Grant Wahl, the famous football journalist who died suddenly last week at the World Cup in Qatar, suffered a ruptured blood vessel from the heart, his family announced on Wednesday.
His death resulted from a weakness in an arterial wall called an aneurysm, which can bulge outward and then tear. An autopsy carried out in New York revealed that Mr Wahl, 49, had suffered a catastrophic rupture of the ascending aorta, which carries oxygenated blood from the heart.
The autopsy puts an end to the wild speculation that followed Mr. Wahl’s death. Social media posts hinted at links to Covid vaccines or Qatari government retaliation for an article Mr Wahl had written about immigrant deaths.
Mr Wahl’s wife, Dr Celine Gounder, is an infectious disease doctor who rose to prominence during the coronavirus pandemic and advised President Biden’s transition team on Covid-19. She and the rest of the family rejectedin particular, speculation linking his death to vaccines, saying it was mostly insulting because of his work.
He probably died instantly and felt no pain, Dr Gounder said in an interview on Tuesday. “I definitely feel some relief knowing what it was like,” she said.
Mr Wahl had been ill with a cold for several days before collapsing and wrote in his newsletter and on Twitter that he felt his body was breaking down after weeks of poor sleep and long days covering games .
He had just turned 49 and was in good health, which made his death even more shocking for his friends, family and readers. The sniffles and other cold symptoms he had were probably unrelated to the aneurysm, Dr Gounder said.
Until the autopsy, Dr Gounder said, she may have feared she could have prevented his death if they had spoken more often while he was in Qatar or if she had been there with him.
Mr Wahl’s brother, Eric Wahl, first said on social media that he suspected foul play and later suggested his brother may have had a blood clot in his lungs. On Tuesday, Eric Wahl said he no longer believes those factors were responsible for his brother’s death.
The autopsy revealed Mr Wahl had an ascending thoracic aortic aneurysm, a weakening of the blood vessel that often goes unnoticed. As the aneurysm grows, it may produce coughing, shortness of breath or chest pain, some of which the doctors Mr Wahl saw in Qatar could have attributed to his cold and a possible case of bronchitis .
In rare cases, the aneurysm can rupture and cause death. Doctors are now investigating whether Mr Wahl had Marfan syndrome, a risk factor for this type of aneurysm. He was tall and thin and had long arms, all of which may be signs of the genetic syndrome.
Mr. Wahl joined Sports Illustrated in 1996 as a fact-checker, a traditional entry route for young journalists, and wrote hundreds of articles on a variety of sports for the magazine over the next two decades.
An early profile, a cover story about a teenage LeBron James in 2002, has remained a touchstone for writer and subject 20 years later. Mr Wahl occasionally remembered it to his 850,000 Twitter followers, and Mr James spoke of its significance to him and his family while praising the writer at a press conference and on social networks during the weekend.
But Mr Wahl was best known for his football writing, which he began covering while a student journalist at Princeton University in the early 1990s. Through his books, tweets, podcasts and articles from magazines, it has become something of a guide for a generation of fans and readers new to the game.
He also used his social media profile and megaphone to highlight the growth of women’s football, the extent of corruption in football, human rights abuses and gay rights.
Mr. Wahl had worked at Sports Illustrated for more than 23 years when the magazine’s publisher abruptly fired him over a dispute over pandemic-related pay cuts. But he had a large following by then and launched an email newsletter and podcast that quickly became a hit.
In Qatar, Mr Wahl was covering his eighth World Cup. He was in the press box in the dying minutes of the quarter-final match between Argentina and the Netherlands when he collapsed.
According to two New York Times reporters present, medical staff tried to revive Mr Wahl for about 20 minutes before he was taken to a hospital in Doha. He was pronounced dead in hospital.
Dr. Gounder’s connections with the Biden administration and public health agencies, including the New York Department of Health, helped her bring the un-embalmed body to the United States for the autopsy.
Dr Gounder said she wanted to verify the circumstances of her husband’s death in part to quell online speculation. “I wanted to make sure the conspiracy theories about his death were dispelled,” she said.
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