Fourth and Long
The offensive line was composed chiefly of cooks. On Saturday, they had allowed the quarterback to suffer so greatly that on Monday, he came to practice in street clothes. Dwight McDonald said he couldn't bear to be hit again so soon, but the coach was not understanding.
"If you can't get your body hurt," James Germany growled, "you ain't got no right to be out here. That's just the bottom line."
In the evening, in the northern part of town, the practice field was a desolate bright spot near the Sam Houston Parkway. Dwight, a warehouse worker, began warming up again because despite his bruises, he was still optimistic. It had only been a preseason game, after all, and the problem was the blocking, and how hard could it be to teach blocking? He still believed what the coaches said -- that this would be the championship season.
"No doubt about it,'' he crowed. "This is the premier team in semipro football. You got it, right here -- the Houston/Conroe Express.''
They had paid $25 as a "tryout fee," though no one was ever cut from the team, and $90 for a bit of health insurance. Now they were going to take their chances.
"Trying to move on to the next level,'' the clerk at Best Buy explained.
"Trying to move on to the next level,'' echoed the guy who mixes cement for a living.
"Just trying to get out of a dead-end job,'' said the Whataburger team leader. "Trying to make it to the pros any way I can.''
And there out on the field was Rodney Pruitt, all six feet and 240 pounds of him, and he was shouting like rolling thunder, "C'mon -- let me kick all y'all's asses real quick!"
It was a drill in which a blocker and a ball carrier face a linebacker and a defensive back. Pruitt was the linebacker, and when the whistle blew, he heaved the 300-pound cook face down into the dirt and met the ex-Marine dead in the middle of the road.
"Ol' Pruitt,'' said a teammate, shaking his head, "he's a wild man.'' And a coach said what they all said about Pruitt: "This man here is ready for the NFL.''
Just in case no one was talking about him, the defensive back in that drill came over to the visitor and spelled his name -- Mike Ratcliff -- and said proudly, "Write this down -- 'self-proclaimed Deion Sanders.' "
He was tall and muscled, and he said he and Pruitt were the best athletes on the Express, and they were surely going to take it to another level. They had just tried out for a team that would pay them big money, he announced. The Arena League's Texas Terror.
"They're probably going to call me back, too,'' Ratcliff said. "It should be real soon.''
The season was supposed to begin March 2, but two days before the home opener, the opponent died quietly in the night. No one thought much about it, really, for it wasn't as if there were any halftime show to cancel, or thousands of ticketholders to disappoint. The coaches simply got on the phones and searched out a new foe, and by practice on Friday, they were ready with the announcement: the Express was bound for New Orleans.
"Good morning, good morning, good gotdawg morning," said Pruitt, stepping onto the bus the next day. "Listen up -- I know we going on a good trip, but keep in mind what we going down to do. Don't make me turn your engines on. Turn them on yourself."
And then with his pillow and blanket, Pruitt got off the bus, because the stars were taking their own cars. McDonald, in his cowboy hat and lizard-skin boots, was driving his pickup, and Ratcliff, in his new Mercedes-Benz, had asked Pruitt to come along.
The bus coasted onto the highway, and after that things were pretty quiet. Germany, the owner and head coach, sat staring down the road. Everywhere his players want to go, he's already been, he said, "and so I know talent and how to coach.''
At 34, he's a short, pudgy man who talks quickly without ever looking at you. He's had football on his mind since the third grade, he said. He played through high school and junior college, and on through San Jose State University, he said, and after that, as "a free agent wide receiver,'' there he was, playing with the Houston Oilers, the Dallas Cowboys and various teams in the Canadian Football League.
"The limelight, the fast lane" was all too much for him, however, and after four and a half years, he said he developed a cocaine habit that ruined his pro football career. With the help of his family, he was able to abandon cocaine, but he said seven years passed before he could accept that no one would ever ask for his autograph, that he was "just going to be another man on the street.'' He began coaching semipro in 1991, and he was waiting now to hear whether he would be a coach with the Texas Terror.
"So I do have a testimonial,'' Germany said, "and I tell the players, and they say, 'Nah, coach, that couldn't happen to you,' and I say, 'Yeah, it did, it did.' "
The men on the bus were indeed very likely to appreciate this sad story, for they were an earnest bunch. The smallest said he might have been a soldier, if it hadn't meant cutting his hair. Since it did, he decided "the only reason God put me on earth was to play football.''
And somewhere near the Louisiana border, Jimmy Bagley, the second-string tight end, got out of his seat to try to explain.
"Yo, man,'' he said, holding forth a piece of notebook paper. "You wanna know what football's like? Read that. I just wrote it.''
The name of the poem is "It's Never Just a Game.'' It has the feel of a rap song. As the plot goes, it is fourth and long, and the clock is running down. The crowd is "yelling.'' The tension is "swelling.''
You walk to the line with a determination to win
You'll run this play as if it were your last
And you'll never play again
You're hurting and bleeding and waiting with a frown
But tonight is not the night that you'll be put down E.
"Kick ass, baby!'' the noseguard whooped. "This is what we been waiting for!'' And looking out on New Orleans, the safety relished the thought: "Ain't never kicked no crawfish ass.''
They found the stadium after asking directions at a gas station. The little park looked forgotten in the Spanish moss, and the small stadium rising over it seemed more closely connected to Roman history than to American football. But the bus stopped, and the players got out, and they lugged their gear without speaking past dozens of men who looked like them and who stared, without speaking.
The field had not been mowed recently. The truck driver kicked at the lumps and said someone's going to break an ankle out there, and the Marine pointed to an ant bed and said he hoped he wouldn't fall there. Beneath the bleachers on the other side, they entered a dark recess where the walls were scrawled over with gang symbols and where the air smelled of urine. There were hooks on the walls, but no lockers, and the truck driver looked around and asked, "Is this the locker room?''
"This is it, man,'' the welder said. "Welcome to minor league football.''
They got used to it. They taped each other's ankles and wrists and elbows. The fat guys taped their pants on. They blackened the skin beneath their eyes and some of them sprayed a new coat of green paint on their helmets. By the time they were dressed for combat, the day had become a cold night. Coach Germany stood on the table, and they crouched around, and he told them that if they would just go out there and hit those men, they could make them their women tonight. One Express member expressed great satisfaction with this idea, as he hadn't been with a woman in a very long time. Then Coach Reginald Jenkins guaranteed this game would make them feel good about themselves. And when they began barking and howling like wild dogs, the coaches set them free.
On the other side of the field, the New Orleans Hustlers wore the symbol of cash on their jerseys and were said to carry in most of their hearts the hope of going pro. The Express rushed out to meet them, and the normally serene wife of Coach Jenkins cheered them on:
"Hurrrrrt somebody!" Brenda Jenkins screamed.
After that, the members of the Express, one by one, began returning to the sidelines, sweating and bleeding and saying:
"Hell, that man's gotta go 360 pounds.''
"Coach, a lot of people ain't got their heads on out there.''
"I almost got him, coach. I almost got him.''
"If you can't block him, fall down on your knees -- shit, do something!''
The quarterback was down again and again and again. There were instant sacks and bobbled passes and the punt that landed on the scrimmage line. Ratcliff was ejected for charging after the referee. The defensive end was ejected for fighting; he put another jersey on, went back in and started another fight.
The game was supposed to end, as Bagley wrote it, with the stadium roaring and the opponent in shame. It ended 42-7, with Bagley dropping out, sick and wheezing for breath.
"Motherfucking ref,'' Mrs. Jenkins said. "This was a setup from the beginning.''
"Next week,'' said Coach Jenkins, "we got a victory next week.''
And they got back on the bus without showers and back into Houston at dawn.
The Express might have won that game in New Orleans, James Germany believes, if Captain Wilson hadn't "busted up my team.''
William Wilson was a retired member of the Merchant Marines on probation for burglary when, as he tells it, he tried to make a few honest dollars on semipro football. He lured the best players by promising $50 a game. They never got their money, but they didn't walk out, either, because for them, the North Houston Tigers was still the best deal around. They traveled in luxury and had the best of everything, from their helmets on down to their shoes and socks. "You didn't have to worry about a jock strap or nothing,'' a player recalled.
It was a class act, the player said. The prosecutor said it was just criminal. All the sporting goods stores, the bus companies, the restaurants and hotels -- the prosecutor said Captain Wilson told them all to bill the Merchant Marines. The debt came back to Wilson, eventually. He was arrested in December for felony theft.
The world of semipro football was far from scandalized. Some people regretted the end of a good thing, but no one seemed surprised. It was as though they knew that if something is as it seems in semipro, it won't be that way long.
In Sarasota, Florida, the American Football Association is Ron Real, a retired advertising man who has been trying to organize semipro football for 17 years. The best he has been able to come up with is a list of some 250 teams across the country -- from the Yonkers Pitbulls to the Shreveport Pelicans -- with a list of phone numbers that he warns may be out of service.
He would like semipro ball to serve as a minor league for the NFL. He would like it to become a cheap alternative to the NFL for the spectator. As it is, though, semipro players are so seldom called up that when it happens, they become folk heroes like Lincoln Coleman, who quit Home Depot to go to work for the Dallas Cowboys. When the level of play is so uncertain, when even game times and locations are variable, it is hard to sell semipro ball to either scout or spectator. Real goes on trying, but he says nothing frustrates him more than semipro football in Texas.
"The Texas leagues are just unbelievably unorganized,'' he said. "I'd like to figure them out, but I can't even get anyone to return my phone calls.''
Until recently, the Houston/Conroe Express played in something called the Americas Football League, which was run by a fellow named John Mays, who claimed to have played 14 years in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Chiefs never heard of him, and Mays didn't return phone calls.
The Express now belongs to the Spring Football League, which is based in Monroe, Louisiana, and whose sole employee is an ex-cop named Rex Stephenson, who likes to be called "commissioner.'' Until Tulsa folded, there were seven teams in the SFL, but the whole thing's going to change in August, when Stephenson said the best 60 semipro teams in the country would gather in St. Louis to form one massive Spring Football League.
Nothing is firm yet, though -- not the date or the reservations or even which teams would attend. "We got plenty of time,'' Stephenson said. And did he have any more particulars about his league -- some bylaws, maybe, or history? Yes, he said, but it was scribbled down somewhere, and he'd have to find it and fax it, which he said he would do, but he was never heard from again.
James Germany explained that semipro football is just something he believes in. The owner of a small pager business, he insists on paying his football debts -- roughly $1,000 a game -- ahead of the rent and light bill. His wives have never understood this, though, and he's been divorced three times.
Last fall, the load was lifted somewhat when an accountant with a future son-in-law on the team came out of the stands to give a lecture on discipline. After that, Reginald Jenkins became co-owner and "general manager.'' He and Germany have made big promises to the players -- an eventual paycheck, an upscale place to play, a regular late late broadcast of their games on Channel 39. None of this has been realized, and the coaches say it's because they don't have the sponsors yet or the fans.
Germany believes the root of the problem is skin tone -- "I don't get no support from nowhere because I'm black,'' he grouses -- but possibly it has to do with his quirky sense of public relations. He seems to expect attention from the community, but he goes to no pains to let the community know he exists. After the season had started, Germany still had not sent a game schedule to the local daily. For this story, he never returned a phone call. He agreed to three appointments, never appeared and never called. He said finally he's "not really keen on reporters, because they take things and twist them all around.''
Which didn't explain why he allowed a reporter access in the first place, but it was an interesting thing for him to say.
A clerk with the Oilers could find James Germany's name nowhere. A spokesman for the Dallas Cowboys said, "We do not show a James Germany on our all-time roster.''
The Players Association for the CFL said about the same thing, as did the folks at San Jose State University. No one remembered James Germany until a trainer at a junior college in Marin County, California, picked up the phone and said yeah, he recalled that guy -- a wide receiver. "He was okay, but he didn't make the all-conference team."
It doesn't really matter, does it, that Coach Jenkins also tells a wonderful story of being a linebacker so ferocious at Florida A&M University that he would have whupped Pruitt "all day long" in his prime, of being so ferocious that he made the Miami Dolphins. So ferocious that no one has ever heard of him.
The important thing is what he said at practice Monday after the carnage in New Orleans: "We going to win, I guarantee it, if I have to suit up to do it.''
He was staring at a nearly empty field. More than 70 men had signed onto the team, but half an hour after practice was to begin, only seven had arrived. It seemed as if Jenkins really might get to show his stuff, until several more cars rolled in, and you could see the men out in the parking lot, tugging on their pants and pads, struggling to become football players.
"Who we playing this weekend, coach?" asked Pruitt, lacing up his shoes.
"Amarillo,'' Jenkins said.
"Well, I hope they bring their armadillo ass on,'' said Pruitt, "'cause I can't wait!"
Germany roamed the field like a silent ghost of a coach, chewing sunflower seeds, spitting out the husks and leaving whatever coaching was done to Jenkins and two "assistants.'' It was clear then that Pruitt had been the only threat to New Orleans. (''It was like taking candy from a baby," he bragged.) Jenkins said he knew how to fix what was wrong with everyone else.
The plan, as it materialized, involved a little stretching (not much), a little running (with much griping) and some scrimmaging. Dwight, who showed up sore again, told Coach Jenkins they'd have to knock him out before he'd lose this time, and he took a moment with his linemen to try to ensure that wouldn't happen. He pointed to a man who looked very much like an egg on legs, and he said, as if speaking to a very slow pupil, "You ever seen Mortal Kombat? You know the one that freezes people? That's you -- you got to freeze the man!''
But there weren't enough players for the linemen to do any actual blocking. They crouched and faked it. Meanwhile, there were other problems. Billy Nichols, the fast-food kid with the baby swaddled up on the sidelines, felt two passes slice through his hands. Then he heard Jenkins, yelling, "Got to catch the ball, baby! I don't want anyone out here scared to catch the goddamn ball.''
Then another pass bounced off Mike Wilson's chest, then Kevin Fellers dropped one, and when Bagley bobbled it, Coach Jenkins screamed, "Aaaagh!'' and Dwight just threw up his hands and said, "Punt the motherfucker, goddamn.''
On the other side, Pruitt was roaming the middle, shouting, "Swinging and banging, swinging and banging -- don't be that weak link." When the passes were dropped, he yelled at the receivers. When the passes were overthrown, he taunted Dwight. "See, that boy can't throw," he'd say. "Coach, let me be quarterback."
But there was really never any doubt that Dwight could throw, and when Bagley slanted across the middle and finally caught what was coming to him, Dwight punched the air at last and said, "Pick up your man's teeth, Pruitt. You been toasted!''
This was how it went for about 45 minutes. Since they didn't all arrive until close to 8 p.m., and they only had the field until 9, practice never lasted very long. But it was enough, Bagley said, because "we're expected to know what to do -- the pros practice even less than this."
They huddled at the end of the day for the benediction, and then there was an announcement. A half-dozen of them had become obsessed with the Texas Terror, for they had made the first cut from 600 down to 250. If they got a call this week, they would be among the final 60 trying out on Saturday for 17 spots. Ratcliff was the first to break the news:
"I won't be at the game," he said. "The Texas Terror called me. I got to go to camp."
He broke the silence then with a giant grin.
"Nah, they didn't call me,'' he said, "but they will. I'm good."
The best play of Mike Ratcliff's life occurred in the fall of 1987, he said, when he was a sophomore in college and the starting safety for the Kansas State Wildcats.
The team was playing the Iowa Hawkeyes in Ames, Iowa, and there were 101,000 people in the stands, and "it was awesome, man.'' In the third quarter, the score was still seven apiece, but Iowa had intercepted and had the ball at the Wildcats' seven-yard line. It was second and goal when the quarterback handed off on a reverse pass play, and the ball was lofted into the air. Down it floated, bouncing off the helmet of the Iowa receiver and into the waiting arms of Mike Ratcliff.
"And I went 99 yards,'' he said, beaming. "I'll never forget it. When I got to the one-yard line, you know what I did? I turned around and fell backward like I was falling into a pool.''
They lost the game, alas, by a score of 17 to 14, but at least Ratcliff had his moment. He started two more seasons for the Wildcats, and then went to training camp with the Miami Dolphins, where he was injured and sent home.
He told this story one day during his lunch break from Lone Star Screw Company.
"This is what I do," he said. "I sit in this desk all day."
It was a small office, and he shared it with three others. Together, they spent the day gazing at computers, making sure all the nuts and bolts got delivered. Ratcliff's cardigan was draped over the chair.
"Tell them how I am on the field," he begged his visitor. Then he told his coworkers himself. "Man, you should see me play football -- I'm crazy!"
On the way to Jack-in-the-Box then in his 1988 Mercedes Benz 190E with the ten speakers, Ratcliff spoke of his regular paycheck and bonuses and 401K plan and said his job is "pretty neat." Then again, he said he knows he's never going to get rich "working at no Lone Star Screw Company,'' or waiting to win the lottery. "If you want something,'' he said, "you got to get it yourself."
Wolfing down a steak sandwich later, he began imagining life in the NFL. It would definitely mean a lot of money, he said, and probably a lot of girlfriends. Ratcliff didn't mention anything about playing. He said he was going to use this article to get some scouts to look at him.
"But you know what I want to be for real?" he asked, smiling suddenly. "An actor. My girlfriend, she says I'm a good liar, and that's all actors do -- lie on stage."
A spokesman at Kansas State University said that in Ames in 1987, it was Iowa State that defeated the Wildcats, 16 to 14. That was Mike Ratcliff's single season with the team, but he did not make the trip.
There were many on the team who never believed the coaches' glory stories. As one player said, the coaches just didn't seem to have enough knowledge to tell a group of grown men what to do.
"It's an interesting situation," he said. "I mean, we have players who can play, but then we look at our coaches, and the fire kind of dies down."
E.J. Cobb, the big tight end, arrived with his beeper at his waist. Still no word from the Terror.
"The days are getting shorter," he said, sadly. "Time is getting close."
The players quizzed each other, but no one had heard. Cobb said the same thing happened to him back in college. Some scouts came to look at his team and then left without ever saying a word. He said he didn't know what was wrong with him. He thought maybe he was two inches too short.
They huddled around again at the end of practice, and Coach Jenkins was giving directions to Saturday's game, when a new player was heard to say that Ratcliff thinks he's a damn professional, that he thinks he's some kind of Deion Sanders.
The new man said it with a sneer, as though it weren't true, as though Ratcliff were merely semipro. So all of a sudden they were chest to chest, and Coach Jenkins was running between them, and they were jabbering over his shoulder about what they would do to the other. Pruitt told them they could kick each other's "little asses" later if they liked, but to please give the coach a little respect now. And maybe they would have listened to Pruitt, except that by then the new man had offered his crotch to Ratcliff, and Ratcliff had decided to put an end to this. He pointed his thick finger at the man and said he had a gun in his car, and he was sure enough "going to put a cap in your ass.''
Like they were going for a pass, the two were sprinting then for their cars, with the rest of the team running after them, to witness or prevent. Coach Jenkins stood where he was and watched them go.
"They're just frustrated about losing,'' he explained, "and I am, too.''
Just off 1960, in Oak Creek Village, the houses are large brick affairs, and the yards are spotted with tulips, and it seems like a fine place to be until you get to where Pruitt works.
"This is where it all comes to," he said, and he was standing on the bridge over the putrid river that flowed into the swirling, putrid, concrete pond. His beige shirt said "Rodney" on the pocket. On his head at a casual tilt was a Jacksonville Jaguars cap.
"You might have to hold your nose a little bit, but you get used to it," he said, and he's gotten to where he kind of enjoys the solitude. He thinks about "different things, and also about football."
When he was a kid playing Pop Warner, Pruitt's grandfather would give him $5 for every touchdown, which meant $15 most games. As far back as he can remember, football was always the thing he did better than just about anyone else. It was always he who made the play, who drew the roar, and it seemed to him as a kid that it would always be that way, that someday he would play in the NFL.
At Spring High School, Coach Sonny Karas remembered Rodney Pruitt as probably the best linebacker to come through there -- "a big, strong, tough kid who could run," a player who certainly could have competed in Division I.
It would have happened, too, said Pruitt, if Proposition 48 hadn't come through. Pruitt had never thought much about grades until then. Proposition 48 knocked down his scholarship offer from Texas A&M.
He wound up at Tyler Junior College. His old coach there wouldn't talk about him, and so Pruitt told the story himself. He still thought he "had it going on,'' he explains, "a ticket to the NFL in my hand,'' but he was 18 and wild, and one night when he was strolling around with some friends -- just for the hell of it, didn't need the money or anything -- he snatched a purse.
Next thing he knew, he was back in Houston, setting up cans at Kroger and doing construction -- "basically just working job to job, thinking about what a good chance I had, and how I let it all slip away over something silly and how I let my family down."
He tells his 16-year-old brother now to mind his studies and take advantage of his chances, because they only come once. As for himself, Pruitt has become one of those netherworld workers you never see but always depend on. If you ask, he'll look you in the eye and explain, "I treat water and shit, basically, to make it good for guys like you to drink." Which means, basically, that he works in a hellish stink, checking gauges and adjusting valves, cleaning condoms and syringes and tampons from the filters.
And dreaming. He is dreaming of playing in the New Orleans Superdome or RFK Stadium, thousands and thousands of eyes upon him, and he's sweating and bleeding and shouting and hitting like Derrick Thomas does, or maybe Greg Lloyd. He just wants to play on Sundays, even for the lowly Cincinnati Bengals, even on their kickoff team. Hell, he knows he could do that.
About a year ago, after work, Rodney Pruitt put his pads back on and went out to try to recover what it was he thought he lost. People are speaking of him again in tones of awe, and sometimes he tells his girlfriend, "you won't have to worry after I sign that $1.6 million contract with the $300,000 signing bonus.''
"And then sometimes I think, shit, I'm not on the road to the NFL. I'm just like those guys who play softball now who used to play baseball.''
The Amarillo team did not in fact bring their armadillo ass on. Having driven all night in an old Impala, two boilermakers and a truck loader showed up in Conroe on Saturday to discover they were Amarillo's only ambassadors.
They shook their heads, blew out their breaths and turned the car around.
In the gym of the junior high school, there were more members of the Express playing basketball than had ever played football at practice. "The good news is we get the win," said Coach Jenkins. Dwight told Germany maybe he should start a basketball team, but the coach decided to try to fix the team he had. They gathered around.
"You digging in my pocket all the time, and I'm tired, and I'm not going to take it anymore," Germany testified. "You want this, you want that, but I'll tell you, if you want something, come to practice."
Maybe then he'd bring the scouts, he said.
So the players thought it over and went back and forth discussing it. The cement mixer suggested maybe they wouldn't get to the next level if they didn't play hard. And Dwight wanted to know, "Are we or are we not trying to win a national championship?'' and no one answered that one, but they did in the end make a lot of promises and decided, in the words of one player who had seldom been at practice: "All this bullshit in a circle, it's bullshit. We gonna do it, let's do it. We not, let's shut up.''
Voila -- on Monday, enough players arrived for a full offense to face a full defense and have players on the side. And by Friday, they were back to just a dozen.
Oh well. At least they showed up on game days, and that Saturday, at least the other team did, too. Germany had told his men they would probably be playing in the Astrodome before the season was out, but it was early yet, and the bleachers at Conroe's Booker T. Washington Junior High were quite spacious enough to hold the 30-odd mothers and lovers who composed the Express fans.
In the days before the contest, Dwight had begged for an offensive line. "I'm getting old and soft in the back of my head,'' he had said, "and I don't want to spend the game on my back.''
Poor Dwight. He spent the game on his back. Each time he went down, he rose more slowly, and finally they came for him and helped him off the field.
It remained a titanic struggle from one 40-yard line to the other. Ratcliff, who had survived to play, managed to get quite bloody, and Pruitt, he always seemed to be at the bottom of every pile. He had ten tackles and two fumble recoveries that day, one of which he ran back 60 yards for the team's only score. The Express eventually lost to the Bayou Bandits nine to seven, but they might actually have won, if the kicker hadn't been ejected for throwing his tee at the ref.
The season was young, but it was clear after that game the Express was falling apart. One of the coaches quit, and the quarterback did, too. "It's not benefiting me," Dwight simply explained.
Pruitt confessed then that, "really, to tell you the truth, we're just not a good football team." But since the Terror never called him -- or James Germany or Ratcliff or Dwight or E.J. Cobb -- since the Terror left them all quite alone, Pruitt said he was going to stick with the team through the remaining seven possible games, because "going out and getting beat up, I kind of enjoy it.''
Ratcliff, meanwhile, has been on the phone networking. The coach of the Hamilton Tigercats of the Canadian Football League tells him they're always looking for good American players. In fact, they're having a tryout in May up in Ohio, and why doesn't he come? That's what he's going to do. The Express is a waste of time, he said. He's got to start running every night and lifting weights, getting enough sleep and eating his vitamins.
"Gonna get my body right,'' said Ratcliff. "Two months, man, I'll be awesome!
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