Halftime practice: Reaching for the stars while 
    freezing their butts off.
Halftime practice: Reaching for the stars while freezing their butts off.

Turkeys Fly

A dozen television cameras, 30 reporters and 15 or so public relations people are crowded into a room at the George R. Brown Convention Center. They're gathered to hear about former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka.

Specifically, his cock.

His rock-hard, throbbing, ready-for-action cock.

At least that's the mental image everyone is trying desperately to erase as Ditka takes the press conference podium to talk about the exciting benefits of Levitra, a Viagra competitor. As Ditka enthuses about the product -- being sure to mention in passing, just for the ladies, his nickname of "Iron Mike" -- it's all a bit too much.

But it's Super Bowl week in Houston, and so there is no such thing as Too Much.

Too Much is the order of the day. Too much hype and too much angst over the city's reputation, of course; but also too much fun and too much glowing from once-in-a-lifetime moments.

The Super Bowl hordes, such as they were, got out of the city as fast as they could. The media has moved on to the next story, Main Street clubs are being restored to their usual celebrity-free ways, and you can't walk downtown with an open beer in each hand anymore.

Houston is getting back to normal. But it likely won't ever be the same. You can't bring such a mammoth endeavor as the Super Bowl to the city without leaving marks. Whether it performs the image magic the city's boosters relentlessly predicted is unlikely, but ultimately irrelevant.

For a week Houston existed in some strange alternative universe filled with stars and attention and glitz. It can't be comprehensive, but here's one Super Bowl diary of that weird week.

Monday: Dreaming of the Big Time

A cold front has moved in and it's damn windy too, so the 600 guys and gals on the field at Texas Southern University are eager to warm up by moving around.

Perhaps too eager: They've just practiced rushing the stage for the pregame appearance of Aerosmith, a band that's been around longer than nearly everyone on that TSU field has been alive. The dancers have no problem jumping up and down enthusiastically to the taped song, but run into trouble at the point when Steve Tyler and the boys will break into the power ballad "Dream On."

They're supposed to let themselves slowly get swept up in the allegedly powerful magic of that creaky chestnut, holding back until they -- for reasons they can't even articulate -- blissfully raise their arms over their heads and in unison wave them back and forth. (Apparently Bic lighters don't fit in with the NFL image.)

But either the song's mojo is too strong or the weather's too cold, because no one's waiting the proper amount of time for inspiration.

"Don't put your hands up in the air at first," the loudspeaker blares out. "Because if you do that, it looks too staged."

The disembodied voice knows whereof it speaks. Choreographer Leslee Fitzmorris has put together the pregame and halftime shows for the past 19 Super Bowls.

There's only a week of practices before the big event, and Fitzmorris, a sassy New Orleans type who also runs cheerleader camps, knows it won't come easy. "It's one thing to get them to dance, it's another to get them to go where you want them to go when you want them to go there," she says.

The cold weather ain't helping. "I could do this in three practices if it was warm and we were out here in shorts," she says.

More than 3,000 dancers auditioned in October for a chance to be on the field at the Super Bowl. The cattle call at the University of Houston required hopefuls to learn a one-minute routine in a half-hour.

About 600 were chosen, including Natalie Cruz, 19, of San Antonio. "I wasn't going to try out, but I was with a friend and we woke up at noon and just said, 'We're gonna do it,' " she says. "We had to get here by four [p.m.], but we made it."

The English major at UT-San Antonio was one of only four people in her group of 122 to make the cut. And yes, she has heard of Aerosmith. She even likes them. "I love classic rock," she says.

It's not all kids on the field, though. Another dancer is Houstonian Mary Mata, who will soon turn 33. ("We have all ages from 15 to 45," Fitzmorris says.) Mata, a nurse, just loves to dance and has tried out for the Rockets Power Dancers. "My husband is jealous because I'm the one who'll be able to say that they touched the turf at the Super Bowl," she says.

While the routines are relatively simple -- as the world has learned by the time you're reading this, there's a heavy dose of Willie-and-Waylon country dancing -- the cold and the trick of performing on a football field as opposed to in a dance studio can take some getting used to.

But everyone's still starry-eyed about what they will be doing Sunday, and quietly hoping they'll show up, even briefly, on television broadcasts of the game seen around the world.

Five miles southwest of TSU, no one's having trouble getting on TV. In the first of what will be many, many red-carpet events that test the limits of the word "celebrity," cameras and reporters are lined up to watch guests arrive at the "Salute to Houston" at Reliant Arena.

A bevy of the city's sports favorites attends. As does Yanni, who will be the evening's entertainment. All say the event is "great." CBS sports anchor Jim Nantz put together the show in an effort to boost his adopted hometown; he says he did it because "Houston is special -- it has great people, great hospitality and great spirit."

So much for objective reporting.

Tuesday: A Cliché a Minute

Tuesday is the day of every Super Bowl week that has become almost as legendary as the game itself: Media Day.

Thousands of reporters get bused out to Reliant Stadium; every member of each team is required to show up and subject themselves to whatever questions the media throws at them. At least every fifth question involves some variant of "What do you think about this crazy Media Day madness?"

Media Day involves a definite, obvious pecking order. At the very top are the players who get the pair of elevated booths complete with bleachers in front to handle the throng. Then come the ten bleacherless booths, then an assigned seat in the Reliant stands, followed by the guys who are forced to just roam around the crowd. At the bottom are the guys who roam around the crowd with a camera, filming their big adventure.

The worst part is the madcap antics of a few cwazy television shows. Nickelodeon has a guy in a superhero suit shouting questions about how helmets affect good hair days; the regular reporters just love it when he interrupts their more sophisticated grilling of what Willie McGinest thinks about all this hype.

There's also someone from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno getting players to read from a children's book; there's someone from a Spike TV show asking players to read cue cards saying things like "I think the Bud Bowl was rigged this year."

The hilarity, really -- it just never stops.

What can be learned on Media Day? Listen to Panthers QB Jake Delhomme to find that there are myriad meanings to the word "whatnot."

It can mean car trouble: "If you get a flat or whatnot" in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, someone will offer to help.

It can mean some kind of interpersonal relationship with a Miss America from Breaux Bridge: "I do know Ali [Landry]; I can't say we're that close of friends, but I do know her and whatnot."

It can mean shameless hagiography: "The Super Bowl is the greatest game and you think, 'These guys are the greatest and whatnot.' "

And it can mean electronic equipment used to disseminate information: "There's a lot more cameras, a lot more lights and whatnot."

And this was all in the space of five minutes. And whatnot.

Everyone's always wondering about the worst semi-legitimate question. One strong contender is the guy who asks Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi where he got his last name. "I got it because I was born with it," he answers.

What little Star Power there is in this year's Super Bowl matchup belongs to the Patriots.

So when the Panthers' session begins -- each hour-long session is timed by a scoreboard clock -- there's not much need to get receiver Karl Hankton's views on just how crazy Media Day is. Instead it's time to test the level of clichés.

Guidelines are clear: 12 booths line the field. Starting at the first, stay at each booth until you hear a football cliché, then move on to the next.

The clock starts counting down at 59:49, because it takes a while to get to the booth of defensive tackle Julius Peppers. Two women reporters ask him about his huge diamond earrings, so the clock's already down to 58:19 before Peppers says, "People never gave us a chance, but we believed in ourselves."

Next, Delhomme. Fifteen seconds, and it's "These days in the NFL, everyone has a chance to beat anyone else." Good enough. Defensive end Mike Rucker is on the clock at 57:37. Rucker is rambling on, unfortunately, talking about actual game plans (and whatnot, we're sure). Come on, for crissake….finally! At 57:00 we learn that he will be "trying to approach the game the way I approach any other game."

Offensive tackle Todd Steussie is next, and he's actually entertaining in his reference to the 40-yard dash. "No one who can run a 4.4 40 should ever be allowed to play defensive end," he says. Eventually he says the Super Bowl "is a chance to rise up and show yourself what you can do." Not a cliché, really, but it'll suffice.

Then it's a blur: Defensive tackle Brentson Buckner takes five seconds to get to "You have to keep all this Media Day stuff in perspective"; receiver Muhsin Muhammad mentions "a defensive struggle;" running back Stephen Davis says when he was injured he "just wanted a chance to help the team."

A Media Day game ball to receiver Steve Smith, who is saying "I'm just happy to be here" as his booth is approached. And with that the Run to Inanity is finished, in a record 10:23.

Wednesday: What Passes for News

This is the day devoted to Ditka's dick.

The NFL has a lot of "corporate partners," and all of them use the Super Bowl to drag in players or coaches to plug their products. There's plenty of talk about "winning teams" and how companies like FedEx "have a lot in common with these great athletes: reliability, precision and speed."

Things can get pretty damn dorky. Kraft brings in retired quarterbacks Joe Montana and Dan Marino for a "cook-off" with some chefs to see who can come up with the best game-watching snack using healthy, nutritious and delicious Kraft products. At least Montana has the grace to look embarrassed.

Campbell's Soup's press conference features Donovan McNabb, John Lynch and Michael Strahan -- and their real-life moms -- rolling around in covered wagons, trying to rope steers. What this has to do with Chunky Soup is not made especially clear.

And then there's Ditka. Who actually turns out to be a pretty good pitchman for the product -- he's forthright and utterly unembarrassed. "You just have to decide whether you want to live a normal life or not," he says of his erectile dysfunction. "I chose to live a normal life."

Colin Foster, president and CEO of Bayer Pharmaceuticals Corporation, is one of the guys who picked Ditka as a spokesman. Unfortunately, asking Foster about the process involves waiting while one of the sportswriters endlessly chats with him -- the president of a Fortune 500 company -- about the dosage he needs to be using, because apparently the scribe's not getting Ditka-like results.

The consultation over, Foster says the company feels lucky to land Ditka. "He'll say what he feels, and he's just thrilled with the product," Foster says.

The ability to entice a captive media is irresistible to corporations. Open bars and free food are sometimes part of the equation, as they are at the swanky Hotel Icon this night. But even that can't explain the sheer numbers of camera people tightly bunched on bleachers, straining to capture every last thrilling moment…of two guys playing a video game.

It's not any video game, of course, it's "The Game Before the Game," where a player from each team takes to the PlayStation 2 to pre-enact the Super Bowl. And as everyone present knows, the winner of this video game has gone on to win the Super Bowl eight straight times.

Which means the Sony people were no doubt rooting very, very hard for Carolina Sunday. PR gifts like that streak are not given by the gods very often, and you can be sure that every report on the video game included the factoid.

After the Hotel Icon event, an intrepid reporter really has no other option than to visit a strip joint. There have been approximately 1.2 million strip-joint references in print or on the radio since the Super Bowl hit town, because that is apparently the first thing the members of the media think of when they think of Houston. (Pollution is a close second.)

So it's off to The Men's Club, and if there's a more depressing place in town, you can have it. No "Bada-Bing Club" sleaziness here, this is an upscale place. An upscale place that's thoroughly depressing, as the comfortable chairs are filled with media-looking guys pretending this girl they're giving money to wants nothing more in the world than to rub their loins with her butt.

One dancer, who we're absolutely sure is named Candy because that's what she told us, says business had been a little slower than expected. "But the weekend should really be busy," she said.

Paging Mike Ditka…Paging Mike Ditka…

Thursday: Steroids, Rain and Blimps

Thursday features a press conference by Gene Upshaw, president of the NFL players' union, who expresses shock and dismay that President Bush didn't single out the league for having a terrific policy about steroids in his State of the Union address.

"I was very upset we were painted with the same brush as baseball when it comes to steroids," he said. It's true the NFL has a stricter and more effective policy than baseball, but that's kinda like saying the U.S. is better at finding weapons of mass destruction than Bermuda is.

Armen Keteyian is best known as a CBS sideline reporter, but he's actually a respected journalist who was among the first to write about steroid abuse, at Sports Illustrated 20 years ago.

"Some of the stuff now is so good, like growth hormone -- you can't test for it. There is no test for it," he says. "I'm not saying the NFL [specifically] or anything, but you can walk into certain gyms, see certain players and there are the telltale signs: There's the acne, the certain attitude, the rage."

He endorses Bush's mention of the problem in the address, even if no programs were offered as solutions. "To me, steroid abuse is one of the most serious problems facing sports today," he says. "And I don't care so much about the professional athlete as I do care about the junior high school and high school athlete who follows the lead of the professional in ways that are extraordinarily, at times, dangerous."

Thursday also brings the grand, gigantic, humongous opening of The Main Event, the downtown street festival that boosters say will make Houston a combination of Bourbon Street and Las Vegas. (And Houston.) Unfortunately, Thursday also brings rain.

As a result, much of the 16-block area that's been cordoned off for pedestrians is eerily empty. At 8:30, Molly & the Ringwalds are gamely blasting through "Walking on Sunshine" and "Mickey" on a huge stage in front of maybe 100 people scattered through a parking lot designed to hold thousands. Concessionaires sit forlornly at their stands; there are no takers for their roasted corn or Coors.

Giant video screens show concerts held elsewhere downtown, but no one's watching the big screen at Main and Prairie as it broadcasts KC & the Sunshine Band, performing a few blocks away. As KC strains to hit the notes in a series of cover songs before he gets to his big hits, as he struggles in his sweaty beaded shirt to perform a few rudimentary dance steps, it's hard not to think of him as embodying Houston at this moment: dressed up, working hard to please, but not quite coming through.

The crowds pick up somewhat as the night goes on and the rain slackens. Many seem entertained by yet another "red-carpet" event, this one at the Mercury Room in honor of Upper Deck baseball cards. (Roger Clemens gets a big hand, but seems to be sporting a Queer Eye haircut featuring a brushtop with blond highlights.)

One security consultant, a veteran Secret Service agent now in private business, is coordinating several of this week's bigger events. Naturally (to him) he doesn't want his name used, but he says most of the parties this week are relatively easy to handle.

"The hardest ones are the ones with the rappers, because you've got to get briefed on which rapper has a feud with which rapper, and get photos of the rappers who are going to cause trouble if they get in," he says.

The rain has also grounded the Saturn Ion lightship, which is supposed to be providing pictures of all the fun. Pilot Carl Harbuck did fly during that windy Monday night that chilled the dancers at TSU.

Anyone getting blown about the stadium had to wonder just what it's like to fly a blimp in that type of weather. "It kinda sucks, actually," says Harbuck, who was trying to remain relatively stationary over the George R. Brown Convention Center. "It was pretty dang windy upstairs…And that night we were downwind of all the downtown buildings, and that was creating turbulence. You've got a three-story-high rudder on these things, and handling that in 45 knots of wind can be a pretty high workload."

Harbuck cut short his flight when surface winds at the blimp's base, Pearland Regional Airport, got too high.

There'll be no blimps in the air after 12:30 p.m. Super Bowl Sunday; it's all restricted airspace around Reliant Stadium.

"We fly at the World Series, the Daytona 500, no problem, but not at the Super Bowl since 9/11," he says. "I guess it's because you know where it will be so far in advance that they think the bad guys have a chance to plan ahead."

The crowds at The Main Event Thursday eventually cause Metro to stop bringing light rail through the area (Main Street is relatively packed, if not the side streets). So it's a hike and a hassle for those leaving.

We can only hope they weren't heading for The Men's Club, but we gotta say there were some prime suspects in the crowd.

Friday: Maximus Hypus

In a week filled with words like "best ever" and "greatest," the party for Maxim magazine earns its own place: the biggest disappointment of the Super Bowl.

If you're stuck on the red carpet covering arrivals, that is. We're sure anyone who got inside had a wonderful time.

Maxim rented a Stafford ranch and turned it into something called "Circus Maximus," a cross between a carnival and the Wild West. Most attendees arrived for check-in at a large church called the Family Worship Center, a place we assume is full of readers of the soft-core, boobs-and-beer "lad mag." (Church officials weren't around and they didn't return a phone call, so it remains a mystery just how great the heights of rationalization can go in this case.)

Partygoers were ferried from the church to the ranch in plush buses hosted by what the magazine no doubt terms "babes." Much of the route was a potholed two-lane road highlighted by a group of trailer homes -- one still lit with Christmas lights (maybe they were getting in the Circus Maximus spirit).

In an exclusive Houston Press interview the next day that lasted approximately 45 seconds, pop-culture entity Nick Lachey said he thought the trailer homes were "great -- it was like a little piece of Texas."

So it's clear the image-improvement thing was working like a charm -- Lachey thinks of trailer homes when he thinks of Texas. Then again, his wife, Jessica Simpson, thinks Chicken of the Sea involves actual chickens.

If you've ever considered a career in journalism, remember -- there may be moments when you're standing in a tent on a muddy Fort Bend County field on a night when actual fun things are going on elsewhere, you've been waiting for 45 minutes of extreme tedium, and a PR person will approach excitedly to inform everyone that "David Smith is coming! He's the new Joe Millionaire!" Think of this as a public-service announcement intended to steer you to one of those high-wage jobs.

Big excitement of the night: wondering if singer Shelby Lynne will actually make it down the red carpet. We're sure Shelby was just having an adverse reaction to some flu medicine, the same kind of reaction that led Joe Namath to slobber all over a sideline reporter on live TV a few weeks earlier.

Salaciousness, such as it was, was provided by the Coors Light twins, dressed in panties, fishnets and whips. Things presumably got hotter inside, at the actual party.

On the way out, revelers passed by the church sign that said, "Thank you for worshipping with us."

If you're still considering a career in journalism, this is known as Easy Irony.

Saturday: This Is Houston, Right?

A downtown go-kart race brings yet another event where the first question to ask a "celebrity" is "What is it you're [allegedly] famous for?"

Even one of the PR people is momentarily baffled when asked who Petra Nemcova is. (She's the cover girl for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.) There's a lot of Leeann Tweeden at these events; a lengthy investigation determines that she hosted an "extreme sports" cable show that was recently canceled.

Actual celebrities are on hand, though: Saturday Night Live's Jimmy Fallon says he ate at a Houston Wings 'n' Things "and I enjoyed the wings as well as the things." (Later, however -- in another Press exclusive! -- he sounds a bit unclear about Space City cuisine: "Isn't Texas like -- Houston's like, what -- beef, or ribs, or chili or something?")

Near the race, light rail trains passing by are already close to full. Soon downtown becomes a raucous, packed, boozy, boob-flashing, howling mass of happy, ethnically mixed humanity.

There's no telling how many people attend The Main Event this night; the official count is 100,000, although official counts are not known for accuracy. The parking lot where Molly & the Ringwalds played to maybe 100 on Thursday is now jammed with ten or 12 times that number. On Thursday, the elaborate Charmin porta-potties didn't have a line even with the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders signing autographs at them; now 60 people are waiting to pee, cheerleader-less. (We're guessing the line in the cheerleaders' résumé doesn't exactly read "January 2004 -- signed autographs at urinals.")

As the night goes on, Main Street becomes utterly impassable at times; a block away outside Cabo's balcony, girls flash for beads.

"This is a shit-show of a street party, man; this is a real good street party," says Tim Swain of Boston, who goes to college in New Orleans. "This is pretty ridiculous; this is what it was like in New Orleans [in 2002] when the Pats were there."

And don't think Swain's opinion is tainted by luxurious lodging -- he and his friends are staying at a Motel 6 in Baytown. They're trying to get the full Houston experience, though: One asks for directions to "where all the strip clubs are."

As bizarre as it may seem, downtown's Main Street -- in the city perpetually straining all too uncomfortably to not be seen as a poseur -- actually feels like the French Quarter. And sure, the French Quarter doesn't involve a whole lot more than walking around and drinking, so it's not all that difficult to duplicate the setting.

But getting the feel right is a lot harder. And Houston's pulled it off. There's enough of a chill in the air to let you know there's weather; there's beer on the streets, crazy hats, shouting drunks and laissez-faire cops; there's loud cheers from in front of clubs when a celebrity walks in.

And yeah, the light rail system quickly becomes overloaded, the streets outside The Main Event are choked with traffic, and some people are walking 16 or 20 blocks from their parking spaces.

It doesn't matter. On at least this night, downtown Houston is the best place in the country to be.

Sunday: Breasts, Buns and an Actual Football Game

Two hours before the big game, and the scene outside Reliant Stadium is strangely subdued. Anyone who's walked around the State Fair on Texas-OU Day in Dallas has heard a lot more shouting and good-natured yelling, not to mention downright taunting.

Maybe it's because the crowds have been sobered up by waiting in line for up to two hours to pass through security. "I don't think they were really ready for this many people," says Darin Little from Raleigh, North Carolina. (In fact, as game time nears, the metal detectors are turned off and fans are passed through with only a quick pat-down search.)

One New England fan waited an hour and 20 minutes; his friends joined him in line and waited only 15 minutes.

"Hey, we're New England fans, we know what to do," one says as they rush for the nearest beer seller. (Typical comment as Patriots fan walks through the gate: "First t'ings first -- I see a beah stand.")

In a situation that seems expressly made for the word "finally," it's time to hit the stadium for the actual game. The chilly nights practicing at TSU pay off as both Mary Mata and Natalie Cruz dance flawlessly, as far as we can tell from the press box looking at 600 identically dressed dancers. (The idea of spontaneous inspiration for "Dream On" has apparently been ditched; the waving begins on a preset cue.)

An overwrought tribute to the Columbia astronauts goes awry when the stadium screens show New England QB Tom Brady, which gets a loud cheer. It goes further awry when someone dressed like Neil Armstrong rises up on stage and slowly plants a flag on a moon mock-up, although this part of the tribute is apparently planned.

At 5:28 p.m., the game begins. Teams attempt to move an oddly shaped leather spheroid up and down a green field.

Watching the setup for the halftime show is more entertaining than the first-quarter punt-fest was. A huge stage and scaffolding is wheeled in by sprinting workers, two side stages are set up, giant nettings filled with balloons float through, thousands of cheering kids pour onto the field from four tunnels and start jumping around…and only then does the marching band take its place. All of this takes maybe ten minutes.

Almost no one at the stadium caught the Janet Jackson tit show that the nation saw on TV; everyone at the stadium, however, caught the streak show that didn't make it to TV.

As Carolina lined up for the second-half kickoff, the referee approached the ball as if it had fallen off the tee. Then he stripped to a jockstrap and started dancing.

And no one did anything. The guy's out there dancing for five, ten seconds, and no one's making a move to stop him. He dances some more, and still nothing. He's running out of ideas, it's taking so long for security to react. He choreographed under the assumption he'd get stopped right away; now he's being forced to do a marathon.

This is the Super Bowl, security's supposed to be tight, right? Those of us in the stadium have been subjected to a film, animated with flowing arrows, showing us how to leave "in case of an emergency evacuation."

Finally a Houston cop gingerly steps out, but he doesn't look too sure about it. Then a security team sprints out from one of the tunnels -- where they've no doubt been herding the dancers onto buses. The streaker looks relieved, frankly, to be done dancing.

He starts running toward the Patriots, none of whom looks too interested in tackling a near-naked guy. At last, linebacker Matt Chatham shoves him to the ground, ignoring the tackling fundamentals of going low and wrapping the runner up.

Another odd moment comes just after Antowain Smith, the University of Houston's own, scores to put the Pats up 21-10 early in the fourth quarter. Sporting events are filled with deadening television timeouts, and the Super Bowl takes it to a new level.

During most of them the players mill around, talking to each other, stretching or drinking water. A music video sometimes plays on the big screen; sometimes it's music without any video.

But with the players in position for the kickoff waiting through the timeout, the scoreboard shows an ad for the NFL Network that features players singing "Tomorrow" from Annie. And every player on the field is entranced by it. For 30 seconds they aren't playing the Super Bowl, they're watching TV just like the regular folks. (The ad got a big hand from the crowd.)

The teams then continue in their efforts to score what are known as "touchdowns," and the Patriots kick a "field goal" to win the game. As you might have heard. (And the stadium noise throughout the game --even during the last-minute drive -- never gets as loud as expected. Too many corporate types in the seats is the common wisdom.)

The postgame locker rooms and interview areas are like Media Day with more intensity. Intensity on the part of the players, obviously, but also for deadline-frantic reporters. (There's no cheering in the press box, but there is an audible sigh of relief when overtime is avoided.)

Asked what coach John Fox had said after the game, Carolina QB Jake Delhomme comes through with flying colors and whatnot: "He's proud of us, and whatnot, and we should feel good about this season and whatnot," he says. "But right now it's just hard."

It is hard for the Panthers, and the pain in their eyes is clear. Someone has to lose these things, though, and fans from both sides head out to celebrate or drown their sorrows.

Leaving Reliant Stadium that night brings a strange mix of feelings -- finality coupled with a sense of disbelief that all the build-up, the hype, the preparations and pregame events, the circus that camped in town for a week -- is actually over.

But it is, and Houston will never be the same.


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