by Bud Finlayson
Putting on Pads, and Learning Pain
I returned home with a new desire to reach my goal and not a day passed during that year that I didn't think about starting junior high ball. I had signed up for the 7th grade team and was told to report to the locker rooms a few weeks before the first official day of school. It was a scary feeling that first day. I didn't know my way around and the 9th and 8th grade upperclassmen did little to welcome me aboard.
It was a nervous excitement I felt as I wandered around smelling the plastic of new equipment, and the dull stench of used laundry, mixed with that of heat balm, "Tough-Skin" and fresh adhesive tape. The steaming showers filled the rooms with muggy humidity, as I admired the lockers full of equipment.
I felt the seriousness all around me. It was no longer grade school and recess; it was time to put away such childish things. A commitment of work and dedication was expected. It was past being "just for fun" anymore. Acceptance would be gained only through recognition, and recognition would be achieved by my physical skill and prowess as compared to others. I was emerging onto a different plateau of quiet respectability and honor of athletics, and I knew I was obligated to conduct myself with a new confidence, befitting of jr. high's exalted status.
Our coach, Coach Hale, called us together and instructed that we needed to supply our own cleated shoes, socks, jocks, T-shirts, towels, and mouth pro-tectors. We could report on a voluntary basis to work out and run on our own during the weeks remaining till school started. The coaches could give no instruction, but they would be there to evaluate what they saw. So I got the necessary equipment and showed up every possible day, eager to get a jump on those who failed to come. I knew all the guys from my grade school, and therefore how I ranked in my chances of making the team, which I considered good. But there were unfamiliar kids from a different grade school that would be attending the same Jr. High and they had me worried. We would be teammates, but the pride for our own elementary schools made us compete that much harder, despite ourselves. The first day of full pads would bring us together since neither of us could brag about our performances.
The seventh graders, being at the bottom of the totem pole, got all the old hand-me-downs from the older players when it came to equipment. Some of the stuff had to be ten years old, which is ancient, for football gear. The best quality pads are usually shot after five hard seasons, and that's really stretching it. But we had to make do, and when we hit the field for our first practice, we must have looked like a rag-tag bunch of shrimps. My pants sagged and my heavy cotton jersey still reeked from the previous year. At the time though it was serious business and I adored my uniform. I was walking tall.
Butterflies had invaded my stomach as I waited to receive orders from our coach. 'What do they do in a real practice?' That was the first test of my dream. Will I excel or will I fail?,' I was in silent conver-sation with myself, not daring to joke or cut up. First we lined up for calisthenics; toe-touches, jumping-jacks, push-ups and the like. As if our one coach could see my every move, I completed every repetition honestly, and put forth my best effort. Shortly, the September sun extracted cooling perspiration from the pores of my over-heated body and that uniform I adored became a damned nuisance. The helmet squeezed my head like a vise, shoulder pads weighted me down, and sluggish fitting pants rubbed my crotch raw. 'Wait a minute! Football's supposed to be fun,' I told myself, and I wasn't having much fun. Then we lined up in a big circle and were told to lay down on our backs; it was time for some leg lifters.
I laid back with a worried thought, 'Maybe I ain't got what it takes, what is happening?' Immediately, from his position in the center of the ring, our coach began to address us. "All right now!," he barked, "We're gonna' play us a little game to see how tough some of ya'll are! It's called Leg Lifters and the rules go like this. Feet together, legs strait, and when I give the signal, everybody raise up their feet 6 INCHES off the ground, and hold 'em there till I tell you to drop 'em. Ya'll all think you can do that? Well then let's give it a shot."
Heck, that didn't sound so bad, and I had caught my breath a little during the instruction. The sound of his command, "Hooooo! Get them feet up, up, up. 6 inches, no more no less" brought my feet up in a hurry. I leveled them off when I thought they'd hit 6 in. No sooner than that, the gravity that pulled them downward, became too powerful for me. Efforts to resist the force came painfully. My feet were solid lead connected to heavy legs that quavered from straining muscles. The same tension clawed at my stomach as I squirmed and twisted, trying to keep the legs up. Behind my grimaced face and closed eyelids, my mind soared away from there, away from the discomfort. I was generally a lazy kid, and never had been forced past the limits of my physical endurance.
The coaches voice rumbled along outside of my helmet, but inside, it echoed from a great distance away. Pacing the circle he scoffed aloud, "Not 6 feet!, 6 inches, I said. C'mon you bunch of old ladies, keep 'em up. Damn, I never seen a more worthless bunch. We got'to get you little boys into shape to play FOOTBALL, and baby, nobody said it was supposed to be easy!" My eyes opened for a peek around, and indeed we looked poor. Legs waving around wildly in the air, red faced boys sweating, whining, writhing on the ground, with only one exception, Stokes. The moment coach saw him he ordered us to drop them. They dropped hard, too, with enormous relief.
"All right now,.. I found one guy doing it right. ONE man out of all of ya'll." the coach started in again, "And some of ya'll were ridiculous, 6 inches, 6 inches, I said. Watch this man do a leg lifter the correct way." He motioned to a husky kid unknown to me, and directed him to lay down in the center off us. We all watched, feeling defeated, as that guy raised his strait legs slowly, till his feet measured approximately 6 inches from the ground and held them. Not a whimper or a squirm came out of the horizontal figure. "Now that's the right way to do 'em," Coach said. "What's your name, son?" he asked the leg lifter. "Ernie Stokes," he answered in a deep voice. "Ya'll see that!," coach inquired, "STOKES can do a leg lifter. "I don't know what the rest of ya'll were doing, but it sure wasn't leg lifters. Now were gonna' try it again, and I want everybody to do 'em like Stokes. Ready! OK, get em up! Beat them bellies! Make 'em hurt! Holler a little bit!"
We got them up again. I fought to keep my feet elevated but I was in too poor a condition, and they fell despite my strain. I had almost reached the point of not giving a damn. Out of the corner of my eye I spied the school building and watched the other students go about their own ways after the last bell had dismissed them for the day. They were free to leave but I lay there captive, being tortured. The coach offered us the choice to back out, while at the same time he lectured on the shame of quitting. No one quit that day. After he made his point, coach let us lower our legs. We all pulled ourselves up on wobbly legs and were given a couple of laps to run.
I completed the run with a sluggish stride and threw my padded body onto the ground, as did the majority of my team mates, except for Stokes. He jogged on past our exhausted bunch and into the locker room, showing no signs of fatigue. As each one of us caught our wind, we dragged on in without conversation.
At my locker, I plopped down for another rest, as did most of the others. We were all feeling the shamefulness of our soft condition, doubtful of what lay ahead. The sound of hissing showers commanded the quiet room, for the usual horse-play was absent from our minds. While stripping myself from the burdensome uniform that I had donned just hours earlier with such gleeful anticipation, I spotted Stokes. He already had showered and was halfway dressed. I didn't see him as the "ass-kissing" kind, with a meek, baby face. There was a hard look in his eye, and the mug of a criminal. His body was thick and dark, like an Indian. Black hair covered most of him, and even his face showed the thick stubble of a beard, which was foreign to me, and most other seventh graders. All I really knew about him was that he'd failed a year, and was that much older than us; plus the fact he'd outdone me in practice.
My dream seemed a long ways off that day and I was mad. Right then and there I decided I didn't like Stokes, and I set out to prove that I could take anything he could. That evening and night, till I finally drifted asleep, was spent in thought about the next day, and Stokes. That day I was caught off guard. The coach's trick had worked on me and I had no doubts that I had to get a lot stronger and tougher, if I was to survive. It meant my life to me. I prepared myself mentally for whatever the coach could "dish out" to us. I would be ready, but God help me when I met up with Stokes.
The next morning came with the discovery of aching muscles that I'd never felt before. My mind was full of football and it remained so till that afternoon practice. I dressed and hit the field, cautiously. Every move I made, I was expecting my trial, to prove my worthiness. We got through the calisthenics with the pads feeling a bit more natural. The leg lifters were hell again, but I was ready for them, and was able to keep my tolerance up with the pain. After a lap around the field, the coach led us over to the 2-man blocking sled.
Probably everyone in America has seen one before. They're usually standing alone in a high school's practice fields, no matter the season. The bottom was sheet-iron, shaped like the shallow hull of a boat. Its bottom broad and flat, curving up gracefully to a pointed prow. An iron framework was mounted on top to support 2 padded dummies, that posed as opposing defenders, facing out the back of the sled. Even though padded, the inside of the hitting surface was quarter inch iron plate, and sometimes smarted. The coach explained how he wanted us to hit the thing, "Alright now! Listen up! Keep your back strait, butt low, head up, and fire out low, with your shoulders square, bringing your forearm up on contact and pop it. And keep them legs driving! OK now, I'm gonna show ya'll one time, then it's ya'll's turn." He lunged out of a three point stance, and upon impact, the sled jumped up and slid forward four yards. "Now! We're gonna see who can hit!," he claimed, with a wicked grin.
The coach mounted himself on the sled while we formed two lines opposite the blocking pads. His demonstration had looked fairly easy but having never hit a sled before, I shied towards the back of the lines. Stokes was first in line, so I wanted to see how he did before I tried. He and his partner fired out on command but they simply fell to their knees after contact, as if meeting a brick wall. "Woa! Baby! That ain't gonna do! Let's try it again and get MAD at it this time," bellowed the coach. I started to worry about how I might do after witnessing Stokes' poor performance. He had become who we measured ourselves by. Their second attempt was no better than their first. With a negative shake of the head, the coach called forward the next pair. Once again the sled refused to move.
As one duo after the other failed to advance the iron opponent, our coach rattled out instructions and encouragement, peppered with cursing, to motivate us. Finally, when my turn came, the sled had not yet been moved. I lowered down into my stance, sizing up my unknown partner, who stood about my size, and begged God to let me out-do Stokes. At the sound of the coach's signal, I let loose and plowed into the device. It creaked and shook and gave way, leaving me and the other blocker sprawled out flat on our faces, but it had also shot forward a good 3 yards.
The coach was elated, "Alright! We finally got somebody that can HIT! I got me some football players here! What's your name?" Since the question was directed at me, I answered, "Bud Finlayson." "Oh, no, not kin to Kate Finlayson?" he questioned with a smile. "Yes sir, I'm her little brother," I returned. "Another Finlayson?-..he quirked in jest. For I was the youngest and last in a line of "Finlaysons" who had preceded me at that Jr. high. They were all immediate family, from my Uncle Chuck 30 years prior, down through my Dad, and more recently my two older sisters. The younger, being only two years ahead of me, and had our coach as her 8th grade history teacher, just the year before. I was mighty proud right then to be one of them. "And what's yours?" the coach inquired to my partner. "Joe Coke." "Like in Coca-Cola?" "Yeah. 'Coke', c-o-k-e," he said with a laugh, knowing his name was a novelty. "Well as long as you can hit, it's OK with me. ... Gimme 2 more up here and see if they can hit like Coke and Finlayson."
I trotted on to the back of my line to observe the rest, but our feat was not matched that day. The remainder of the workout passed easily. My thoughts ran freely, through a mind energized from the coach's showering praise of me. The despair of yesterday was far away from me. The destiny of my dream seemed clear. The evidence of a special gift, that might be lying dormant inside of me, to excel beyond others on the gridiron, now appeared highly possible. The realization that indeed, a dream could be coming true, that I was born to play the game, boosted my ego like a sky rocket. The fatigue of wind-sprints failed to lower my spirit. It just made me push harder, keeping me immune from the exhaustion. Best of all, the hit felt good, the contact was sweet, and it triggered a craving that lasted a long time.
As the days added up to a week or so, we began to form into a team. The new guys from the other grade school, including Stokes and Coke, were becoming familiar. The team was taking on organization as we battled into our desired positions, and produced the offensive and defensive teams. The fundamentals were stressed mainly, that being our introduction into school-boy football. Blocking and tackling were my jobs as a lineman. I learned drills with a hungered appetite. There was no hidden gift of speed or size to come about in me, but I was blessed, I believe, with the above average coordination necessary for mastery of the game.
The "live" drills were my favorite ones That meant full contact, no holding back. We were taught the right motions to go through for a correct block or tackle, and I picked it up with ease. But, with my lust for hitting, it wasn't any fun without it. The coach kept hollering, "Let me hear some leather pop!" but I failed to understand its meaning. What leath-er?, what pop? I thought, until one day it came to me clearly. During a blocking drill I collided into the defender with such force that our shoulder pads and headgear's resounded with a sharp "Kllaaak" upon contact. The shock waves were cushioned by my pads, then reverberated on down my spine as they lost their momentum. All that takes place in a split second. It is the sensation known to all gridders who love to hit. It is the high that becomes an addiction. A supreme feeling of one's prowess, warm and satisfying. And I too, began to realize that lust was inside me. It gave me pleasure to hear that "Kllaaak" and feel one's might wilt in my arms as they teetered and fell to the ground.
With a couple of weeks left until our first game I had begun to establish myself as a hitter, one who wasn't afraid to 'mix it up a little.' One day I proved it beyond a doubt. We were scrimmaging 'live' and Stokes was making fools of the defensive team, destroying everything in his path, on his frequent charges through the line and on to pay dirt. The coach sent out a desperate plea, "Can anybody stop Stokes?" After seeing no eager volunteers, I sheepishly stepped across the line from my offensive guard position and stood head-up over the center, at the vacant nose guard's spot. "Alright!," voiced the anxious coach, "Finlayson's gonna show us what he can do."
I was not quite as sure of myself as I pretended to be, bravely accepting the challenge, but I wouldn't let Stokes intimidate me. If I were to prove myself, it had to be then. I don't know if Stokes knew how I resented his mere being, nor even if he acknowledged me at all. We had never been properly introduced, and neither one of us had gone to the trouble of aquatinting ourselves with the other.
From my kneeling position, just opposite the ball, I conjured up a great passion of hate for the solid Stokes as I waited for the offensive group. They broke out anxiously, hyped up by their previous slaughtering of the 2nd and 3rd string combined defense. I readied my 4 point stance, securing my cleated shoes into the dry autumn turf, for sure footing; while simultaneously studying Stokes' dark eyes for any clue of his assignment in the coming play. His stern face told no secrets. At the snap of the ball, my every muscle released its tension, and I met the center squarely with my shoulders low. I held my ground as he straightened up and over his shoulder I instantly caught a glimpse of Stokes receiving an inside hand-off and come barreling right for us. Without even a split second for me to react, he ducked his head and slanted off of the left hip of the center.
At that moment, it was as if time stood still for the scene remained vividly in my memory. No longer relying on conscience thought or movement, I slid off of the blocker, Stokes crashed into me with a violent kllaaak!, I clutched my arms around him, and we both fell tumbling to the dusty hard field. As we untangled ourselves, conscious thought came back to me with a razor sharp sensation of pain and the sound of the coach's gleeful voice congratulating me on my performance. It hit me then as to what I did. Not only did I tackle Stokes for no gain but I had also fractured my left wrist in doing so.
The exhilaration from downing Stokes kept the pain at bay for a short while, but as we waited for the offense to call the next play, I got a little light headed and felt like throwing up. I didn't think the injury serious and besides I had stopped the mighty Stokes. I could tell he was angered by it all and I had to meet his next challenge.
The offense broke up to the line and I attempted to settle into my 4 point stance. My damaged wrist forced me to adapt into a 3 point instead. It had already swollen to twice its normal size and appeared a dark shade of purplish-black, and I also discovered that I couldn't put even the slightest weight upon it. The next couple of downs, I couldn't help but to favor my bad wrist and I got blocked out of every play. The coach noticed my drop in effectiveness and called me over to inquire as to why. I shamefully showed him my discolored wrist, not wanting to make excuses, and reluctantly stated, "I think I might have done something to my wrist."
He inspected it and tried to flex it until a wince of pain from my face stopped him. He poked it, asking me if it hurt, "Here.... or there?" I nodded yes, yes, and yes. "Well looks like you sprained it a little, go on over and take a rest, you'll be alright." he said, indifferently. As the scrimmaging continued, I watched from the sideline and nursed my swollen wrist. The discoloration had spread half-way up my forearm and into my palm. My hand puffed and the skin stretched grotesquely tight. To bend a finger or the wrist was torture, for it pulled the expanded skin even more. I could imagine vividly, the added tension ripping the flesh, like a seam in the seat of a fat man's britches. The pain grew steadily into a dull throb which, other than being a nuisance, was tolerable. But the slightest bumping or hitting of it, would bring me to my knees. I stayed inactive through the rest of the practice, but fell into line for the wind-sprints. To my dismay even running jostled the aching wrist, to make the sprints more bothersome than they were anyway, at the end of a long workout.
In the noisy locker room afterwards, the simple tasks of undressing, showering, and re-dressing, became a painful chore. The sensitive wrist kept getting in the way and the swollen fingers were too stiff to use without adding to the discomfort. I was the last one to finish up dressing, slowed down by the use of only one hand. Our coach met me in the empty room as I prepared to leave and he instructed me to put some ice on it when I got home to bring down the swelling. I stepped outside and felt the cool evening air chilling my damp body and wet hair. My body was relaxed and the dull throbbing remained, but regardless, my senses were alive with the satisfaction of having endured the confrontation with Stokes. I had the proof to show that I had done battle.
That night, not being used to the newly inflicted pain, I tossed around restlessly, never able to find a comfortable position in which to lie. Even the feather light weight of the sheets, caused aggravation to the tender wrist. With the lack of sleep, I recollected how I had brought Stokes down. It was such a supreme feeling, despite the injury. I seemed not in control of my actions. As soon as I hit the line, it was as if an internal instinct directed me towards the ball and assisted me in tackling its carrier. I didn't have to do a thing, just fire out and rely on that hidden ability and I ended up near the ball, made contact, and Stokes hit the ground. I finally drifted asleep but was awakened on and off all during the night by the painful wrist. At each disruption though, I recalled the pleasure of my accomplishment and the thought would lull me back to sleep.
From then on, I became able to use that ability involuntarily, like a 6th sense that told me magically where the ball was going. Did I indeed possess what is refereed to as, "A nose," for the ball? I don't know. For the method was not fool proof. In the future I would get burned more than to my liking, but by relying on my instincts, I made a lot of tackles.
The next day I had the damaged limb X-rayed and the fracture was discovered. Prescribed treatment given was to soak it twice daily in Epsom salts and to keep it wrapped tightly in an Ace bandage. The latter, I brandished with great pride when I returned to school, as evidence of my rugged participation as a football player. By suffering my first injury, I had become fully initiated into the game.
That first injury is almost necessary in the career of a football player for it introduces him to one of the major factors involved in the game; pain. Pain has to be learned. It has to become familiar, to become expected, and most of all, it has to be tolerated. It's a rough game. One is exposed to the risks every time he straps on a head-gear. He has to be able to play when it hurts, because it is inevita-ble, it's going to hurt.
There aren't too many injuries that constitute permanent dismissal during a season. A broken neck is one of them. A ruptured spleen is another. Knees can be torn up beyond repair, but usually they are salvaged. Broken arms and legs will generally put a man out, but not always, depending on the severity of the break and when, during the year, it occurs. Other than that, one is expected to perform, in spite of what ails him. Bruises, scrapes, gashes, sprains, jammed and dislocated joints, welts, and concussions, become commonplace annoyances that are hardly regarded with any particular notice. There were also those internal illnesses like flu, virus, colds, and fever that gridders refuse to let slow them down. May George Gipp rest in peace. Then there are some aches and hurts that only the individual can feel but no evidence of it can be seen. Nobody knows what it is and doctors might even diagnose it wrong, but the individual still experiences it. The pain may be excruciating, the injury lethal, but that individual, being highly dedicated, thinks not of the risk with death. His mind is conditioned only to win, for the team, whatever the cost.
But the utmost quality that a man could possess, I was taught to believe, was the courage to ignore and tolerate a pain, no matter how severe, and play a full game of football. Luckily, the fracture to my wrist was merciful. After three days the swelling began to shrink and as every day passed, the pain became more familiar. In 2 weeks I was hitting again, my wrist heavily taped and padded. I remained in my 3 pt stance, and the sore wrist got banged up nearly every play, but over the previous weeks I had learned a lot. I was learning to deal with pain; how to play hurt. Each collision spurred me on. From that time on, my football career would frequently challenge me to conquer pain.
I was back in the line-up before our first game. To my disappointment, though, it was only on the offensive team. Since having discovered the excitement of defensive play, my heart longed for more. The accomplishment of making first string left guard was not a small one, but being a blocker left me stuck, performing only half of what the game is all about. In later years, after mastering the art, I would derive great satisfaction out of blocking a man cleanly away from the play. But hunting down a ball carrier and putting a good "stick" on him always proved more of a thrill. My happiness, I believed, could only be obtained by tackling, not blocking. Nonetheless I remained on 2nd string defense.
The wrist continued to strengthen and I wore the wrap on it just during practice. I learned my plays and blocking assignments with frustration and every chance I got, I jumped across the line to impress upon the coach my eagerness to play defense. Maybe it paid off, for on the Monday of the week of our first game, our coach came to the lunchroom and found me, just to tell me that he'd moved me to first string nose guard. The sudden news sped up my pulse. I was honored and glad, but knowing I would be responsible for plugging the inside of the opponent's line left me shaky. And with just 4 days till the game, my confidence was minimal. I had wanted my chance, and now I had it.
That afternoon, I hardly looked forward to prac-ticing my new position, but inevitably the coach called out for the first team defense to line up. I held back, not sure if he meant me. Quickly enough though, he clearly barked out that I was included. I hustled urgently into my spot over the ball and nervously anticipated the ensuing play. We were going against our 2nd team, so I didn't expect too much of a struggle, but that meant my performance should be twice as good. Besides, I wanted to keep my starting position on defense.
As soon as the ball shot up into the quarterback's hands I sprang out, shoved the center's lowered head down further, and stepped into the offensive backfield. The tackles to either side of me did similarly and we met the quarterback before he could get the play started. We lined up and tried it over and over until it was evident that they were powerless against us. Our team altogether was small in number and could just support 2 11 man teams, with only a few scrubbs to spare. So our depth at each position ran sadly shallow, leaving the second teams with sparse amounts of talent.
It was clear that such weak opposition poorly benefited the starters in preparing for a game. And we were anticipating a tough one against Dogan Jr. High, a school known for its football prowess. So our coach trotted over to the eighth grade squad where they practiced, on the adjacent field. After talking with their coach, he returned with eleven of their players close behind. We knew what he was up to, but to our relief, we soon recognized that the eleven were only the second string. A chance to scrap with those upperclassmen heightened our spirits and we came to life. There were backslaps of encouragement, and many a boastful prediction hurled into the air.It was clear that such weak opposition poorly benefited the starters in preparing for a game. And we were anticipating a tough one against Dogan Jr. High, a school known for its football prowess. So our coach trotted over to the eighth grade squad where they practiced, on the adjacent field. After talking with their coach, he returned with eleven of their players close behind. We knew what he was up to, but to our relief, we soon recognized that the eleven were only the second string. A chance to scrap with those upperclassmen heightened our spirits and we came to life. There were backslaps of encouragement, and many a boastful prediction hurled into the air.
Though he'd probably expected and enjoyed the reaction of ours, he called us together sternly, shushing our loud brags. With a wary tone, he started in, "Baby, I hope ya'll can play defense as good as ya'll can talk. Cause these guys are gonna' come after ya'll hard. They ain't gonna' let a bunch of 7th graders beat 'em and have it spread all over school. I think ya'll can stop 'em though, just get out there and git after it!" He ended up in an excited voice and with a boyish grin, for he wanted to beat them just as bad as we did.
I was nervous before, in proving my defensive ability against our second string, but now we would be facing eighth graders and I was downright scared. They were bigger, smellier, and had a year of experience to their credit. At first contact, conscious thought and feeling ceased, and when it returned I found myself tangled up in a pile of bodies. They had tried a dive into the line but our whole defense met them there and clogged any possible hole. They gained nothing. Us underclassmen emerged with a roar, although surprised with the apparent ease in stopping their surge. Their second attempt buckled also, under our might, after a short gain. The fear of competing with older fellows disappeared after that. And our confidence as a solid defensive team grew as play after play we continued to contain their advancement. Their offense failed even to earn a first down on us. After running twenty plays or so, it was apparent we out did them, and the coach dismissed the losers back to their own field. Our triumphant jeers, hoops and hollers followed them away but our coach didn't silence us that time, he joined in. The satisfaction of over powering the eighth graders was splendid indeed.
The desirable taste of "knockin' heads" lingered, fresh, on my thirsty tongue, and my earlier butterflies had vanished since the initial play. I was no longer alien to the spot. It fit comfortably, like a hand made boot. I'd found my home at that newly assigned defensive position. Through the week, I became more familiar with it and retained the starting role, going into our first contest. It would be merely a scrimmage, void of kicking and punting, as they all were that seventh grade year, but we anticipated them with no less excitement.
End of Chapter 3
CHAPTERS 1 2 3 4
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8 9 10
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