was the best USMNT that has even taken the field. And said that Argentina would take the Cup, in the end. Right again, Alex.
    My memories of those earliest days at Downing Stadium are fairly indelible. I know who was at the press table and there were not many of you. I know we would not be here today, in terms of soccer, without those few.
    It was a very special time.
    All the best to you--
    John Yannis (Alex's son)

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications