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Journalism Showcase: Tom Rinaldi: “That is an awesome trust that we want to do our best to honor.”

ESPN's storytellers talk about producing UFC star Walt Harris’ first extensive interview since his stepdaughter’s murder that airs today on the noon SportsCenter

Over the years, reporter Tom Rinaldi has created some of the most touching moments seen on ESPN.

But he was not expecting what happened after a sad and gripping interview with UFC heavyweight contender Walt Harris, the subject of today’s SportsCenter “SC Featured” segment “Fighting for Aniah.”

After Harris’ first extensive on-camera interview since the tragic murder of his 19-year-old stepdaughter Aniah Blanchard last fall, Rinaldi was moved to tears.

Tom Rinaldi
(Allen Kee/ESPN Images)

“When I wrapped my part of the day, I got into my car and I cried,” Rinaldi said. “I wouldn’t do that in front of Walt. I called Danny Arruda [producer] because I was very shaken. Walt had shared the effects of the random, awful way he lost his child, and I hope the power of that comes across in the piece.

“For all the interviews that I have done that have centered on great challenge and great loss, Walt’s was among the most moving in my career,” Rinaldi said.

On Nov. 25, 2019, Blanchard’s remains were found in a wooded area in Macon County, Ala. About a month earlier, she was seen last at an Auburn, Ala., convenience store. She died from a gunshot wound.

Ibraheem Yazeed, 30, is a suspect in Blanchard’s kidnapping and murder.

Rinaldi recounts how Walt and his wife Angela requested proof when investigators discovered Blanchard’s body. The district attorney’s office struggled with what evidence to present. It decided to show a picture of the young woman’s boots; they were a gift from Walt after a fight at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

. . . He got up from the interview, walked to the far end of the gym, grabbed the cage, and wept uncontrollably. The sounds were as wrenching as you could ever hear another person make. –Tom Rinaldi recalling Walt Harris’ emotions during an interview

“When he saw those boots, he realized they were his daughter’s,” Rinaldi said. “That was her. When he shared that with us, he got up from the interview, walked to the far end of the gym, grabbed the cage, and wept uncontrollably. The sounds were as wrenching as you could ever hear another person make.”

The Harris family has fiercely advocated for Aniah’s Law, passed by the Alabama House of Representatives this February. The law would amend the Alabama constitution to give judges more discretion in denying bail to people charged with violent crimes.

“The thing that will stay with me about Walt’s story is that he could have very easily quit, and no one would have criticized him for not getting back into the Octagon. But he didn’t do that,” Arruda said. “His daughter urged him to never quit, and he hasn’t; his dream was also her dream, and he honors her by getting back in there.

“When I look back on this story, I will see a father who wanted to fulfill his daughter’s dream and wanted to honor her memory.”

“I think each of the stories that we do, which have loss at their center, touches us and changes us,” Rinaldi said. “Whether it is what we carry forward or the way we want to honor the trust that is placed in us by Walt and Angela and in honor of Aniah. That is an awesome trust that we want to do our best to honor.”

These stories inspire Rinaldi to cherish his family even more.

“I also call my wife, and I share these experiences with her. And when I get home, I hug my kids fiercely,” he said.

The feature will debut in the noon ET edition of SportsCenter; read more about the feature on ESPN.com. The interview airs on the eve of UFC Fight Night on ESPN: Overeem vs. Harris (Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN Deportes).

“THE LAST DANCE” CONCLUDES SUNDAY NIGHT

ESPN RECEIVES THREE GRACIES AWARDS

– Andy Hall

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