Editor’s note: You may recognize Neal Bledsoe for his roles on The Mysteries of Laura or The Man in the High Castle, or for his stint as an Old Spice Man. You'll soon be able to watch him as the leading man of his own TV show. Beyond acting, he’s an MMQB contributor chronicling his quest to make the Arena Football League. Here is Part 3, his tryout.
Feb. 20, 2016
LOS ANGELES — The clock read 6:18 a.m. I hadn’t slept all night. I’d woken up over and over, buzzing with anticipation, afraid I would oversleep. Finally, 12 minutes before my alarm was set to go off, I gave up, swung my feet over the side of the bed and resolved to face my day.
I felt like Nick Nolte. It was a feeling I’d gotten used to throughout my training. In fact, I measured the degrees of pain in my body on a scale of Nick Nolte films. On one end was a mild Down and Out in Beverly Hills morning where I could perform most activities with relative ease. On the other was a crippling Tropic Thunder morning where I might as well have hooks for hands. This particular morning was a North Dallas Forty. I was beyond hurting. My knees felt like sugar glass, my joints popped like bubble wrap and my whole body felt feverish and weak.
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My tryout for the pros had finally come. With little idea of what to expect, I was nervous. I had to deliver the goods. But what those “goods” were remained a mystery.
My dirty secret was that I had never played football before. Not Pop Warner, not high school, and certainly not college. Now I was trying out to be a wide receiver for the LA KISS of the Arena Football League. I knew the basics—throw, catch, run, tackle—but the game was new to me; every little nuance, every act of brute force had to be learned, often the hard way. Football looks simple enough, almost bloodless, when we are removed from the violence on the field. And because it looks that way on TV we assume on some narcissistic level that we could do it. We could put in the hours at the gym and tap into the well of unused athletic potential we secretly believe we have. The AFL gets the worst of it. People assume it’s a glorified beer league, that anyone can do it. If anything, I did my best to look the part.
I assembled my gear. Tape. Knee braces. Foam roller. Gloves. Compression tights. Cleats. Running shoes. My Lucha Va Voom hat. Sunglasses. Headphones. Water bottle. Smaller water bottle filled with a cocktail of amino acids and electrolytes. Small notebook. Pencils. Big notebook. More pencils. My iPhone. Finger brace. One football. If I couldn’t make it as a receiver, I had an outside shot at equipment manager.
Then I was out the door.
* * *
I was headed for Lynwood, a city within a city in the industrial heart of Los Angeles. My half-hour commute down the freeway led me along power lines, which rose and fell in gentle waves of cabled steel and aluminum. I zoomed past rail yards, warehouses and cell towers designed to look like trees. Then the highway crossed a bridge; for a brief moment the concrete rain gutter of the L.A. River was visible as it spilled out to sea. The sun over Lynwood was high and bright. It was perfect weather in an imperfect place.
I was 90 minutes early, but I wasn’t the first player to arrive. Forty or so guys had decided to get an early jump on the day. Maybe they couldn’t sleep either. There were a few holdovers from the tryout in December, which I had been invited to by the team to see what I was up against. There was a gunslinger with a mop-like mane wearing New Orleans Voodoo shorts; a Super Bowl champion; and one guy who made me wonder if he’d ever played football before. At least we could keep each other company at the far end of the bench.
My dirty secret was that I had never played football before. Now I was trying out to be a wide receiver for the LA KISS of the Arena Football League. People assume it’s a glorified beer league, that anyone can do it. If anything, I did my best to look the part.
Everyone gathered at the gated entrance to the field and waited for the intake to begin, all of us hopefuls watching Lynwood High’s varsity team finish practice on the other side of the chain-link fence.
I found KISS coach Omarr Smith standing near the entrance.
“Hey Coach,” I said as I shook his hand.
“Now that’s a good firm handshake,” he said, his grin wide, any trace of coldness I felt at the last tryout gone.
“You read the article?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah,” he said.
Behind me, I heard the squeaky voice of a teenager.
I turned to see some two dozen high school students who comprised the marching band’s percussion ensemble. I was in the way—and it wouldn’t be the last time. I apologized, stepped aside and watched them move past the grown men who waited like steers in a holding pen.
“Are you ready?” Omarr asked.
“We’ll see,” I said.
He laughed and moved on, pressed by other business.
I sought out my personal strength coach, Steve Benedict, a literal sensei who had trained me since last October. Steve was a former running back at Rhode Island and an Olympic-caliber track athlete. He’s also a judo black belt who put me through two-a-day-workouts for four months. Between warm-ups, commutes and recovery time, I spent five hours a day with him five days a week, virtually living at the track and in the weight room. Some days we’d be in the pool at my local YMCA. I would terrorize the geriatric water-aerobics classes, sprinting and grunting through the water like a madman, Rocky’s “Going the Distance” and delusions of athletic grandeur playing in my mind like a training montage.
“How you feeling?” he asked.
“I’ve been less nervous before,” I said.
He eyed me with concern, almost like a father watching his son walk into school on the first day.
“Good, just try to warm up,” he said, nodding his head slightly, as if confirming something that he kept to himself.
Around 9 a.m. there were 150 prospects milling about. The team started to check players in, administering paperwork, handing out numbers and T-shirts, and weighing and measuring each player. The cattle moving through.
I found a small open space and began to roll out my legs. Steve began to utter phrases of encouragement. The prospects waiting to be weighed and measured just a few feet away couldn’t help but stare. It didn’t help that I had a Sports Illustrated photographer documenting my every move. Robert Beck has shot seemingly every sports star over the last 20 years: Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Usain Bolt, Brandi Chastain, Wayne Gretzky, Russell Wilson, Barry Bonds, Manny Pacquiao and Laird Hamilton. When he asked about our plan for the day I told him, “Just make me look like a hero.” I felt like I was doing a catalog shoot of stretches, like some football Zoolander.
Behind us, somewhere above the parking lot, the drum line began to play. Snare drums rattled and the bass drums boomed like firecrackers. All of a sudden I was given a soundtrack. The hair on the back of my neck rose up in salute and focused my purpose for the day. I hopped up from my stretches, went to the back of the line and began to process myself into camp.
I signed a waiver releasing the LA KISS of any liability (an agreement I also had to make with The MMQB to undertake this project). I jotted down my height and weight: 6 feet, 3 inches and 195 pounds. Then came a blank for my school, ostensibly asking where I had played ball. North Carolina School of the Arts, I wrote, delighted to perhaps be the first person from a conservatory for the dramatic arts to ever try out for pro football.
The equipment manager handed me a number (141) and a T-shirt.
“Hey, do you have a smaller size?” I asked.
“What size did I give you?”
“That’s all we have.”
I looked down at this smock. More of a muumuu, I thought.
“Just have to do more push-ups,” the equipment manager said, pleased at his own joke.
I headed over to general manager Dan Frazer to be officially measured.
“6 foot, 2 and 3/8 of an inch,” he said.
I was stunned, offended and deflated. I had been 6-foot-3 my whole life. I was counting on my height to give me an advantage, and that slight edge had just been erased.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yeah, boss,” Dan said.
I eyed him suspiciously, as if I’d been cheated but couldn’t prove it just yet.
My weight was 194. Close enough, I thought. But still I had to watch these conmen carefully. They told me to hold on to my sheet and turn it in when I entered the field.
Then Steve came back, having scoped out the others. “You know, a lot of these guys aren’t football players,” he said. “You can just tell by the body types.”
“They all look like players to me,” I said. “But maybe that’s because I have to compete against them.”
I had traded in my social life for a monastic football existence, cutting out booze, the occasional cigarette, and junk food since October. I felt like I needed to do this if I had any hope of survival.
There was still a half hour to go before we began. Most of the others sat on the bleachers. I couldn’t have imagined a worse place to be. Behind them the drum line played furiously, amping up the adrenaline that made it impossible to sit on aluminum benches and be casual. I needed to move. Steve and I found an adjacent field and began to work through our dynamic warm-up. He gave me a Redline energy drink.
“Only take half of this,” he warned. “Otherwise you’re gonna be bouncing off the walls.”
“What’s in this?” I asked.
“Caffeine, and a little extra spice I put in there special.”
“Are you drugging me?” I asked. “Is this some kind of supplement they give to Chinese gymnasts?”
“No, it’s fine, just a little spice,” he assured me.
“Steve, what’s in this?”
“Nothing, just drink it.”
I was deeply unsettled. My coach was drugging me and the team had cheated me out 5/8 of an inch. I felt like I might throw up. My lack of sleep wasn’t helping, and the 10 a.m. start came all too quickly. The drums kept playing while we lined up in numerical order. The team called us onto the field, one by one. I heard 141, walked over to Dan, handed in the paperwork and entered the field.
I consoled myself with the thought that I had trained for this moment of truth. I was faster and more powerful than I’d ever been. I had trained the way real athletes train, employing a small army of technicians: a strength and conditioning coach, a dietician, a sports medicine doctor, a massage therapist, three actual football players and countless friends in parks and at barbecues, where I took my dominance over them as a sign of my growing acumen.
With Steve I would push my body past the breaking point, and then I’d try to Humpty-Dumpty myself back together again. Christian Brown, a doctor in Pasadena, treated me with Active Release Technology on Wednesdays. He would twist me, bend me and mock me, showing a keen interest in how my kicking game was coming along. Saturdays were for sports massages with Kym Chekor. I indulged in what seemed like a luxury, thinking that if Russell Wilson does this for five hours a day, it must be good for me once a week.
I also enlisted the help of Jackie Keller, the founder of Nutrifit Online. At our first meeting she hooked me up to a machine that measured my metabolic rate, body fat, heart rate and a slew of other data. She designed a program that carefully portioned out each meal to the calorie. Proteins: chicken, fish, eggs, lamb, beef, beans. Juices and smoothies. Vegetables and complex carbohydrates. About 4,000 calories a day. Our aim was to build muscle and burn clean fuel. I also told her that I would quit drinking. It was a promise I regretted almost immediately, but I kept my word.
I had cut out all the extras since October: booze, the occasional cigarette, and junk food. I traded in my social life for a monastic football existence. I felt like I needed to do this if I had any hope of survival.
* * *
Two coaches were already barking orders. Nick Donnelly and Dave Watson yelled at us to line up. They ran us through knee hugs, A-skips, and karaokes—most of what I had just done with Steve. It was the first action of the day, and several of the men were already trying to impress. Players sprinted instead of jogged and tried taking off like Superman on their skips. We were like coiled springs, yearning to release the tension that had been bound so long in the holding pen.
Afterward we were called into a huddle with Coach Omarr.
“This is a job interview,” he said, echoing his spiel from the first tryout in December. But then something new: “We’re looking for local talent. That’s something the last group didn’t do well. I’m a Southern California guy, so I’m looking for local talent. We got three roster spots open. So, looking for talent.”
He’d lit a fire in our bellies that belied the odds: 150 of us vying for three spots, none of us guaranteed to actually make the team. We were split into four groups and the tryout began in earnest.
To my great relief, I noticed the bench press was nowhere to be found. Benching the 225 pounds required of players at the December tryout was still out of my reach. I maxed out at 210 (never mind being able to rep that much). But with the exercise gone I could lie freely about it. “How many reps can you do?” someone might ask, and I’d be able to say, “I don’t know. I stop counting after 50.”
My group started with the short shuttle. Coach Watson waited for us with a clipboard in hand.
“All right guys,” he began, “we’ve all done the short shuttle in high school or in college, right?”
Everyone nodded. Of course they had. No, I thought, neglecting to raise my hand.
Benching 225 pounds was still out of my reach, but with the exercise gone I could lie freely about it. “How many reps can you do?” someone might ask, and I’d be able to say, “I don’t know. I stop counting after 50.”
Three players went before me. I made sure to watch them extra closely. I ran it mentally alongside them while they performed. Side to side. Five yard burst to the right, plant, turn, 10-yard sprint to the left, then back again, five yards to where they started.
Then it was my turn. Now or never, I thought. I crouched down and readied myself.
“Let’s go Neal!” someone yelled.
I turned to see Coach Omarr storming across the field, smiling wide. He must have wanted to watch the writer run. His grin was infectious, and a smile spread across my face. I put my hand down on the grass, loaded low into my legs and exhaled.
I looked at the coach with the stopwatch.
“On you,” he said.
I nodded, centered myself and burst forward.
I moved well. Better than I thought I would. I zipped through those first five yards and stabbed my cleats into the grass. Then back 10 yards, pumping my arms to gain speed. Then a final plant and back through the start. A respectable 4.85 seconds. Not bad. I looked up to see Coach O’s reaction, but he had moved on.
Next we headed over to the 40-yard dash. The first two in our group crouched and sprinted down the field, like pinballs being launched. Then it was my turn. This was the 40. Straight-line speed. The granddaddy of all football metrics. Steve had trained me for this with religious devotion. I have always been a good runner, but for distance. It’s not uncommon for me to go for 20 miles on a whim. But Steve taught me the science of being a sprinter, to run closer to the ground and strike the earth with a hateful violence.
I planted my left foot at the line, with my right foot slightly behind, crouching in a three-point stance as I stared down an alley of green. I exhaled two sharp breaths, raised my hips into the air, cocked my left arm skyward like the hammer of a pistol and sprang free.
My head was low, my body almost 45 degrees to the ground, my knees pumping fast and hurtling me forward. The first 10 was all build. My eyes stayed fixed on the ground just in front of my feet and my arms swung rapidly. Then 20. Halfway there. My arms were almost ripping at my sides, my feet tearing into the earth. At 30 yards my head came up and I could see the coach with his stopwatch. Almost there, keep driving. Faster and faster across the line—40 and done. I sprinted through the line, my momentum carrying me another 15 yards.
When I got my score, I was shocked: 4.8 seconds. It wasn’t superhuman, but it was competitive. Steve watched from the bench. When I trotted back for my second go, I looked his way. He nodded slightly, his eyes in the shadow beneath his cap. “Not bad, my man,” he said in his low-key manner. “Not bad.”
When I arrived back at the starting line, I saw a big man in yellow shorts who had been hobbled by an injury.
“You all right?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, wincing.
“What is it?”
“My hamstring,” he said. “It’ll be alright. I just gotta take it easy.”
I nodded. But I feared his day might be done.
“What’s you name,” I asked, at a loss for what else to say.
“Manuel,” he said.
It dawned on me who this was. Manny Wright. He was a starter at USC and drafted by the Dolphins in 2005. He had clashed with coaches in Miami and sat out all of 2006. In ’07 he was picked up by the Bills and then the Giants, with whom he won a Super Bowl that season. It would be his last game in the NFL.
What was a Super Bowl winner doing here, I wondered.
“Sh--, you’re Manny Wright,” I said. “You won a Super Bowl.”
“Yeah,” he said quietly. He looked away and fixed his gaze upon the field.
Whatever had led him to this tryout, he didn’t want to talk about it. I couldn’t help but notice a tattoo of the NFL’s shield on his right arm. Clearly getting back there meant the world to him. But now he was forced to watch from the sideline as everyone chased after his dream without him.
Soon our group was called over to the three-cone drill. We stood and watched others run in the shape of an L. It seemed simple enough. Just a series of fast turns. I eyed the cones, mapping the path in my head. When I was up, I towed my feet to the line and took a moment to center myself.
“Alright 141, no pressure!” I heard Coach Omarr call to me.
So this is how it’s gonna go, I thought. I knew I’d have to show him. The eyes of judgment were upon me.
I leapt off the line, keeping my angles tight and my shoulders low. Back and forth between the first two lines, then a sharp left turn around the third cone and home. 7.24 seconds. Energized and pleased with myself, I turned to look for Omarr.
“Remember to breathe,” he said in a low voice.
I was confused. It must have read on my face. He exhaled to illustrate, and emphasized the gesture with his hands after I cocked my head like a befuddled puppy dog.
“Remember to breathe during the exercise,” he said.
Oh, yes, that. Of course.
I then watched a man who was built like a power forward run the drill. He appeared slower than I. He grunted while he ran, wincing at the turns as if the changes in direction hurt his body. He finished as if weighed down by the burden of knowledge that he was once faster, his mind recalling a memory that his body couldn’t replicate.
Then I looked back to Manny. He was still with our group, but standing off to one side. He was definitely done, and would have to come back another day.
The broad jump was our final exercise. I’m sure I was the lowest score in my group. Coach Donnelly had to hurry us through the drill. We shot our hips off the rocker of our feet and skied our legs as far as we could into the waiting sand. After I jumped I looked behind my heels. Just over seven and a half feet. Not the eight or nine I was hoping for. I never got a second chance at it.
A whistle was blown and it was time for position drills.
* * *
My actual football training had been in the capable hands of Rand Holdren. He was a quarterback who went to SMU on a full ride and later fell into acting, which is how our paths crossed. (We had the same agent and mutual friends.) He’s now the offensive coordinator at the Harvard Westlake School in L.A. He also coaches quarterbacks from little kids all the way up to college QBs preparing for the NFL draft. Some days I’d hop in and catch passes from his pupils. Once I asked a freshman what college he went to. High school, he corrected me. Oh well, I had to get my reps in some how.
I also sought help from two defensive backs, figuring those whom I’d play against could offer insight into the hidden game of the pros. The LA KISS’ own Terrance Smith taught me to “just catch” the ball and how to sell my routes with head fakes and choppy steps. Footballer-turned-yogi Amir Madison taught me how to stem those routes into a defender, turn his hips and gain separation. Between the two of them, they gave me a crash course in the contest between the man meant to catch the ball and the man meant to stop him.
Of all the players at the tryout, the most heavily represented position was wideout. The skill levels ran the gamut from those who played in college to those who excelled in park games. The receivers coach, Russell Shaw, had won a college national championship with the Michigan Wolverines in 1997. He rattled through the route tree, assigning each a number: 1-9. Number 1 was a hitch. I understood that much. The rest was a foreign language to me.
The mass of wideouts and the handful of quarterbacks were split into two groups. We took the right side of the field, while the other took the left. The quarterbacks took five-step drops as the receivers shot from the line of scrimmage and cut into their breaks. The whole thing operated like a machine. Quarterback and receiver, one pair and then another, again and again and again.
I lined up. A hitch was called. A simple play. I ran seven yards up the field and chopped my feet. I turned sharply and ran back two yards to where the ball met my outstretched hands with a satisfying whap.
I was excited and greedily thrust myself back into the queue. Then, just as it was my turn again, a number 2 was called. I had no idea what to run. Not wanting to out myself as a novice, I didn’t ask. I thought it must be a shorter play, perhaps to the opposite direction from my hitch. I looked around, helpless. The quarterback kept nodding his head at me, checking to see if I was ready. I gave him a shrug.
“Go,” he yelled, his voice straining like a drill sergeant’s.
I ran haplessly up the field about five yards. It was there that I faced an excruciating decision. Right or left? At the last second I chose left and drifted lamely toward the end zone. I turned to see the ball sail over my head. I stood and stared at the QB, who kicked the earth in disgust. He had never seen such a confused route. I turned and trotted after the ball, duty bound to fetch my mistake.
When I returned I faced another fateful decision: I didn’t know how to return the ball. The QBs were being fed back into the machine, given new balls, new receivers and new routes. I chose the most direct path and ran my ball across the field, dodging the other receivers’ routes. Everyone stopped and stared. In addition to being bad I was now also a hazard.
When I returned the ball to the quarterback who had thrown it, he looked embarrassed. “Hey,” I said, handing him the rock, “what should I have done differently?”
I was eager to use this a teachable moment, but he was stunned by my question.
“We’ll, um, talk about it after,” he said in a voice just above a whisper. It was almost as if he were saying, I told you, never at work!
I never got my answer. For the rest of the afternoon, he avoided me.
I got back into the line and ran an out—12 yards up the field, a quick turn and then a dash to the sideline. The ball whistled in before I was ready for it. My hands rose in self-defense, then a dull thud as the ball caromed off and fell like a dying duck.
“Come on, Neal!”
It was Terrance Smith. He swung his arms in frustration. The out was something we had worked on together, and I ran it with a great deal more precision during our practice session. It was a catch we both knew I should have made.
I grabbed the ball and ran back. As I passed him he called me over.
“Put that record on,” he told me, turning his finger around like the needle of a phonograph. “Slow jams. Smooth, slow jams records.”
I laughed and nodded.
“Alright T. Slow jams. You got it.”
I went back to the line. A post was called. I set myself, leaning over my toes, ready to take off. Bobby Womack’s California Dreamin’ playing softly in my mind. I heard go and took off. I stemmed the route at the top, like Amir had taught me, sprinting 10 yards, head-faking to the corner and then taking off toward the post. At the back of the end zone I looked up to see the ball arching down like a mortar. I reached up and made the catch, truly confident for the first time all day that I could do this.
The feeling didn’t last long.
We began doing one-on-one drills with the defensive backs. Each receiver could decide with his QB what route to run, and whether he wanted to be a high-motion receiver who was allowed to get a running 10-yard head start. For four months all of my training had been undertaken with a singular focus: to turn myself into a human Ferrari. Now I was about to use my body like a rented bumper car.
On the first pass, a 12-yard dig, I was badly overthrown. On the second, I tried the high motion and a post corner. I wasn’t patient enough in my break and failed to fool the defensive back, who kept me far inside of him. We ended up in a dead sprint for the ball, and all I could do was prevent him from catching it. An interception would have been an irrecoverable black spot for me. I reached up and ripped at his arms. The ball came down and he slapped his hands into the ground in frustration.
The next time I tried the post corner again. I got a better break and gained some separation. The ball was thrown short; I leapt for it and had it in my hands for a brief moment. I just couldn’t hold on and tumbled down to the earth. That was enough high motion for me. I thought I should keep it simple.
My next quarterback was a colorful character with tattoos up his neck and onto his face. He had dreadlocks and bit of a paunch belly. He had the look of a Maori chieftain, setting him apart from the Dudley Do-Right QBs in line with him. He rolled his eyes, apparently hoping that he wouldn’t be paired with me.
“A dig,” I said.
“C’mon man,” he said, frustrated. “I’m out here trying to get a job.”
“So am I,” I pressed. “Throw the dig.”
“You gotta catch it.”
“You just throw it,” I said. “I’ll catch it.”
I lined up and saw the cornerback trying to read the quarterback and then me. He must have liked something he saw. He moved closer and stood inches from my face, violating the neutral zone and any sense of personal decency. He was so close I could feel him breathe.
“Damn! He’s close enough to kiss him!” a keen observer remarked.
The words of Rand Holdren echoed in my head.
“Look,” he once told me, “maybe not a coach, maybe not a player, but somebody, somewhere is gonna look at you and think, F--- this guy. And when they do…” He trailed off, trying to find the best way to describe it. “It’s gonna get a little Kung Fuey.”
I tried to gauge the cornerback’s intentions. His eyes looked as if he were processing some deep emotional pain. He stared not at me, but through me. His breath chuffed out of his nostrils like a man freezing to death in the snow, but also, curiously, like a woman on the verge of orgasm. It was a confusing sound. I turned back to watch the QB.
I faced my would-be tormentor and attempted to grab him. My hope was to pull him toward me and use his aggression against him. It didn’t work. We wrestled at the line, locked in a pin. Finally I got around him, but the route was dead. I turned to see the tattooed QB turn away from me, press the ball in his hands and curse under his breath, convinced that I had been solely responsible for costing him a job that day.
“Way to compete,” I said to the cornerback.
“You too, man,” he said quietly.
* * *
After the one-on-ones were whistled to a stop, we were called into a huddle with Coach Omarr.
“Some of you guys are out of shape, some of you guys have to learn this game,” he began in his now familiar post-tryout speech. We all nodded and listened. I looked around at the hopeful and serious faces, everyone desperate to believe this would be his step toward the NFL. After that, Super Bowls, Wheaties boxes and Disneyland—anything was possible. He wrapped up by saying, “Don’t give up on your football dreams. Stay in shape. Keep fighting.”
The KISS held a light workout directly after the tryout, actual players beginning to practice while the hopefuls exited the field, headed to our cars and back to our lives. The same one-on-one drills were now being run by professionals. The field was theirs now, and it might have always been theirs, so long as the high school team didn’t need it. Above me, on the bleachers, four misfits in their oversized T-shirts watched. Too short, too small, too fat, too thin … it didn’t matter now. They watched the fortunate ones operate with a level of skill and grace they could only dream of.
“It looks like someone from the tryout is out there,” one of them said, pointing to the field.
Sure enough, someone had been invited to stick around and run routes with the pros, his white T-shirt billowing like a sail. He was chosen briefly, for whatever reason. Not given a spot on the team, but another look, another tryout, another shot, his dream intact for another hour and perhaps another day.
I went home, bruised and exhausted. Like everyone else, all I could do was ice up and wait for a phone call that might never come.
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