TIME’s Sean Gregory spoke Friday with Jerry Frump, a long-time college football referee who served as a “replacement ref” during the recent NFL labor dispute. Highlights from the conversation, including Frump’s thoughts on the wide range of experience among his replacement colleagues, can be found here. Full transcript below:
Sean Gregory: When did you first start officiating? I believe you’ve done a bunch of games – what they used to call I-AA. How did you first start refereeing, when you were a kid?
Jerry Frump: I started in basketball first. And after one year in basketball an opportunity came up, a friend of mine said, “Do you want to try football?” I had never been a very good athlete, I was very small in high school, didn’t get my growth spurt, I guess if there was one, until later. But I got involved in officiating at a very young age.
How old were you when you started refereeing basketball?
I would have been 21.
And you played high school football?
I was a bench warmer. Small town. Like I said, I wasn’t very big, but I got my interest and what abilities I had probably after most guys had gotten involved and learned the fundamentals. But nonetheless I just loved sports. And so this became my passion.
I officiated basketball, I coached and officiated little league baseball, softball, semi-pro baseball, football, did a little bit of everything. And after a number of years my vocation caused me to move to the Chicago area. Starting off in a large area like this, it’s kind of starting over with your refereeing career, but I had an opportunity and got a few breaks with people and got involved and continued working at the high school level in the Chicago area then got involved working some junior college and Division III football. Along the way, it’s kind of a pecking order. You get some recognition, and somebody takes an interest in you at the next level and brings you along. And I had a supervisor at the Division III level who was very instrumental in pushing me to the next level and that was how I got involved in what was the Gateway Conference, which is now known as the Mountain Valley Conference. I had officiated that for 14 years. And shortly after getting involved in that back in 2001, you may recall that the NFL had another labor walkout and dispute. And I think I was one of about a half a dozen officials involved in the 2012 season who was also involved in 2001.
Circumstances in 2001 were significantly different. I think we had about four hours of training before they put us in a preseason game, but it was a very unique experience and something that I still remember to this day. Most of the guys worked also the first regular season game. I was one of the guys who could not get from my college game to the pro game the next day in time. So they had people that were on a crew and then they had some supplemental or alternatives that they had brought in for this purpose. At that time the NFL was willing to work with the college schedules, work around everybody’s timelines; this time it was made clear up front that that was not going to be the situation. They knew that this was going to be a more contentious negotiation. They said, “you have to make a choice.” As the NFL was putting out feelers for interested officials, the supervisors put out a notice that if you choose to make that decision, then obviously you’re sacrificing your college season – and probably your career. They didn’t say your career, but you could read between the lines. I’ve been officiating for over 40 years, this is my 41st or 42nd year of officiating football, period. It was an opportunity as I neared the end of my career, that I didn’t want to look back one day a year or two from now and say “gee, I wonder what if.”
So I rolled the dice and did that not knowing whether I would ever get on the field for a preseason game. And certainly not believing that it would go beyond that to get into the regular season, but you know, we did.
So you read between the lines, that if you worked for the NFL, you’d be out this season but possibly not be able to get back in.
That was the rumor. As a crew chief, there’s a lot of responsibilities put on you. I certainly knew and understood that in doing this, it left him in a lurch and it was a business decision that the supervisor had to make. I didn’t take it as a threat. I knew that if this got into the regular season, he couldn’t at the last minute try to bring in and put in a new crew chief in place. So I understand why they had to make that ultimatum.
And have you reached out to them to see where you’re at?
I have not.
Are you operating under the assumption right now that they might not let you back this year or down the road?
And you feel like it’s almost like a blacklisting?
No. I think it’s a matter of when you step aside, somebody else is going to take over. For me to come back as a crew chief means that they’ve either got to get rid of somebody else, there’s got to be another opening, and there’s no guarantees of that.
You’re at a point in your career where you’re more comfortable. Because you’ve been doing it for 40 years and you wanted to take this chance.
That’s what it came down to. It was a snap decision. I gave it a lot of thought. I felt that, you know, if I finally had one year, three years left, and this thing did develop into an on-field experience, I didn’t want to look back some day and have regrets.
How did you find out about this opportunity? I know you had helped out in 2001, where were you when you got a letter or a notice that “hey we need you, this is a possibility for you.’ Were you contacted by the NFL?
I think most of the people who got this opportunity were recommended by their conference supervisors, the guys that were working Division III. I think that originally there had been some publications, blurbs in the newspaper and on the internet that they were reaching out to people in the Division III and Division II areas, and I contacted a friend of mine who happened to be an NFL scout and asked him his thoughts about me throwing my hat in the ring. He mentioned to me they weren’t really looking for Division I guys because they didn’t want to step on people’s toes and the fact that you’re going to be putting someone else in a bind at a higher college level, and I kind of walked through with him where I was in my career. And although he originally thought it wouldn’t be a good idea, he changed his mind and said, ‘you know in your circumstances, I’d probably take a chance.’ And so I contacted them.
And they were willing and happy to have you?
The individual I spoke with actually remembered me from 2001 – didn’t remember me personally but recognized my name, and so he immediately sent me some paperwork. Things were kind of down to the 11th hour at that point, so I quickly turned around some paperwork and was off to an audition or a clinic that was held in Atlanta.
When were you at the clinic in Atlanta?
Last weekend in June. They actually held two clinics. One was in Atlanta, one was the following weekend in Dallas. And from this group they were going to select people to come back to a larger clinic that were going to be part of their selection group. I went in to the first clinic kind of under the radar so to speak, without telling a lot of people I was going because once you made that commitment openly you’re kind of sawing off the limb behind where you’re sitting. And I wanted to find out, because they made it clear that there was going to be some physical assessment, some classroom assessments to determine your ability, and I didn’t really know the competition I was going to be up against. So prior to going there I didn’t want to just throw in the towel and lose out on both ends. So I went there on an exploratory basis; upon returning, I quickly felt that the other officials in that clinic were not far superior to me and that I might have an opportunity to stick on. So at that point I contacted my supervisor and told him the decision I made.
So what kind of stuff did you do in that clinic? Examples?
They had us all go out to a football field and after warming up, we had to do 40-meter dashes, we had to run half a mile, we had to do some agility drills, so they just wanted to check our mobility and see if we could move and get up and down the football field.
How about in the classroom?
They broke us out into positions so they could talk about responsibilities and mechanics and so forth and had some discussion with us just to try and find out what we knew. There was some material we had to go through and just talking about the differences in rules. But it was probably more just to get to know us, as well as a physical assessment.
Then what happens?
There was another clinic in Dallas the following week, so those were both the mirror images of one another. After those two clinics were completed, I think it was about a week later that they communicated to us that we had been selected to join their staff and invited us back to Dallas. This was a smaller group of about a 150 officials. And at that point we went through some more training and they made a determination at that point what positions we were going to work and started to put us together in crews.
How long was that Dallas clinic?
It was three days.
Then it was off to training camps with the team?
They had some more material but at that point we were assigned to a team’s training camp. And at that team’s training camp, they assigned four or five officials. There weren’t enough of us to put a full crew together. We went into camp for three days and did scrimmages with them, answered questions, got to be familiar with some of the protocol. And then typically it was finalized with a scrimmage, either controlled scrimmage or in some cases an extension of their practices.
During this time, are you studying stuff? Are they giving you constant lessons or updates on the rulebook?
They gave us the NFL rulebook, case book, they made video available to us, there was constant communications from the office. We had a test that we had to take that they encouraged us to get together and do as a crew. The tests were not plays you’re likely going to see on a football field, certainly not very often, but it was the type of questions that made you get into the rulebook to try to figure out if one of these bizarre plays did happen how you’re going to enforce it or what the infraction may be. It was a good test because it did cause you to get in there and dig.
Where were you mentally the night before your first pre-season game and how did that go?
It was certainly a little bit of tension and a little bit of nervousness but, I don’t want this to come across the wrong way, but… I remember I made the transition from Division III to Division I [Frump had previously referred in Division I-AA, a step below the highest college level. It’s now know as the “Football Championship Subdivision”] and it was a huge adjustment. You hear people in baseball and other sports say, “You know the game finally slows down and it’s just a matter of you catching up with the game, as opposed to slowing down.” And it was a big adjustment between Division III and Division I. And I remember when I [served as a NFL replacement ref] in 2001, although I was not as experienced as I would be obviously 10 or 14 years later, the difference between the [Division I-AA] which I had been working and the NFL wasn’t as radical as Division III to Division I.
So working that first preseason game, I went into it confident. The biggest thing is just trying to get your crew to work as a unit. And there are a lot of things that we had not done on the field because none us had ever worked together at that point. This was the first time we had this on-field opportunity. So it was a little ragged. There were some delays in ball administration and we weren’t really fluid in reporting penalties and getting the ball put back into play. And as a referee, that’s always one of the main concerns and frustrations I have – is the tempo of the game because it’s not only frustrating for us, it affects the teams, it affects the fans, it affects everybody. And so that first preseason game was a little ragged. But every week we knew what we had done wrong and we worked on it. I have a reputation; everybody jokes about my 7-hour pre-games. They’re not 7-hour pre-games, but I’m kind of a perfectionist I guess. And I learned long ago from my first Division I supervisor to be very thorough and make sure your guys go out there ready. I don’t think we ever went on the field not ready. We may have not been as smooth, we may have not done some things as well as we would have liked. But we were ready and prepared to officiate the game. Each preseason game we got a little better, we got a little better, by the end I think that the NFL office recognized that we hadn’t had any train wrecks and that we were doing fairly well and that we were fortunate enough when we got into the regular season that our crew had the CBS national game three weeks in a row.
What were the three games?
We started off doing Tennessee, then we had the Jets in Pittsburgh, then we had Houston and Denver. I was supposed to have had the Philadelphia Eagles hosting the New York Giants Sunday night, which has now been turned over to the regular officials.
You mentioned the jump from I-AA (now called the Football Championship Subdivision) to the NFL wasn’t as big as Division III to I-AA. But as you know, a lot of the refs I believe weren’t much higher than Division III. So is that a fair concern, that some of these guys were jumping all the way from Division III to the NFL?
In your case you were OK, but is it fair to say that for other folks, that must have been just an unbelievable jump?
I think that’s fair to say.
I think that at least the guys on my crew who had not had that kind of experience tried to prepare them and tried to get them ready for that, as we went into the preseason and again as they experienced that first-hand in our first preseason game, the second preseason game, they began to adjust. To say we did everything right and didn’t make mistakes would be a joke, you know.
But there’s some things in every level of football that become judgments. You’ve heard it said that if you call foul on a every play… that’s certainly true if you want to enforce the letter of the law in the rule book, but no one wants to see a football game like that. So you’ve got to learn what is really accepted and what is really a foul when it comes to holding and defensive passes that are fair. And those calls that sometimes everybody’s looking and everybody’s got an opinion. And certainly the NFL gave us a lot of film, a lot of direction on what should and should not be called, but until you’re out there and you see it and it happens in front of you first-hand it’s very difficult. And make no mistake, these players at this level – they know what you’re looking at. They know what they can and cannot get away with. I think somebody said that the players kind of look to us like the substitute schoolteacher syndrome, like “let’s see what we can get away with.” And that was pretty evident. But my particular crew made it a point just to take charge of the game right away because we knew that once it started getting away from you, it’s going to be too hard to bring it back.
So you get to the preseason…did you expect to get to the regular season?
I did not. You know, you kind of take it in segments, when we’re going through all this training, and you’re working through the training camp. You don’t think you’re really going to get to a preseason, and once you get to your first preseason game, you think, how many are we going to get? So it’s always kind of a speculation and there were guys in my crew who never thought we would get to a preseason game. I was one of those who thought we really might get a regular season game. I’d been down this path before. I had seen how the negotiations had gone between the NFL and the union the first time around and with the approach that the NFL had taken this time, it was clear to me that they were prepared for, or trying to prepare for, something that was going to be longer, and I knew that one of the big issues out there was the pension, which was going to be a very contentious item to get resolved.
So the night before the first regular season game – what was going through your head the night before? Were you like, “Oh my god I’m going to be on CBS!” Were you psyched? Were you nervous? Were you pinching yourself?
You know, the whole process I suppose has been kind of surreal and you know my friends and family and business colleagues, they were certainly excited for me having the opportunity. I’ve always tried to approach the game as: It’s a football game, and take all the people and the personalities out of it. To say I was completely successful in doing that would be an inaccurate statement, but I didn’t go in there with any extra excitement or expectation than I would have if it was just a major college game. I tried to keep everything at an even keel and tried to forget that Tom Brady was on the field and that you’re dealing with an actual NFL regular season game. This was my first one. I’d had the opportunity to work a preseason game in 2001 but didn’t get on the field for the regular season.
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How was Bill Belichick to deal with?
He was fine. You know, I had him in the preseason game on Monday night in Philadelphia so I had had an opportunity to talk with him one other time, so this was the second time he was seeing my crew. But we had the guys that have reputations as being problems on the sideline, and they were very professional throughout the whole process. You know, everybody’s going to have a challenge or question on a call they don’t agree with, but these guys didn’t handle it any differently than somebody at a college game, in my opinion.
The night before the New England-Nashville game, not you personally but your crew, looking at it honestly, were you guys an NFL-regular-season-ready officiating crew?
No, I don’t think you could say that.
We didn’t have that experience. You can’t say that guys that had worked four preseason games and prior to that had worked whether it be [Division I-AA] or worked Division II, Division III – there’s no way you can compare us with the guys that have had X number of years at the NFL level. No one jumps into the NFL from Division II or Division III, and very few guys even from [Division 1-AA]. Most of these guys have spent years working at the Division I BCS level where they worked in front of 75 or 100 people and you know, they’re accustomed to working with replay and with a lot of the stuff our guys had never been exposed to.
In the preseason and into the regular season, some of the stuff – calling the wrong team out and a touchback when it wasn’t a touchback, some of the obvious stuff – did that bug you? Did that worry you? As on official, did that bother you, that you know you were all getting grouped together and getting a bad name? Because there were some pretty big gaffes by relatively few people.
It’s true and those things happen, and I suppose it was disappointing, certainly no one did it intentionally. It’s part of the learning process and part of the experience gap that these guys had had. There was a sense of pure nervousness, of confidence that was lacking in some cases, and you know, these stadiums are a lot different than what you run into in college. With all the media and stuff on the sidelines, sometimes it’s actually difficult to tell which one is the press box side and which one’s not the press box side. So you know, I think I’ve even turned the wrong way myself. So I know it can happen.
So you do these games and then you’d go back to your job during the week? What was that like, going back to work? Were you recognized on the street or at least around your office, like, Oh my god that’s the guy I saw on the Patriots game? Were there double-takes?
You know, sometimes there were – you’d have clients that may not have known that that’s what you did and then saw you on TV. That was kind of surreal. But the game itself was not only physically but mentally exhausting, and sometimes you have a very short turnaround on a Sunday game, especially if you’ve got a late game. On a Sunday afternoon, the flights from certain cities back to Chicago just weren’t available, so you’d have to catch a 5 a.m. flight to get back to work the next day, and you may not have gotten to bed until 1 a.m., and so you’re getting up at three to get through security and get to the airport and coming into work the next day with two hours sleep.
There was one stint with preseason where, because of all the unusual game dates and times and they threw a clinic in between, I was actually on a plane five out of seven days. And so it was very demanding, very chaotic. Fortunately I had an employer who was understanding and knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and allowed me to kind of do this in conjunction with my work.
So going into any regular season games, were you just mentally or physically exhausted?
Mentally and physically exhausted after the game. Usually I went into the game not only physically prepared but mentally prepared because of the preparation you’d done and the adrenaline starts to take over, and it sharpens your reflexes and you’re ready to go.
And you would walk into the office Monday morning as always and do your job till Friday? Were you not distracted at all? Were you reading the reactions and keeping track of the media criticism and all that stuff?
I tried to avoid the media. You would hear it – you couldn’t avoid it completely, but I didn’t make a point to read any of it. Certainly during the week, there was a number of communications with the NFL office with things going on. We had a weekly conference call with the referee crew chiefs. You had grading reports that would come out from the supervisor of the game, so there were certainly things that were going on during the week that were not my normal work routine, that had to be taken care of. And in the evening, you’re typically busy either studying rules again or sending out memos and assignments for the next week’s pregame, dealing with transportation issues – there’s a whole lot of administrative stuff as a referee that you have to do that sometimes people don’t realize, that takes place behind the scenes.
What was the most surreal moment in this whole experience?
I suppose it was – not when it happened, but afterwards – there’s been a number of pictures that have appeared in the newspaper and the Internet and so forth, but I think the one that seems to be most popular is me signaling intentional grounding on Ben Roethlisberger and him with his hands on his hips looking down on me. You know, he’s a very big man. I’m only about 5’9” or 5’10”. So it was – I had to look at it with some amusement myself.
And was that the right call?
Yes, I actually got the correct call on it.
Was there a low moment?
I suppose you really felt bad for your colleagues when they blew a call, or there was one that was getting a lot of negative media attention. Again, everybody goes out there and they work hard, and we kind of stand side by side. When somebody makes a call, obviously, the microscope is very big at this level. I think the NFL in one of our conference calls indicated that “there will probably be no one in history has gone through such a high level of scrutiny, and the microscope has never been as big as it is on you guys at this time.” We went in with the media reporting that we’re everything from high school officials to almost no experience at all, and so the public’s perception of us was: These guys are just going to mess up the game, and they’re not qualified at all. You had to overcome that mindset that people had this negative opinion of you, so everybody worked hard to overcome that.
It’s just an uphill battle the whole way. It’s a no-win situation. We knew going in we were pawns. We were pawns for the union, we were pawns for the NFL. We just tried to make the best of an opportunity that was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences – in my case, twice-in-a-lifetime experiences. It’ll be great memories to share with my grandson someday.
What game – what call was it, with your crew, that particularly stood out?
I guess, the most recent Houston-Denver game, there were several – I had back-to-back “roughing the passer” calls against [Houston QB Matt] Schaub that – they were both upheld as good calls, but people in the media, they announce it as “gee, how can you have back-to-back roughing the passer for calls?” I’m thinking, “okay, which one would you like me not to call?” Because then you’re going to blame me for letting it go. But getting an opportunity to be on the field with Peyton Manning, certainly one of the icons of football, and the Tom Bradys and the Matt Ryans, Ben Roethlisberger, just all these guys. I haven’t really reflected on that yet, but I’m going to have an opportunity to do that now that it’s over, and it’s going to be a neat experience to look back at soon.
Did you feel the players were verbally abusive to your crew?
No. Players are players. They’re going to test us, and if they don’t like a call, they’ll let you know. Ben certainly let me know that I wasn’t going to like that call when I saw it on film. Some of the players didn’t like it because we’d called holding; some of them didn’t like it because we didn’t call holding – you know, you’re going to have that in any game. I would say that on the field, that all the coaches, all the players, treated us with the utmost respect. I can’t think of a single incident where that was not the case, in any of our games. The NFL was extremely supportive even during the times when there were bad calls that were made. They always tried to pump us up and say, “you guys are getting better.” The office supports you, the owners support you, the commissioner supports you, and so – I don’t come away from this with any negative experiences.
When you saw the Seattle-Green Bay play on Monday Night Football and the reaction to it, did you kind of know that it was kind of over?
I thought that certainly – we had heard that there were negotiations going on and I felt that this would certainly be another nail to force this to a quicker finish. I thought at that stage, before that game, I thought we might get one more game. But it was pretty clear to me that they were getting down into the finishing touches on the negotiations, and that it was going to come to an end soon. It would’ve been nice to have had one more game, if for no other reason than to get together with my crew, so that we knew we could kind of say some goodbyes and so forth. Because these guys are in other parts of the country, and although we can still communicate by phone and email and so forth, it still would’ve been nice to wish them the best in person.
What was the high moment for you?
It’s hard to pick one out. I suppose just getting the opportunity to work a regular season game. And as I said, someday looking back and being able to see who was on the field at the time I worked those games, whether it be the players or the coaches, just getting a chance to have shaken their hand and talked to them is going to be something very memorable.
[In regards to being recognized as a NFL ref] What was it like, when you’re walking into your office, or passing by some guy on the street in Chicago, when they are like “Hey, you were that guy…” Did stuff like that ever happen?
You know, I had it happen with a bus driver.
Where was it? In Chicago?
So you get on the bus, and he’s like, hey I know you?
He said, “Hey, I saw you on TV.”
Was this a bus driver who knew who you were, or was this a one-time bus experience?
Nah, I mean, you kind of see some of the same bus drivers over and over, but –
So he said, hey, and you said – what was that conversation like?
It wasn’t somebody that I knew personally. He said, “I saw you, you’re number 37.”
That was your ref number?
And what did you say back?
I kind of smiled and said, “Yeah you did.”
Do you think – looking back, big picture – a lot of fans have said this was a disservice. No offense against you guys, you did your best, but for the game, there was a lot of potential bad stuff that could have happened, that maybe did happen – that this was a real disservice to the game and could hurt the game. Do you agree with that? Why or why not?
As I said before, we were pawns. This really became a business deal. I told my crew when we first got together, I said, “Gentlemen, you’re now working for probably one of the largest corporations in the country, maybe even the world. We need to keep that in mind because we need to conduct ourselves professionally and in a way that does not degrade or disrespect what they stand for.” This was [the NFL’s] choice. They chose to take this position in the negotiation with the union. Whether I would have [taken the job] – if I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have. So, we did the best we could.
We tried to be the fair third party between two teams to make sure that the outcome of the game was not determined by an unfair act. Was every single one of us up to the challenge? Probably not. They didn’t have the opportunity – they being the NFL – they didn’t have the opportunity to bring in people like they did in 2001 that had the greater level of experience where the jump in talent would not have been as great.
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Is there anything you wish NFL did differently in terms of helping you guys out?
No, I think they did everything they could, and probably more than I expected.
So they treated you fairly, you think?
Absolutely. They treated us very professionally, very fairly.
What do you say to the permanent ref who called you a scab, or something like that – is mad you took his position. “We’re in a referee brotherhood; how could you do this?” What’s your message to him?
The only thing I’d tell him is that if I wouldn’t have done it, somebody else would have. And I certainly didn’t do it to personally attack you. When we all start officiating – I told my supervisor at the Division I level when I made this choice – I said, we all hope someday to get that opportunity to work on the big stage. It’s no different than a guy who – whatever sport he chooses, they all have the dream sometime of working at that level. So, I did it because I love the game. I didn’t do it because what they paid me, because of the media spotlight, being on TV – I just did it because I love football. I love the opportunity to get out there and be a part of the game, and so we did it for the love of the game.
And how much were you paid each week?
During the preseason, the game fee was $2000. And during the regular season, they increased it to $3000 and the referees got $3500.
Do you have any grandchildren?
How old are they?
He is three and a half.
So let’s say when he’s 13, ten years from now, what do you think you’ll say to him about this experience?
I’d like to be able to sit down with him and show him the video of the games. I’m sure that some of the guys that I was on the game with are going to be in the Hall of Fame. Just share with him my experience.
How would you characterize that experience?
Very memorable. Very positive, as I said – we were fortunate not to have any train wrecks on the field. My experience with the coaches and players was all very positive. The NFL was very supportive. So I just had a great time. Sorry to see it end.
Did the media scrutiny and the fan scrutiny make it harder to do your guys’ jobs? Was it a distraction or a worry? I mean, that’s human nature, right?
Yeah, I’d be lying to say that it wasn’t. You didn’t want that stuff to be a reflection on your friends and family and people that thought of you in ways other than as an official, and certainly not upon your regular job. It probably bothered you during the week, but when it came time to go work the next game, I think I can speak for everybody in just saying, we were 100% focused. You couldn’t worry about what the other distractions, the outside world, thought; you were just out there to do your job.
When you heard it was over, what was your reaction, when you heard they reached an agreement?
It was kind of a big disappointment. Kind of a lump in your stomach. You knew it was going to happen someday, and you knew that it was right around the corner. It’s like I said – as a crew, we knew that it was there, but we just were so close and wanted to get one more.
And you’ve had some great experiences, but is there a little lingering worry or sadness that you might not be able to ref in college anymore?
I haven’t really thought about that yet. I’m sure as the season goes forward and there’s college games going on, and now I’m sitting home, that that may come up, but who knows. I’m going to throw my name back out there, throw my hat in the ring, and if guys feel like I can help them out and still be useful during the game, who knows. I may get another opportunity.
You’ve been very generous with your time. Any final thoughts?
No, I don’t have anything else. I appreciate your interest in trying to find out what goes on behind the scenes.
Great, and I appreciate the insight. Thanks for your time.
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