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1986 Bengals look back in pain, with few regrets

M. Martin

Peter King of Sports Illustrated undertook a compelling project for the magazine’s latest issue.

King examined the health and quality of life of the 1986 Cincinnati Bengals, 25 years later. He interviewed every possible player he could find from the team, with 39 of 46 living members cooperating. It was the first such study of its kind.

There is a lot to devour in the piece, and we highly recommend reading it in full. Here were a few things that stuck out to me:

1. 44% of the players surveyed had memory loss, and 33% of the players had daily headaches.  Sobering numbers.

2. Despite the daily pain that many players suffered from, there were few regrets about the career path they chose.  Only 13% of the players (five of them) said they wouldn’t want their sons or close relatives playing pro football. Another five players said they’d have mixed feelings about it.

There were some notable exceptions, but most players essentially said the pain and headaches were worth it.

“[The NFL] affords a great lifestyle. Are there inherent risks?” asked Ray Horton, now the defensive coordinator for the Cardinals. “Yeah, but those coal miners in West Virginia and down in Chile, they have an inherent risk in their jobs. The soldiers who go over to Afghanistan, they have an inherent risk in what they do. Firefighters have an inherent risk. Are you kidding me? To play a sport I love the whole time and to just lose a knee—guys come back from Afghanistan with no legs.”

(It’s worth noting Horton was one of the healthiest — and most optimistic — of the players interviewed.)

3. There is a broad scope of how the players have been affected physically. A few of them like Boomer Esiason are so healthy, it’s like they never played.  A few are unable to lead normal lives. Most fall somewhere in the middle.

Their bodies are older than their birth certificates suggest. Their everyday pain is a constant reminder of the career they once had.

“Every morning when I get up, I want to put oil cans in all these little places before I get going,” said offensive lineman David Douglas.

We hear so much about the concussion issue, but the long-term physical ailments of former NFL players can get overlooked. It’s a complex subject, and King’s piece gives a great picture of what the average player goes through.

The article left me thinking that even more work needs to be done.

“I knew going into this business there’d be consequences,” former return man Mike Martin said, “and now I’m dealing with ‘em.”

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54 Responses to “1986 Bengals look back in pain, with few regrets”
  1. eigglesnosuperbowls says: Dec 10, 2011 12:09 PM

    Sounds like me and I never played a down in the NFL !

  2. orangeflh says: Dec 10, 2011 12:15 PM

    I’m sorry, but I have no pity. I broke my back & my neck, spaghetti’d a shoulder, and lost my right knee… all while working a regular job.

    Life’s tough. Deal with it.

  3. fofofotey says: Dec 10, 2011 12:16 PM

    Interview any random group of 50-60 year olds who didn’t play football and it might be surprising how similar the answers are. Although interesting, it has no real scientific value.

  4. mookiest says: Dec 10, 2011 12:17 PM

    “Every morning when I get up, I want to put oil cans in all these little places before I get going,” said offensive lineman David Douglas.

    I suspect that is true of many 48 year old men his size, whether or not they played football.

  5. ticalcaldwell says: Dec 10, 2011 12:22 PM

    Its sad….but I am a Vet…I have the mental and physical damage without the money, fame and Superbowl memories…….its not that sad….jus sayin

  6. jamaltimore says: Dec 10, 2011 12:22 PM

    Ray Horton said it best. BTW, what middle age man doesn’t question the life/career path they chose. I mean don’t you question the fact that you blog about this industry and sport that has made you and the the other hacks a career of spreading gossip and uneducated speculation.

    Think about how many checks are cashed today because of Suh’s suspension or Colt not being taking out of the game on Thursday. In the end those same hacks may eventual create such drama that contact football will no longer be around.

  7. brutus3413 says: Dec 10, 2011 12:28 PM

    The article also fails to mention the percentage of those players that would have otherwise had a job driving a beer truck. (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I would guess that 100% of them knew what they were signing up for. Life comes down to the decisions we make and responding to the consequences.

  8. cadub49er says: Dec 10, 2011 12:33 PM

    That should be a great article. Maybe we should go back to leather or no helmets. Defenders would be less inclined to lead with their head. Have they done studies on rugby or Australian Rules football players who go at it hard without helmets or pads. I am wondering if it is safe to say that thr concussion issue is more serious on the offensive/defensive line as they bang heads each play. Not sure how you control that.

  9. rmc1995 says: Dec 10, 2011 12:33 PM

    It seems as if sports writers won’t be happy until they are writing about the premiere soccer league during the fall. Bob Costas has gone so far as to suggest parents of a gifted 13 year old athlete should steer them away from football. How do we know more work needs to be done? Since 1986 rules to protect QBs and WRs have been increased yet Boomer is the healthiest of the 86. To me this is an indictment of the silly rules enacted to protect QBs since then. The rules were obviously unnecessary for the long term safety of QBs but certainly have affected the outcome of games. LBs and lineman are probably the most damaged and the way the game is played always will be, unless you sportswriters get together and ruin the game even further.

  10. thingamajig says: Dec 10, 2011 12:39 PM

    And I thought there was just one media guy on the soap box but it now looks like two. Just about every occupation has some kind of risk but those with high risks usually get paid more so just deal with it.

  11. brownsfantildeath says: Dec 10, 2011 12:47 PM

    I do feel bad for guys from this era. There was no credible research done on the long term affects of playing football at that time. Anyone who chooses to go into it today, is their own darn fault.

  12. milehighsal says: Dec 10, 2011 12:48 PM

    @rmc1995:

    I’m a really big fan of the English Premier League and soccer (football/futbol) in general. It gets labeled as a wuss sport and just a bunch of guys that flop but the injuries they receive are the same/if not worse than those by a NFL/College Player. American soccer/MLS is very “soft.” The European and South American leagues are wayyy more physical, thus the U.S. will never be a world cup contender. Watch Euro basketball, again way more physical than the NBA. Americans are sadly “softer” than a lot of other countries. And yes I’m an American.

  13. theglap says: Dec 10, 2011 12:49 PM

    So in other words, football is a violent game and most players recognize that and even in hindsight while dealing with all the pain, wouldn’t choose something else?

    Who woulda thunk it?

    Are you listening Goodell?

    Educate players up front (pop warner, high school, college) and let them continue to make their own choices rather than enacting subjective and not-consistently-enforceable rule changes, or outlawing things that are impossible to avoid if the game is played at 100% speed.

  14. jacksrants says: Dec 10, 2011 12:58 PM

    1st and foremost no one put a gun to their heads and made them play football . Ask a 40+ year old construction worker how he feels in the morning . And those coal miners you speak of ….they probably had alot less of a choice than football players . Most of them had to go into the mines to support their families .

    They wanted the fame the glory and most of all the money . And yeah there is a price to be paid for it later . This kinda of stuff is a joke . The percentage of the population that plays NFL football is miniscule . Focus this time and money on a larger group of people . These guys make millions and all the perks that go with it .

    People need to stop continuing to treat these players like gods . They know the risks , they have a choice .end of story .

  15. milehighsal says: Dec 10, 2011 12:59 PM

    @theglap You ever actually been to a Pee Wee or Pop Warner game? A large majority of the parents are psychotic and are living vicariously through their kid(s). There’s little rationale thinking in terms of teaching about the future. The rationale thinking usually is from the parents who don’t have their kids in football when they are 8 years old.

  16. brasho says: Dec 10, 2011 1:02 PM

    Give me a freaking break. Sure, players need to be protected, but this is not a matter for us to know or even care about. They are played handsomely to play a game that most would play for free. There are soooo many jobs out there that are far riskier than football.

    Military
    Firefighter
    Police Officer
    Carpenter
    Construction
    Jailer
    Coal Miner
    Anybody working regularly with chemicals
    and the list goes on and on…

    These people risk their lives not only everyday, but down the road to industrial/environmental cancer, high blood pressure, and wear and tear on the body at a far higher rate than getting paid too much to play a kid’s game. The NFLers need to get over themselves and realize that there’s an entire world of jobs out there, that are far riskier that don’t pay anywhere close to what they get.

  17. klutch14u says: Dec 10, 2011 1:10 PM

    Hence the millions of dollars paid to play a game. If you’re the top of your position you make many multiple of millions to play. Hell, someone making the vet minimum will make more in one season than a lot of folks make over 20-30 years working year round. These spoiled football players had better start getting some perspective.

  18. theglap says: Dec 10, 2011 1:11 PM

    @milehighsal It’s psychotic to let your kid play football at 8 year olds? I am so glad you were not one of my parents.

    I started at 8 and continued until 18, and those are my fondest memories of childhood, period. One of the few regrets I have in life is not trying harder to become better so I could continue to play in college (even Division XLVI if necessary).

    I am thankful for psychotic parents, I guess.

  19. Mr. Wright 212 says: Dec 10, 2011 1:12 PM

    I read this yesterday at work, very poignant, but not surprising. Heard a few other chronicles like this over the past decade. Sad.

  20. tatum064 says: Dec 10, 2011 1:15 PM

    ticalcaldwell says:
    Dec 10, 2011 12:22 PM
    Its sad….but I am a Vet…I have the mental and physical damage without the money, fame and Superbowl memories…….its not that sad….jus sayin

    ——————-

    But that image of a player sprinting across the field with the flag in hand made it “all worth it”, right?

  21. dlmcc1010 says: Dec 10, 2011 1:16 PM

    I dont even want to read the Peter King article. I respect the players for what they go through physically and mentally to compete in the NFL. But theyre being paid a ton of money. Its a choice they make. They trade the risk of getting hurt for a big payday. Just about everyone questions their decisions in life at the end of the day.

    Its the same thing for those guys in the WWE. You can wind up being a movie star like the Rock. Or you can wind up dead from a heart attack at 40 years old from all the painkillers. Make your choice and good luck on whatever you decide.

    You cannot change the game of football. Its a violent sport, thats partof why we love it. Turn it into a no contact type league and youll lose half the fans.

  22. nysaysbringit says: Dec 10, 2011 1:23 PM

    Life is all about the CHOICES that WE make.
    What else needs to be said?

  23. jmstt1 says: Dec 10, 2011 1:35 PM

    Most of these football players hurting were really big men. How many men that were 300lbs for a good part of their life and didn’t play football are not hurting when they are in their 50s? The headaches are concerning but I think the numbers seem worse without any comparison.

  24. royalsfaninfargo says: Dec 10, 2011 1:41 PM

    For a football player/coach to compare themselves to a soldier or a firefighter/cop is the height of arrogance. I have no pity for them and their “pain”. Talk to someone who has worked a real job their whole life and doesnt have a billion dollar trust fund like retired NFL players and I am sure you will get the same answer.

  25. yevrag3535 says: Dec 10, 2011 1:58 PM

    What about real people – Petey boy? Not guys who don’t care about anybody but them selves, Thus won’t last either, becuase you know we are right and no ome care about your soap box stand you are on. The distance i way to big for people ti give dam now, think about iy. A war on, schools going bkoke, taxes, food and yu want people to cre about some pore spoiled million dollar baby. Cry in his soup, come down to my locol and try that and we will help you out, for what you earned not anything more.

  26. trollhammer20 says: Dec 10, 2011 1:59 PM

    Kind of wonder what will become of the 320-340 lb linemen who are all over the league now. 1986 was the year of “Refrigerator” Perry, the first noteworthy 300+ pound player. He’d be just another lineman nowdays, might even be a bit undersized.

    The head injuries are one thing, but let’s face it, human bodies really did not evolve with the idea of carrying around 300+ pounds. Some guys, like Schlereth, will make the effort to get that weight off once their playing days are over, but others won’t, and they will suffer because of it.

    I know people who blew out their backs working construction and furniture moving, who now live in constant pain in their late 30s and early 40s. No glory, no huge paychecks, but the same end result in many cases.

  27. stupadassle says: Dec 10, 2011 2:02 PM

    A lessor thought of would be interviewing players from Penn State or Miami who played for the national championship. Or any number of NCAA teams who played to have education paid for. Would they do it again? The ones that never made the pros but tore up their knee, neck, back hand, ankle, head, etc. Memory loss, headaches etc.

  28. EJ says: Dec 10, 2011 2:22 PM

    I would have loved to hear an interview of the earliest players, you know the one’s who wore leather helmets and barely any protection…

    I bet they would of painted an even clearer picture of pain from the sport. Biggest thing about the early guys is that they got paid peanuts! At least this 86 team made some money to invest with. Back when investing was easy, the 80’s and 90’s.

  29. twardyyy says: Dec 10, 2011 2:25 PM

    It’s what comes with the game so deal with it.

    I met Bob Baumhower (former Dolphins lineman – was on ’72 team & also played for Bama) on a cruise a few years ago and I was talking to him and he offered a couple of autographs.

    He took his hands out of his pockets and each finger was going every which way because of all the physical abuse his hands took back in the ’60’s and ’70’s. He played with no gloves or anything on and was constantly getting his hands mashed up by hitting opposing player’s helmets, etc. I asked him what happened and he said “Lots of years of football. Messed up my hands bad but hey, I signed up for it so I gotta deal with the consequences.”

    Apparently he was able to accept it. Everyone else should.

  30. hsatpft says: Dec 10, 2011 2:26 PM

    1 of the most common, if not the most common, reaction to stories about the health of retired players is that “they got rich playing, so too bad”. Fewer than half of the players on any given team start. Only a few of those are stars. And there’s the players that drift from team to team during & between seasons. This story about 1 team sounds really good for what it is, but in combination with a survey of retired players it would have real meaning. Obviously, this is something the NFL will never do. This is something for the NFLPA, but they won’t either. Partly because agents don’t want to discourage talented kids from dedicating their youth to sports, but mostly because pro athletes are, by nature, focused on today rather than where they’ll be in 25 years. And that can be said for most young guys in general.

  31. William Marcellino says: Dec 10, 2011 2:39 PM

    This is a very crude descriptive study–it does have a kind of rationale for population selection, has a method, etc. It’s a step away from anecdotes.

    But it’s not an analytical study, and there’s no hypothesis testing, so you can’t generalize from it or try and make policy.

    If this is an issue we wanted to really get info on, the NFPLA and NFL could pretty reasonably hire a research firm who could put together social science, health, statistical and perhaps historical researchers to conduct a robust study with predictive value.

    I’ve only been a researcher, never a team manager, in policy research, so this is a mildly informed guess, but I think that’s an under $200k study.

  32. TurdSandwich says: Dec 10, 2011 2:43 PM

    Former NFL player here. Sorry to hear about the pain involved in day to day life from any person regardless of what they do. Pain stinks
    I do not regret my choices.

  33. tfbuckfutter says: Dec 10, 2011 2:47 PM

    Did someone point out to Ray Horton that there’s a bit of a difference between coal mining or the military and, oh I don’t know….a GAME.

  34. chocopoppy says: Dec 10, 2011 3:16 PM

    Two thoughts: first, Mike Martin has the biggest should pads I’ve ever seen. Second, it’s possible that some of these players may not want to be truthful about their conditions. NFL’ers are tough guys who may not want to admit the level of pain they are in

  35. theglap says: Dec 10, 2011 3:40 PM

    @hsatpft And if they don’t start, their risk of long-term, lasting injuries is dramatically reduced.

    Usually — and there are exceptions — the more money you make, the more you play, the more likely you are to have long term injury.

    The 3rd string guy making vet minimum his whole career is unlikely to face lasting injuries.

  36. buckeye044 says: Dec 10, 2011 3:56 PM

    It’s a choice these guys made to play.

    It’s kinda funny that King didnt get the article he wanted. One full of “if I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t or wouldn’t every play hurt”.

    Thanks to the US media for protecting us from all that is evil in this world.

  37. profootballwalk says: Dec 10, 2011 3:57 PM

    If I was an NFL players, I’d be creeped out by the quality of people who are ‘fans.’ It would take a lot of money just to wash the taste out of my mouth.

  38. nockinon7sdoor says: Dec 10, 2011 5:03 PM

    As a 55 year old man who has been running (as much as a 100 miles a week in my 20s and 30s) for over 41 of those years, I have some thoughts on this:
    -When I get up in the morning (or in the middle of the night to pee) the pain in my ankles and knees is teeth-gritting bad. Sometimes I practically fall on the floor on the first few steps.
    -I have had arthroscopic surgery on both knees, surgery on one ankle, and the other ankle needs surgery but I am putting that off until I retire from my paying job.
    -every 2-3 years lately, when I get lazy in my stretching, my back is so sore that I have to sleep practically sitting up.
    -my intake of ibuprofen and aleve is likely keeping several pharm companies in the black.
    -In all my years of running, I have probably earned $15,000 in prizes, most of it in the form of merchandise or travel.

    And you know what? If I had it to do over again, I would not change a thing. I haven’t loved every minute of it, but every minute of it is worth it. Running let me travel the USA and Canada. I have met and run with Olympic athletes and recovering drug addicts. I have run in races with thousands of people cheering at the finish and races with only the runners’ families watching. I won’t stop running until I am physically (or mentally) unable to – that is my choice.

    I feel bad for any athlete who suffers from having participated in his/her chosen sport. But bottom line, it is a choice.

  39. sojumaster says: Dec 10, 2011 5:20 PM

    Hmmm, A guy spends 20+ years slamming themselves against someone else …. and there is long term health problems???? …. wow amazing discovery …

    I am so glad we have Peter King to point that out to us …

    BTW, When did Peter King become a medical expert?

  40. melikefootball says: Dec 10, 2011 5:32 PM

    What else can be done besides making a flag type football game. Thes players have known this is the chance they take since pop warner football. Many of these players had one thing on their minds growing up try to get to the NFL. No one likes to hear these type stories about past players and what they are going through.

  41. janvanflac says: Dec 10, 2011 5:34 PM

    I’m sorry, but even risky jobs (construction workers, firefighters etc.) probably don’t have the same percentage of chronic injuries as the NFL.

    And definitely not the head injuries.

    There is NO OTHER job where you are supposed to be involved in so many collisions, day after day, week after week.

    Now you can say, ok, they knew what they were getting into and most former NFL players will agree. But in my mind they deserve every penny they get. It’s a game, but first and foremost it’s a business, in which their employers get even richer than they do and get to lead long healthy lives.

  42. GG Eden says: Dec 10, 2011 6:39 PM

    Life is physical and the human body is vulnerable to disease, injury, accident. Whether sport, war, sex, whatever. Way things are going is absurd, people in cotton wool, ban life.

    The wisest comment from PFTers…

    theglap says: Dec 10, 2011 12:49 PM

    So in other words, football is a violent game and most players recognize that and even in hindsight while dealing with all the pain, wouldn’t choose something else?

    Who woulda thunk it?

    Are you listening Goodell?

    Educate players up front (pop warner, high school, college) and let them continue to make their own choices rather than enacting subjective and not-consistently-enforceable rule changes, or outlawing things that are impossible to avoid if the game is played at 100% speed.

  43. gmen1987 says: Dec 10, 2011 7:53 PM

    theglap says: Dec 10, 2011 12:49 PM

    So in other words, football is a violent game and most players recognize that and even in hindsight while dealing with all the pain, wouldn’t choose something else?

    Who woulda thunk it?

    Are you listening Goodell?

    Educate players up front (pop warner, high school, college) and let them continue to make their own choices rather than enacting subjective and not-consistently-enforceable rule changes, or outlawing things that are impossible to avoid if the game is played at 100% speed.
    —————————————————
    Roger Goodell, Best sports commissioner ever. He speaks for the silent majority of fans.

  44. kilo0986 says: Dec 10, 2011 7:59 PM

    I agree theres still a lot to be done, i think we should wrap them in bubble wrap and put flag on them! And put pillows on the field too! And not just any pillows they gotta be 100% down cause those are the fluffiest.

  45. backindasaddle says: Dec 10, 2011 8:09 PM

    “[The NFL] affords a great lifestyle. Are there inherent risks?” asked Ray Horton, now the defensive coordinator for the Cardinals. “Yeah, but those coal miners in West Virginia and down in Chile, they have an inherent risk in their jobs. The soldiers who go over to Afghanistan, they have an inherent risk in what they do. Firefighters have an inherent risk. Are you kidding me? To play a sport I love the whole time and to just lose a knee—guys come back from Afghanistan with no legs.”

    (It’s worth noting Horton was one of the healthiest — and most optimistic — of the players interviewed.)
    ***********************************************************************

    It’s also worth noting that the guy has a great attitude and is not a whiner. He acknowledges that the players know the risks….and willingly accept them. It seems apparent to me from his comments that he considers it hypocritical for players to do so and then years later whine about the price they paid for their decisions. The physical debilitation, memory loss, and headaches are the price of the vocation. Steel workers teeter from high rise buildings on icy beams in the middle of winter, asbestos workers work with materials almost certain to cause them premature death, older construction workers have bodies in the same kind of condition as 10 year old New York taxi cab, commercial fishermen, police, firefighters….they’re all vocations that extoll a price, be it risk or physical/mental debilitation or both. So what’s the difference??? Football players get paid a lot more.

  46. steelerhypocrite says: Dec 10, 2011 8:28 PM

    If he picked a good team, 100% of the players would not regret playing…but King choose the pathetic Bengals. I’m surprised everyone didn’t regret playing for that crap hole…only Detroit would have been worse.

  47. Mr. Wright 212 says: Dec 10, 2011 9:13 PM

    The Bengals had good teams in the 80s, you walking NFL almanac you.

    SMH

  48. mazenblue says: Dec 10, 2011 10:24 PM

    Im a construction worker. I shattered my wrist. Wish I made millions before my 12 years ended in the business. I knew the risk. I’m not crying.

  49. frank booth says: Dec 10, 2011 10:26 PM

    orangeflh says:
    Dec 10, 2011 12:15 PM
    I’m sorry, but I have no pity. I broke my back & my neck, spaghetti’d a shoulder, and lost my right knee… all while working a regular job.

    Life’s tough. Deal with it.

    ===================================
    Interestingly enough, the article is simply about a look back at the “86 Bengals and the state of the players. No one is really complaining here and no one is looking for pity, yet you seem compelled to bring that up as well as your own laundry list of injuries. My guess is that your the one who is looking for pity, and I do pity you. You seem to be having a tough time with it, as anyone would with such injuries. I can understand anyone having regret about what they are suffering now; I’m sure that you would prefer to have your right knee back; only a fool wouldn’t. But there is a difference between revisiting the past, having some regret, and looking for pity; and the SI article isn’t about players looking for pity.

  50. jackblackshairyback says: Dec 10, 2011 11:28 PM

    I think many people may be misunderstanding what Ray Horton was sayint. His point is he was very lucky, and yea playing in the NFL has risks, but other occupations have far more risk, without the lifestyle he was afforded. I think he’s saying he was a very lucky person to be paid well to do something he loved to do. He was paying respect to all those he mentioned.

  51. yevrag3535 says: Dec 11, 2011 1:22 AM

    How come the winning team never has these kind of problems for Peter King? Just wondering.

  52. backindasaddle says: Dec 11, 2011 1:07 PM

    frank booth says:
    Dec 10, 2011 10:26 PM
    orangeflh says:
    Dec 10, 2011 12:15 PM
    I’m sorry, but I have no pity. I broke my back & my neck, spaghetti’d a shoulder, and lost my right knee… all while working a regular job.

    Life’s tough. Deal with it.

    ===================================
    Interestingly enough, the article is simply about a look back at the “86 Bengals and the state of the players. No one is really complaining here and no one is looking for pity, yet you seem compelled to bring that up as well as your own laundry list of injuries. My guess is that your the one who is looking for pity, and I do pity you. You seem to be having a tough time with it, as anyone would with such injuries. I can understand anyone having regret about what they are suffering now; I’m sure that you would prefer to have your right knee back; only a fool wouldn’t. But there is a difference between revisiting the past, having some regret, and looking for pity; and the SI article isn’t about players looking for pity.

    ************************************************************************

    @ ‘frank booth’

    Baloney. The article is designed and intended to bring public attention to the “plight” of ex-NFL players and manipulate public sentiment so that we all feel bad for them. The ultimate goal of Peter King is to build sentiment to get better benefits for ex-NFL players. That’s all fine and good and whether you agree with the intent or nor, please let’s not pretend that it’s not a deliberate calculation.

  53. frank booth says: Dec 11, 2011 4:01 PM

    @backinsaddle,

    You’re wrong- did you even read King’s article? It’s pretty even handed and has several different views from different players- It’s not designed to do anything but take a look back at these players and how they feel about the game- and most of them say that they would do it again. I don’t see any problem.

  54. TurdSandwich says: Dec 12, 2011 2:27 PM

    @ Steeler Hypocrite..
    Go back and watch all those Bengals/Steelers game of that period.
    It wasn’t a good stretch for Pittsburgh.

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