The new season of SC Featured, the award-winning storytelling brand of SportsCenter, begins Saturday night with the story of the bond between former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva of the Pittsburgh Steelers and a man who served as his interpreter in Afghanistan.
The story, which debuts in the 11 p.m. ET edition of SportsCenter tomorrow night, came together quickly for Ashley Fox, an NFL reporter/analyst for SportsCenter. She and producer Scott Harves traveled to Houston last week after Villanueva agreed to share his story.
While in Afghanistan, Villanueva forged a bond with Mohammad Arif Azimi, and after U.S. troops left the country, Azimi’s life was in danger as Taliban forces were seeking retribution for his role in assisting Americans. Villanueva helped Azimi immigrate to the United States 16 months ago.
Fox met Villanueva almost three years ago and wrote a story on him for ESPN.com.
“He turned out to have this incredibly fascinating story about how he’s the son of Spanish-born parents, he went to West Point, he served three tours in Afghanistan, and he received the Bronze Star Medal of Valor for having pulled one of his wounded soldiers out of a gunfight,” she said.
Two years later, after Villanueva became starting left tackle for the Steelers, Fox tried to get him to do a television piece in the fall of 2016 but he declined.
“And then last week, on Wednesday morning out of the blue, he sent me a very long text message,” she said. “It was telling me the story of his Afghan translator and how Villanueva and his wife were getting on a plane the next morning for the Super Bowl and it just so happened that Azimi lives in Houston. He was going to see him for the first time since they were together in Afghanistan and he asked me if I wanted to go. It was a total no-brainer to say yes.”
Though she’s been a reporter for 20 years, including the last six at ESPN, “Brothers in Arms” is Fox’ first SC Featured piece, and she was grateful for the expertise of Harves.
“Obviously I couldn’t have done it without him,” she said. “He whipped up a skeleton of a script faster than I could have typed a 10-word email and he was the one who carried the load on all of the logistics.
“The first time we talked, I broke the news to him that I had never worked on or written a feature for television,” Fox said. “He didn’t blink. He said, ‘That’s O.K. The journalism is still the journalism.’ He was right, but that sure did make me feel a lot better.”
Below is a trailer for the upcoming SC Featured season.