Peer Into Character® ep. 1: Jon Williams
Patriots Player Overcomes Adversity, Inspires Young Athletes.
Jon Williams has overcome adversity and painful events in his life. He wants young athletes to believe they can, too. And he has advice on how they can do it. The former New England Patriots running back joins Even Field’s Chuck Wilson to share his personal life story, describing family tragedies, school challenges, and a serious injury. And how he still was able to achieve many of his goals in life, despite those challenges. For young athletes, parents, and coaches, Jon’s path to the NFL is both insightful and inspiring.
Peer Into Character® features thought-provoking and inspirational stories and observations about character and leadership shared by professional and amateur athletes, coaches, educators, and others.
Peer Into Character and Chuck Wilson on Sports™ are presentations of Even Field®, a nonprofit organization that promotes integrity, life skills, and leadership through sports.
Even Field founder and series host Chuck Wilson has been recognized as one of the 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America by the Institute for International Sport.
You can view Peer Into Character on Even Field’s YouTube Channel.
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Episode Quotes, an Audio Timeline, and a Transcript can be found below.
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This Peer Into Character® episode
Written and Produced by…Chuck Wilson
Onsite recording by…Scott Cary
Editing and graphics by Chris Gemma
Music by Tenacious Orchestra licensed through PremiumBeat.com
Theme music by MartynHarvey licensed through Pond5.com
For the video version of this Peer Into Character episode, we credit the following:
On-site Photography by Michael Wilson/Even Field
Even Field® is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and this non-commercial video was produced to serve our educational mission. This video contains copyright-protected audio and visual works under the “Fair Use” doctrine as described in Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act. We acknowledge, credit, and express our appreciation for the unlicensed use of this content from:
• ABC Sports
• CBS Sports
• NBC Sports
• TCS Sports
• Tel Ra Productions
Our thanks to Jon Williams and to Pete Brock, President of the New England Patriots Alumni Club, and Director on our nonprofit Board. Even Field is proud to be a nonprofit partner with the New England Patriots Alumni Club on its Football For YOU free youth clinics for children and their families.
We also thank Even Field’s Board of Directors and the following, in particular, for their support of Even Field’s mission and this multimedia production.
Thomas J. Skala
The John and Jessica Pinkos Family Fund
And highly-regarded businesses in Rhode Island…
The Virtus Group, trusted advisors, led by Mark Cruise, providing an array of comprehensive financial planning services for families and businesses.
Epic Promotions — The Couto family has four decades of experience in printing, branding, and marketing. Thank you, Barry, Adam, and Keith.
Graphic Innovations – a New England leader in large-format printing, graphics, and vehicle wraps. Our thanks to Jim Larkin and his team.
“When you go through adversity, there’s going to be a bridge or T in the road. Over here, you’ve got those who’ve got the bad examples for you and you know who they are. And then…you’ve got those who set those good examples. What are you going to do?” (8:56)
“Pick your friends. If they don’t want to be like you, you’ve got to tell them, you’ve got to move (on).” (9:34)
“When you’re getting recruited by a college…they talk about you’re going to be a running back, you’re going to be a running back. And then, when you get there, reality sets in that they have a running back. There are other running backs that come in (so)…Find a position on the football field. What is it going to take for you to get on the football field?” (22:20)
“Depression sets in. You go, what happened? I was angry. You get angry at God, you get angry at the sport. You get angry at yourself. I thought that I let so many people down.” (26:03)
- How Jon’s life changed dramatically when he was a child (3:04)
- Good and bad examples Jon had in his life (4:22)
- Why he listened to his coach (5:32)
- What football meant to him at an early age (6:29)
- The pact Jon Williams made with his friends (6:52)
- Jon shares a personal story about reaching out for help when you need it (7:16)
- Education is the key — you have to look beyond just playing a sport (7:54)
- Facing adversity is about the choices you make (8:55)
- As a kid, what Jon thought about when he went to bed at night (10:20)
- The impact of watching his older sibling’s drug use (11:15)
- The good and bad influences in Jon’s early life (12:17)
- Jon’s earliest sports memory (14:30)
- Impact of his early football coaches; learning he wasn’t bigger than the team (15:24)
- Jon describes how his H.S. football coach Jerry Moore influenced his life (18:05)
- Jon thinks back to the decisions he’s made in his life (19:57)
- What he has learned from playing team sports (20:40)
- From leading rusher in N.J. H.S. football to playing fullback at Penn St. (21:21)
- Why he accepted his blocking role after being recruited for his running skills (23:09)
- The injury that ended his NFL career (23:45)
- How he worked through the disappointment of seeing his career end early (26:21)
- Thankful for what he has in life and his joy in helping young people (28:35)
This Peer Into Character® episode features a powerful and inspiring story — one of facing challenges and overcoming adversity. Former New England Patriots running back Jon Williams rose from a challenging early life to accomplish the following:
- First member of his family to go to college
- Top scorer in New Jersey high school football his senior year
- Led his high school team to an undefeated season and a state group title
- Helped Penn State win the 1982 NCAA Football National Championship
- Drafted by the New England Patriots in the 3rd Round of the 1984 NFL Draft
You will see what he had to say to young kids attending a Patriots Alumni Club event and then more from a 1-on-1 interview Chuck Wilson conducted with him after the event.
A quick backstory.
Even Field® long has partnered with The New England Patriots Alumni Club on its Football For YOU program for boys and girls, ages 9-14, and their families. The Patriots Alumni Club brings this one-day, non-contact football camp to communities across New England, free of charge. It’s a positive atmosphere and the kids have a lot of fun. The campers and their families also get to hear from one of the former Patriots players.
As Chuck has introduced these players at the camps over the years, he has been struck by their willingness to openly share with the young campers, very personal life stories. One of the most memorable comes from former running back, Jon Williams.
Interviewee: Jon Williams
Interviewer: Chuck Wilson
Jon Williams: Growing up in New Jersey, I am one of seven and the youngest. And about my third grade, my life turned upside down. What happened was that my father went and shot and killed a man and went into prison. And so from my second grade year up until my senior year in high school, I had to go visit my dad in jail. So we went from having a nice house to then growing up on welfare, not having much food to eat. The embarrassment of hanging around with your buddies or going someplace and asking where your dad is was very, very embarrassing for me. And it affected me and affected my childhood.
When you guys think about your adversity, what you have to go through. I went through. I also was a stutterer. When I got nervous, I would stutter and I was able to overcome those things. It’s all because of other people that got involved with my life as well.
Chuck Wilson: Tell us a little bit about growing up and the decisions that were out there, both good and bad.
Jon Williams: Yeah, You know each and every one of us, we have examples in our lives, right? We have people that are on the left side making good examples and you have people on the right side that are making bad examples.
My bad example came from my brother. My oldest brother was a great football player, but he got messed up on drugs. My brother smoked marijuana. That led him down the line to shooting needles and becoming a drug addict and eventually dying of AIDS.
Then I had good examples. Those good examples are the guys that you hung out with, the guys that you shared your story with.
One guy that was part of my life was my high school football coach, Coach Jerry Moore. I do have a National Championship ring. Well, I did have it, but I gave it to my high school football coach because when I got older in life, I looked at where I am right now. I’m in sales with FedEx and I love what I do. And, it’s because of guys like him that got involved with my life. You know, what it took for me was to share a dream with Coach Moore and for Coach Moore to say, “I can help you reach those points, but you’ve just got to listen to me and follow my examples.”
Chuck Wilson: Why did you listen?
Jon Williams: Why? Because I ah, you know, my mother. My mom is special. Growing up, not having my dad around, seeing her suffer, seeing her work hard, seeing her cry at night, seeing her not eat food because she wanted us to have food, see her borrow and say, “I’ll pay back.”
And, then also my brothers and sisters. I wanted to do something different in my life. I wanted to be the first one to go to college. I wanted to be the first one to get into professional sports.
When I say I’m from a large family, my mother is one of 21 kids and I have 105 first cousins. So I’m from a very large family. And a lot of that family got involved with drugs. And so again, there go those examples of what I did not want to do.
Chuck Wilson: Tell us about the role of football and team sports in your life.
Jon Williams: Yeah. Football saved me and got me off the streets. My high school football coach said, “Hey if you want to, I can make you the best quarterback in New Jersey.” And, he lied. He made me the best running back in New Jersey.
And I remember, on a day like today, coming off of work, putting my shoulder pads and helmet on and going out and run by myself.
I did have some buddies. It was about seven of us that we hung around with and we made a pact. We said, “We’re not going to do drugs and we’re not going to get in trouble.” And only one guy fell off and got in trouble with drugs.
Chuck Wilson: And it wasn’t just about sports with Coach Moore because his wife was part of this whole package too, right?
Jon Williams: Yeah. Growing up in New Jersey, not having an understanding of how to eat properly, you know, needing a tutor, Coach and his wife were there for me all the time.
You know, I remember getting an award and I had to go to Rutgers to receive it. I had no idea how to utilize the utensils. So I went over to their house, they set up the plates and everything for me, and they taught me how to eat properly. I mean, at home, I’m just shoveling in, but then I had to change. Right? I had to change and I’m glad that they were able to be there to teach me that.
Chuck Wilson: And the role of education.
Jon Williams: Oh yeah. That is key. If you guys think that, “Hey, I’m just going to go out and get into sports and not go to school, not go to class.” I remember I got kicked off the football field because I missed class.
When I went to Penn State, you got a phone call every morning. And if you picked up the phone, the athletic director said, “How come you’re not in class?” And, (Coach) Paterno found out. If you didn’t go to class, he knew about it, and you got in trouble for it.
So yeah, going to class is big to succeed in anything you want to do, because it’s not just the sport. The sport is going to get you there, but it’s your education that’s going to keep you going further and further and further. The football you’re going to play for 10 years, but for work purposes, you’re going to work until you’re probably 70.
“Pick your friends. If they don’t want to be like you, you’ve got to tell them, you’ve got to move.”
Chuck Wilson: Adversity. You’ve seen it. Anybody who plays a team sport or an individual sport, is going to go through it. What do you want to tell the guys and girls about that?
Jon Williams: When you go through adversity, there’s going to be a bridge or T in the road. Over here, you’ve got those who’ve got the bad examples for you, and you know who they are. And then over on your other side, you’ve got those who set those good examples.
What are you going to do?
You’re going to get to those crossroads. And what, I was there and I made that right choice. I went to the right, made the right decision. My brother was at that same crossroad. He chose to go left because he just got involved with drugs and bad guys that he hung around with.
Pick your friends. If they don’t want to be like you, you’ve got to tell them, you’ve got to move. You’ve got to go on, find some folks, find some friends. And your family, moms and dads, you guys help pick out who they’re going to hang out with, alright? So you guys can then achieve the same goal moving forward.
Chuck Wilson: Jon Williams!
Jon Williams: Thank you.
Following the Patriots Alumni camp presentation, Chuck spoke more with Jon Williams about the challenges he faced in childhood and the people who have influenced his life.
Chuck Wilson: Growing up in a situation in which there is a lot of adversity, what were some of the things when you went to bed at night that you were thinking about?
Jon Williams: Oh, my goodness. You think about whether or not you’re going to get bit by a rat that night, whether or not a roach is going to crawl in your ear.
Before my dad went to jail, you’d think about whether or not you’re going to get beat for something because he was a tough man.
And then when he went to jail, you’d think about where’s your next meal going to come from? If the electricity is going to be off when you come home from school. What clothes are you going to wear? Are they going to be washed? Things like that. I look back on and you say, yeah, they’re things that you thought about every day.
Chuck Wilson: When you watched what your older siblings were going through and the decisions they were making, how did that impact you?
Jon Williams: Oh my goodness. You know, I’ve seen my brother shoot up before and I can still to this day remember where it was, what he was doing. And I said, “I’m never going to go in that direction. Never.”
You know, I can honestly say that I’m not proud of it. I smoked marijuana probably 10 times growing up, all in high school. And then I tried cocaine three times. But, I was just lucky and stupid at the same time.
To do that knowing that what I saw my brother go through, what I saw my cousin go through, my cousins. But, my brother died of AIDS. And three weeks later, four weeks later, five of his buddies died of the same disease. So, it’s ugly.
Chuck Wilson: Peer influence, both good and bad. Give usa little insight into what you saw around you growing up.
Jon Williams: I think the bad influence of my dad making a decision to commit murder, to take the law into his own hands. It’s haunting. Why would he do that? Why would he affect our family that way?
The good influence is my mom and the adversity she had to overcome. And the way she did it, how hard she would work. My mother would win Bingo, get 10 bucks to go to Bingo so she could have an opportunity to win 400 or 200. So that way she can make it stretch for the family. Beginning of the month when the welfare check came in, having food to eat and my mother made sure we got home and we ate, you know, because we didn’t know how long that food was going to last.
My buddies in the neighborhood (were) also a good influence and the guys I hung out with, my cousin Clint and a lot of the guys that we made that pact with, as I mentioned before.
Chuck Wilson: How old were you when you made that pact that you guys were going to keep it clean?
Jon Williams: We saw my brother when we were in sixth grade, fifth grade, we saw the drug scene. We saw the marijuana scene. We saw my brother, my cousins, friends in the neighborhood, and we were like “We’re not going to do that.”
We saw those guys high, walking around stoned high. And we said, “There’s no way we’re going to do that.” And we made that pact probably fifth grade, sixth grade. And we said, “We’re just, we’re just not going to get involved with it.”
Now, I will also say that my brother wouldn’t allow me to do it in the sense, even though he was doing it. You know, I’d be around the guys and they’re smoking marijuana. The guys like, “Here Jon, take a hit.” My brother’s like, “No, no, no.” You know, so it was sort of like off-limits around him, but yet he was the worst influencer in my life when it came to drugs.
Chuck Wilson: The role of sports. What’s your earliest sports memory.
Jon Williams: (Laughs) Earliest sports memory was taking my cousin’s position in football because, back in the older days, we had to wear football girdles and his was too tight and he didn’t like it. So, he quit the sport. And in quitting the sport, it opened it up for me to play.
And here I am, probably six, seven years old. And I played center. I played center for my cousin, Claude, who was a quarterback. That’s my memory. Getting down there. Getting my first uniform. Getting that yellow helmet and playing Peewee football. But I was the center.
“…(coach) caught us and he kicked me off the team. And he said, ‘If you want to come back, you have to apologize to the team’.”
Chuck Wilson: Tell us about the safe haven that football became for you.
Jon Williams: What football did for me is it put me and surrounded me around good people, good coaches.
Jerry Federico was my Pop Warner coach. And, (laughs), we used to call him the Archie Bunker of coaches. But, he was a great guy. He loved everybody. He used to get us over to the house and sit down (and talk) about Italian food. You know, watching him make Italian sauce or gravy.
Having him in my early football years put me in a position where I learned team sport because I missed a practice one day, even though I was the best player on the field, I was running back at the time. So, I missed practice. Me and my cousin, we were down at this park playing a game and he came down and he caught us and he kicked me off the team. And he said, “If you want to come back, you have to apologize to the team.” And I said, “I’m not coming back. There’s no way.” But yet I ended up talking to my cousin who was at Rutgers at the time, Lester Johnson. And he said, “Man, you better get back and go talk to those guys.” So I went and apologized to the football team and he let me back on.
Chuck Wilson: How tough was that?
Jon Williams: It was tough because it was a pride thing. Like you wanted to be on the team, but it was like, “Hah, hah, hah. Here comes Jon. He’s going to come crying back to us.”
It was tough, but I learned that lesson that I’m not bigger than the team. And Jerry Federico taught me that. The things that I can just sit back and just remember him, he’s deceased now, but the values of what he taught me as a younger kid. My dad wasn’t around, Jerry Federico became my father. I was able to go to his house anytime.
And then as you get older, your junior high school coach, Mr. Anderson, bought me a pair of football cleats because I couldn’t afford them, you know.
The Black Riddell with the red bottoms.
And I remember going home and showing my mom these cleats. And you know, you go into your high school years, and oh my goodness. I can honestly say I love my football coach. I love my coaches. And I am truly in love with my high school football friend, coach Jerry Moore.
Chuck Wilson: Jerry Moore has your Penn State Championship Ring. Can you express what his influence meant to you?
Jon Williams: Oh, wow. Jerry became my father. He really did. He was a curly hair, white guy. And I say that because I grew up in the hood, that took me underneath his wing. But, the influence of that guy just teaching me the values of life, how to act around people when coaches would come in to visit because I was a freshman playing varsity. They would come in to watch this other player, Victor Holloway, and I would sit there and just look and go, “Oh man, I want that to happen for me.”
Chuck Wilson: How did you connect with this coach at that time of your life?
Jon Williams: The connection was because he showed interest. He let me into his life. He did. He let me into his life. He had two little boys at the time and I became his boys’ role model. I couldn’t let them down and couldn’t let him down. I couldn’t let my mom down.
Jerry Moore is a teacher in the school and he made sure if I needed tutoring, I got tutoring. He made sure that if I needed to pass the class, I got help to pass that class.
I thought one time I would not go to class for a test. And I thought the teacher would give me a passing grade and she flunked me. And it took some influencing from myself and the coach to be able to make up that test, which I did. And I passed it because it affected my grade point average.
Now, I sort of weigh things now on hands, like this. (His hands weighing the options.) I go, full scholarship to a college (vs.) on the streets. They’re paying for my scholarship (vs.) working, not making much money. An opportunity to get in the NFL (vs.) jail.
And so I weigh those options all the time when I think of things. I teach my kids that now, to weigh those options.
Chuck Wilson: This team sports environment, and the fact that values can be conveyed. It’s really what Even Field is all about. I’m interested in, from your perspective having gone through it, the values you’ve taken away from playing team sports.
Jon Williams: The values that I take away is that I have a role on that team and my role matters. So if I’m a running back, I need to be a running back and not the quarterback at the time. So do my job and try to do my job to the best of my abilities. And then, to understand what everybody else’s role is on that football field. So it helped me out to be a better person and a player. So, if they were looking for a guard in high school, I can jump in there and play guard because I listened and I asked questions about the position. That kept me going through at Penn State. And it kept me going through it to the NFL.
Chuck Wilson: You were a terrific blocker when you needed to be. You go to Penn State. You’re an outstanding running back, but Curt Warner is there. He was an incredible running back. But, you are a really good one, had some terrific games, a couple against Notre Dame that were unbelievable and against Miami catching the ball. But you, for the sake of the team, would block like you did against Herschel Walker and Georgia in the Sugar Bowl for the National Championship. Tell us about that.
Jon Williams: You know, it’s funny because when you’re getting recruited by a college, Penn State or any other school, they talk about ‘you’re going to be a running back, you’re going to be a running back’. And then when you get there, reality sets in that they have a running back. There are other running backs that come in and…Find a position on the football field. What is it going to take for you to get on the football field?
So, yeah, I started as a tailback, and then I got moved to fullback. I wasn’t happy with it, but it taught me a lot that prepared me for playing running back. So learning how to block, blocking for Curt, left side, right side, off tackle, up the (middle). I mean, it was all for the betterment of the team, for that one common goal, a National Championship.
And then when Curt left, I was promised I would go back to the tailback position, and I went back there. But then I got injured and a freshman by the name of D.J. Dozier steps in and he plays well. And then Joe (Paterno) says, “I need you to go back to fullback.” I was not happy, but if you watched the games, you couldn’t tell I wasn’t happy. I was going to do whatever it took to better that team.
Chuck Wilson: Why?
Jon Williams: Why? Because I had a role. I didn’t like losing. The team needed me. And if I wasn’t going to be the best fullback that I could be, then what were the values that I learned from my mother working hard. My mother doing what it took so that she can feed her family. Doing what it took so that the bills can be paid.
So you think about those things and you’re on a football field. It’s like, “Well, why do I complain? I’m on the football field. I’m at a school. I got a free scholarship. Let me get my role on the football field and go do it. Stop complaining.”
“It just felt like somebody shot me in a calf and my calf exploded.”
Chuck Wilson: You work your tail off. You get through Penn State with a National Championship. Now you go to the National Football League. You’re a third round pick for the New England Patriots. You come on board and a serious knee injury early on in your career. Take us back to that moment.
Jon Williams: Devastating. Devastating.
When you get drafted, your mindset is I made it. I finally made it and now I’m going to take what I learned at Penn State, learned in high school, and I’m going to carry it over to the NFL. And then you get into the NFL. And on July 3rd, 1985, I was on the Gillette Stadium football field, doing some high knees, leg lifting. And I hyperextended my knee that caught up on some turf. And my foot went this way, my knee blew back that way. And there I laid on the football field, screaming and yelling, yelling, and screaming.
Chuck Wilson: And you knew it was serious.
Jon Williams: I didn’t know how serious it was. It just felt somebody shot me in a calf and my calf exploded. And I laid on a football field on a day like today, hot and humid, yelling and screaming for somebody to help me for about 20 minutes. And then the trainer came running out to ask me what happened. And I told him, and then I was taken to the hospital and that same day, I had surgery.
Chuck Wilson: Then what happened?
Jon Williams: Major reconstruction surgery with nerve damage. So, I have a drop foot. I walk with a drop foot. And so, not being able to come back from that, depression sets in.
You go, “what happened”? I was angry. You get angry at God. You get angry at the sport. You get angry at yourself. I thought that I let so many people down.
Having an opportunity to make money, to take care of my mother finally. And now I’m injured. I’m 23 years old and devastated.
What do you do? What do you do? You’re laying in the hospital thinking that, you know, your hopes are there that you’re going to come back. And then when you don’t come back, that’s when reality starts in.
Chuck Wilson: How did you work through it?
Jon Williams: Some good friends, a great wife, spiritual, my church.
Events like that scars you. It hurts you. And you just got to take each day. I take each day at a time. I still get angry sometimes when I trip because my foot drags. You just got to make a decision to get through it.
And then, you have guys that leave the game that are banged up, that you talk to. They go, “Oh man, I’d love to have your injury.”
And I’ll tell you another quick story.
I get injured. I’m driving my Z28 Camaro. I’m going to go do this event. And it was at a VA hospital. I go in. I got my crutches. I meet everybody. And now I’m going to go tour the rooms and say hi to everybody and sign autographs. And the first room I went into was a double amputee’s. And I’m talking to one of the vets and he’s asking me what happened to my knee. And he asked me if I was angry and I said yes. He said, “Let’s change. I’ll take your good leg and I’ll take your bad leg.” And it was, ‘Okay, Jon. Stop. No more complaining. You’re not as bad as you think you are, alright.’
It’s things like that that you come across in your life.
I don’t want to be the person that someone opens the door and sees a face that’s frowning, you know, and then starts frowning. I want to be the person that opens the door and there’s a joyful face there, a sincere joyful face because I’m just appreciative of everything I have. Right? The values I learned growing up, and the values that I try to teach on to my kids and then to kids that are out there running around right now on the football field.
Chuck Wilson: I see you out there on the field and you are so enthusiastic with the kids. The joy in your face is obvious to watch. They respond so well. What’s that like for you?
Jon Williams: You know, I love it. I love it because I had girls, I didn’t coach. (laughing) Now, I’m not saying that I couldn’t coach, but when you get out on the football field and you take your knowledge…You know, all the guys, the alumni guys that are doing these events were the best of the best of the best, and we get out there and we take these little kids and we put them in a position where they learn from the best of the best of them and they get it, right. You teach a kid a new stance and he gets it and you say, “Nice job.” And he smiles. She smiles. That’s what it’s all about. They get it. You just built them up. You just gave them a little bit of encouragement for that moment. Right. That’s what it’s all about.
Chuck Wilson: Thank you, Jon.
Jon Williams: Thank you.
Our thanks to Jon Williams for sharing his remarkable journey. We also want to thank Pete Brock, President of the New England Patriots Alumni Club, and a long-time Director on Even Field‘s Board.
Chuck Wilson on Sports™ and our Peer Into Character® conversations are a presentation of Even Field®, cultivating integrity, life skills, and leadership, through sports.
If you enjoyed this program, please like us on Facebook and let us know who you would like to see us interview in future weeks. And, if you believe in our mission and are in a position to help, a donation of any amount would be appreciated.
Even Field is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Donations to Even Field are tax-deductible to the full extent allowed by law.
This conversation was recorded on July 11, 2014, at Cushing Field on the U/Mass-Lowell campus in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Founder & Executive Director
Chuck Wilson is an award-winning host, interviewer, and commentator. He was an original host on ESPN Radio and was with the network for close to 17-years. In 2007, Wilson was named one of the 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America by the Institute for International Sport. He is the founder of Even Field.
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