by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

last February, during Super Bowl week in San Francisco, one of the main attractions was the “NFL Experience” at the Moscone Center. The NFL Experience is one of the highlighted peripheral events during Super Bowl week, a traveling football amusement park chock full of corporate sponsors, that lands in the venue of the “Supe” every year. It’s the NFL version of Disneyland (well, sort of), and a parade of former pro players and past Super Bowl heroes are spotlighted at the event each year.

In San Francisco, one of those present was former QB Trent Dilfer, a regional product who prepped in Aptos, well down the peninsula and in the vicinity of Santa Cruz and Monterey. Dilfer, of course, had a long NFL career that included a stint with the local 49ers but was highlighted by his period with the Baltimore Ravens, including their Super Bowl season in 2000, when Dilfer would start at QB for Brian Billick’s team that would dominate the Giants, 34-7, in Super Bowl XXXV. In recent years, Dilfer has maintained a national profile thanks to his work at ESPN as an NFL analyst. So, Trent was a wholly appropriate guest at the NFL Experience, and would be one of the featured former stars signing autographs on the Tuesday night before the Broncos and Panthers would tee it up five days later in Super Bowl 50, about 45 miles south at Levi’s Stadium.


In the autograph/assembly line, Dilfer was signing pictures and routinely going about his business while not making a lot of conversation with the fans, who were being hustled through the line by NFL Experience personnel. Dilfer’s expression changed, however, when one particular fan appeared in front of him.

“Hi Trent,” the fan said. “I was at the Freedom Bowl.”

Dilfer, who had been mowing though the autograph line without much interaction with the fans, suddenly looked up and gave a smile as wide as the nearby Golden Gate. It was as if he had just found a long-lost friend.

Now beaming, Dilfer had to momentarily slow the assembly line to interact with this fan who was not as interested in Trent’s Super Bowl exploits as he was with the highlight of Dilfer’s college career at Fresno State. “Really?” said a beaming Dilfer as he vigorously shook the hand of the fan. “Wow, that is SO cool! What a great night that was! Though I had a lot more hair in those days!”

As the line began to move again a few moments later, Dilfer waved goodbye to the Freedom Bowl fan and continued to smile as the next wave of autograph seekers moved forward in the line.

Yes indeed, the good ‘ol days can always be counted upon to bring out a smile.

Almost a quarter-century later, Fresno State’s Freedom Bowl win over Southern Cal on December 29, 1992 still resonates in the Central Valley. Though the Freedom Bowl is no more, and the Bulldogs have had several gridiron highlights in the years since, for Fresno fans, nothing has ever quite compared to slaying the once-mighty Trojans that night at Anaheim Stadium.

The story of Dilfer, Fresno, and the Freedom Bowl was authored by one of the genuine characters of the last half-century in college football. Those Bulldogs, and the ascent of the once non-descript football program, were the work of HC Irish Jim Sweeney, who to the amazement of first the regional, then national, football audience would build a significant gridiron entity in the Central Valley, well off of the more-traversed track along the coast in California.

College football has a long and decorated history in the Golden State even outside of the high-profile entries at Stanford, Cal, USC, and UCLA. A robust collection of other football-playing schools made their own memories for decades. These entries mostly included schools that would eventually become part of the California State University system, and many established healthy rivalries away from the bright TV lights and the media centers of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Often fortified with talent from the burgeoning JC ranks within the state, the competition was usually lively, wide open, and fast-paced. Though these entries mostly stayed off of the national radar until Don Coryell arrived at San Diego State in the early ‘60s and quickly molded an Aztec powerhouse that would create the template for other competitors to similarly “move up the ladder” into the highest level of competition. (Check out our Mountain West retrospective piece from a year ago that detailed the rise of SDSU during the Coryell era.)

Football at Fresno State traces to the 1920s and the days of the old NCAC (Northern California Athletic Conference). Along with the Bulldogs, the NCAC would include Saint Mary’s, Pacific, UC Davis, San Jose State, and Nevada at its outset. Chico State and San Jose State would join the fold late in the 1920s, and Humboldt State in the early 1930s. By 1939, however, Fresno and San Jose, joined by San Diego State and UC Santa Barbara, would form the new CCAA (California Collegiate Athletic Association), an updated alliance that in subsequent years would add Cal Poly SLO, L.A. State, Long Beach State, and Valley State (later Cal State Northridge).

There were recurring days of some glory for the Bulldogs in that era, first from the mid ‘30s thru the mid ‘40s under HC Jimmy “Rabbit” Bradshaw, whose tenure was interrupted by World War II when Fresno did not field teams in 1943-44. Fresno would have success in the early ‘50s under HC Clark Van Galder, who would be succeeded in 1959 by Cecil Coleman, a stern coach who produced a starry five-year record of 38-12. Coleman would eventually move to Illinois, where he would serve as Athletic Director from 1972-79. Later, Coleman would become commissioner of the Midwestern City Conference (today better known as the Horizon League).

Coleman’s 1961 team was one of Fresno’s best. The Bulldogs finished the regular season at 9-0 and would play in the Mercy Bowl on Thanksgiving in front of 33,146 at the Los Angeles Coliseum, in a game played to benefit widows, children and survivors of the 1960 plane crash in Toledo, Ohio, which took the lives of 26 Cal Poly SLO players. Fresno State beat Cal Poly the week before the accident.

In the Mercy Bowl, Fresno was outweighed and outmanned vs. favored Bowling Green, which had been the team the ill-fated Cal Poly squad played immediately before the air crash in nearby Toledo.  But Coleman’s team would launch an air attack from the opening play with quarterbacks Jon Anabo and Beau Carter, which surprised and frustrated the big but slower Falcons, of whom HC Doyt Perry boasted could play with any Big Ten team. In the era of platoon football, Coleman’s “Red” and “Blue” units would substitute every 7 ½ minutes and dominated every phase after blocking an extra-point attempt that kept the lead at 7-6. Thereafter, it was all Bulldogs in a 36-6 final. Fresno finished 10-0 and No. 3 in the small-colleges poll.  (Note that a plaque honoring this Mercy Bowl can still be found among a collection of others in the peristtyle end of the Coliseum.)

After Coleman’s departure, the Bulldogs had occasional success under Phil Krueger and Darryl Rogers in the ‘60s, an era in which Coryell’s San Diego State would dominate the CCAA. By 1969, Fresno, San Diego State, LA State, and Long Beach State had their eyes on bigger prizes and would break free to help form the new PCAA (Pacific Coast Athletic Association) and classification in the NCAA’s new university division, the highest level of college competition. UC Santa Barbara and San Jose State, which had each defected from the CCAA to the WCAC in preceding years, would also enlist, along with Pacific, to form a new 7-school league for football (Pacific would not enlist for all sports until 1971).

The early years of the PCAA, however, would coincide with a slide into mediocrity for Fresno football. After Rogers left for San Jose in 1973, the Bulldogs would collapse under successor JR Boone, who would win only ten games in a three-year span. Enter Sweeney, who had succeeded earlier in his coaching career at Montana State but endured a bumpy ride in eight seasons at Washington State, winning just 26 times. Though not without some highlights, as Sweeney lifted Wazzu from doormat to feisty status, scoring a major upset in 1971 over Rose Bowl-bound Stanford and earning NCAA District 8 Coach of the Year honors in the process. Shortly after resigning under pressure in Pullman following the 1975 season, Sweeney quickly accepted the rebuild assignment at Fresno.

In short order, Sweeney was able to turn around Fresno fortunes as he once did at Montana State. Installing an option offense featuring electric QB Dean Jones, the Bulldogs became competitive in 1976 before putting things together completely in 1977, rolling to a 9-2 record and PCAA title, though there was no bowl option for PCAA champs in those days.

During this era, Fresno continued to play its home games at spartan, 13,000-seat Radcliffe Stadium on the campus of Fresno City College, which was becoming a hindrance for the program. Those facility issues would gnaw at Sweeney, who would jump at an offer to join John Madden’s Oakland Raiders staff after 1977. When Madden retired after ‘78, Sweeney moved to St. Louis to serve on the staff of the legendary Bud Wilkinson, who would be in the final year of an ill-fated two-year tenure with the Big Red.

While Sweeney was employed in the NFL, however, things were changing at Fresno. Mostly because of basketball success that began in the 1977-78 season under HC Boyd Grant, a highly successful juco coach at Southern Idaho. Almost immediately, local support rallied around these snarling Bulldog hoopsters, who played suffocating defense and patient offense, strangling the life out of the opposition. Fresno fans did not care about the tedious pace and tempo; the Bulldogs were winning, and the fans loved it.

With the community galvanized, fundraising suddenly percolated. The boosters would famously become dubbed the “Red Wave” and quickly flexed their financial muscle when spearheading the movement to build a new and much-needed football stadium before eventually getting around to expansion of the downtown Selland Arena basketball venue. With the new, 30,-000-seat Bulldog Stadium under construction, Sweeney looking for a job after the Wilkinson regime ran aground in St. Louis, and Fresno regressing in two seasons under Bob Padilla, Sweeney was more than happy to return in 1980. The Bulldogs would finally get to play in their new stadium in the ‘80 season finale vs. Sweeney’s former Montana State, a game won by the Bulldogs, 21-14.

The following 1981 season would open with much ballyhoo as the new stadium was officially christened in the opener vs. Pac-10 Oregon, which had emerged as a force the previous season and was touted as a Rose Bowl darkhorse entering ‘81 under HC Rich Brooks. The touted Ducks, however, would be victimized by three interceptions from Fresno DB Steve Cordle (still tied for a school single-game record) and suffer a stunning 23-16 upset in front of 28,697 giddy Bulldog fans.

The Sweeney big-game touch would become familiar for the next 15 years. And the football fun was just beginning for the Red Wave.

Fresno soon started to win consistently, first with future Cal HC Jeff Tedford at QB, then with Sweeney’s son Kevin piloting the attack, and WR targets such as future NFL star Henry Ellard and Stephone Paige. In 1982, Sweeney’s Bulldogs would beat Pac-10 Oregon again (by an odd 10-4 count!) and would lose only to then-Big Sky power Nevada en route to another PCAA title and a 10-1 record, which would qualify Fresno for the hometown California Bowl against MAC champ Bowling Green, a rousing game won by Sweeney’s Bulldogs, 29-28.

Fresno success was now expected, and Sweeney, comfortable in the Central Valley, had no intention of moving after jumping around several jobs in the late ‘70s. The 1985 Bulldogs would be another Sweeney masterpiece, with son Kevin at the controls of the offense. The only blemish was a 24-24 draw at Hawaii, rolling to another PCAA crown secured in a wild 33-31 win at Long Beach State, and another Cal Bowl berth. Awaiting again in the hometown bowl would be Bowling Green, as the unbeaten and highly-regarded Denny Stolz-coached Falcons would be seeking revenge for the loss three years earlier. The 19th-ranked Falcons would also bring a nation’s-best 14-game win streak into the bowl.

How significant was the 1985 California Bowl? Only twice since 1973 had there been bowl matchups of undefeated teams: the '73 Sugar when Notre Dame beat Alabama 24-23 and the 1980 Rose when USC toppled Ohio State 17-16.

But if Bowling Green did a single thing right before a beyond-capacity crowd of 32,554 at Bulldog Stadium, it escaped notice. Theretofore splendid quarterback Brian McClure, who was within sight of Doug Flutie's career college passing yardage record of 10,579 yards and holder of five NCAA records, would fumble twice (leading to two Bulldog scores), threw three interceptions (two of which resulted in Bulldog scores), and was tackled in the end zone for a safety by Fresno State's crashing rover, Cliff Hannemann.

The final score would be 51-7 in Fresno’s favor, a result that would thereafter cause us at TGS to wonder about the impact of coaches leaving a team before a bowl game. Or, in the case of Bowling Green, Stolz accepting a job at San Diego State but nonetheless coaching the Falcons in the bowl. Bad idea, as things turned out. The result suggested the timing of the announcement could not have been worse, but Stolz played down the impact. "A football team has to play over adversity," Stolz said in his own defense, though it rang awfully hollow in the aftermath.  At the time, the 44-point defeat was the second worst in bowl history, surpassed only by Alabama's 61-6 thrashing of Syracuse in the '53 Orange.

The games we most remember about the Sweeney tenure, however, would wait until the ‘90s, in the ‘91 and ‘92 seasons in particular. Consistent success in the PCAA and the desire to move up the college sports food chain had prompted Fresno to look elsewhere for a suitable home, and the Bulldogs would join the higher profile WAC in 1992. Before the move, however, came a sequence of games that would forever stamp the Sweeney label on that era of Fresno football.

Another Sweeney powerhouse was on the field in 1989, as the Bulldogs reached the end of the regular season at 10-0, ranked 23rd in the country and one win from an undefeated regular season. All that stood in the Bulldogs' way was lowly New Mexico, which had won one game in 11 tries that year. A blowout seemed assured, especially as there was already some bad blood between Sweeney and Lobo HC Mike Sheppard dating to the latter’s days at Long Beach in the mid ‘80s. Mercilessly, Sweeney’s Fresno had dismembered New Mexico by a 68-21 count in the opener of the previous 1988 season.

Nothing, however, would go right for the Bulldogs in the ‘89 regular-season finale. Sweeney’s Fresno, winner of 17 consecutive games, was ambushed 45-22, in front of a pleasantly stunned Lobo audience at University Stadium.

As the game ended, the chant began:Sweeney is a weenie. . . . Sweeney is a weenie. It did not take much to get the Irishman’s blood to boil, and Sweeney was not a man to forget.

The rivalry between Sweeney and Sheppard would thus reach a new level, and subsequent Bulldog-Lobo games of the era were complete with annual acts of name-calling and cheap shots. Sweeney did not hesitate to describe the state of the Lobo football program as "bad" as New Mexico coaches and players would mutter that the Bulldogs were arrogant and pompous. A very ill-tempered  24-17 Fresno win at home in 1990 would follow. 

Then came 1991. Sweeney had the beginnings of another powerhouse on his hands, one that had started the season 3-0 with a 55-7 romp past Northern Illinois and road wins at Pac-10 Washington State and Oregon State. Meanwhile, Sheppard’s tenure at New Mexico appeared to be growing short. Though the Lobos had squeezed past state rival New Mexico State the previous week, they had lost their previous four games, including a lopsided 60-7 loss at TCU.

Before the night was over that October 5 at Bulldog Stadium, Sheppard’s New Mexico would look back longingly at that TCU result. It was already worse...by halftime. Sweeney had his team at a fever pitch, still mindful of what had happened two years prior in Albuquerque. Enough players were still on the Bulldog roster who remembered, too.

Payback, though two years removed, was rarely more emphatic. The Bulldogs tied an NCAA record by scoring 49 points in the second quarter. By game's end, 10 Fresno State players had scored, three of them twice. The average gain per play was nine yards, and quarterback Mark Barsotti threw for three touchdowns and ran for two. Not so thrilled with the Bulldog victory was Lobo HC Sheppard: "I can tell you," said Sheppard afterward, "that forever New Mexico will have a blood rivalry with Fresno." Though he would not be around for another Lobo-Bulldog clash, as he would be dismissed after a painful 3-9 campaign.

Sheppard had reasons to be upset, not the least of which was the fact his team had quit, especially in the second quarter onslaught. The game started badly enough for the Lobos when they fell behind 17-0 after the first quarter. Things quickly got much worse, first when Fresno’s Ron Rivers busted a 78-yard TD run with 12:44 to play in the half, and DB James Burton returned an interception 26 yards to make it 31-0 only 28 seconds later. The rout was on.

Moreover, Sheppard was angered with the revenge-thirsty Sweeney and his QB Barsotti, who, with a 59-7 lead, called a timeout with three seconds remaining in the first half and the ball at the Lobo two-yard line a couple of plays after an FSU interception with 23 seconds to play in the half. Sheppard’s reaction to the timeout was to stand on the playing field and stare across at Sweeney. Barsotti, whose pass had moved the ball to the 2 before the timeout, would then hand off to RB Anthony Daigle, who plunged over from the 2-yard line.

The PAT by PK Derek Mahoney upped the count to 66-7...at the half! 

Sweeney dismissed the complaints as sour grapes. Had they wanted to, the Bulldogs probably could have surpassed the modern NCAA scoring record against a Division I-A opponent--100, set by Houston against Tulsa in 1968. Instead, the Bulldogs emptied their bench and did everything they could in the second half to stay below triple digits. Sweeney instructed his offense to run the ball on every play in the second half, when Fresno would still score 28 more points.

"We used everybody who was not redshirted," said Sweeney aftereward. "We had guys carry the ball who don't get to carry it in practice."

But why did he instruct, or condone, QB Barsotti's timeout call with only a few seconds remaining in the first half and already ahead 59-7?  "Barsotti, he's a senior," Sweeney said. "We've got to get our guy a little bit of recognition."

There was more to it, obviously, as Sweeney would confirm in postgame interviews. "I have no love for that particular opponent," the Irishman admitted. "In the first half, I wasn't looking for anything to do but score."

Sweeney said he told Fresno State coaches at halftime that he wished the game could be stopped right then and there. He also mentioned the possibility of a running the clock the entire second half.  New Mexico coaches however, claim they never heard a peep from Sweeney about putting the Lobos out of their misery.

No matter, Sheppard realized the fecklessness of his team had contributed to the travesty on the field.

"Today was the first time in my 4 1/2 years that our football team quit,"
Sheppard concluded. "We flat-out quit."

Sweeney did indeed show a bit of compassion at the death of the game, as Fresno had moved into the Lobo red zone while holding a 94-17 lead. From the New Mexico 15, three runs straight into the line netted nothing. On fourth down, and the clock ticking under 2 minutes to play, another handoff up the middle to RB Sal Mejico netted five yards, but short of the first down. The score would stay at 94-17. 

The second half was a race between the final gun and the aforementioned modern single-game record of 100 points scored by Houston in 1968. The final gun won--barely. The Bulldogs did not throw a pass in the second half but still put together drives of 51, 65, 52, 91, 43 and 68 yards, scoring on four of those, all on the ground.

With a characteristic twinkle in his eye, Sweeney would sum up 94-17. "Our defense deserves most of the credit," said the Irishman.

Yet the night they still remember in Fresno, and the night that still brings a smile to Trent Dilfer, would come at the end of the following ‘92 season, when the Bulldogs more than held their own after moving to the upgraded WAC. An electrified offense now featuring Dilfer at QB and well-balanced with holdover halfbacks Daigle and Rivers, along with NFL-bound FB Lorenzo Neal, cracked the 40-point barrier on eight different occasions. Bitter road losses at BYU and Hawaii prevented a WAC crown, but the high-powered Bulldog strike force had caught the attention of bowl scouts, and the 8-4 regular-season mark was postseason-worthy. Anaheim’s Freedom Bowl could not resist the allure of Fresno and its thousands of Red Wave boosters who would gladly make the 4-hour drive to Anaheim. Even better for the Freedom was that majestic and very-nearby USC was looking for any bowl date after its once-promising campaign had unraveled following regular-season ending losses to old, nasty rivals UCLA and Notre Dame, ratcheting up pressure on HC Larry Smith.

Though Smith was justifiably concerned about the Bulldogs and game dynamics, many USC fans were amused by the matchup. Among the most popular buttons worn by Trojans backers before the game at the Big A was one that said “My maid went to Fresno State.” Even SC QB Rob Johnson got in on the act, with quotes such as wanting to put Fresno "in its place" and "beat them bad" riling the Bulldogs.  The insults ran deep and to the bone, though Sweeney was keeping his thoughts to himself...and his team.

Meanwhile, Fresno fans were treating the game as if it were the Super Bowl, and preparing for their own invasion of Orange County.
It was raining off and on that night in Anaheim, but the Red Wave still descended upon the Big A in staggering numbers. Though playing only 35 or so miles from campus, SC backers were overwhelmed by at least a 2-to-1 count. Much of the upper deck at the Big A was awash in Fresno red, as it seemed much of the Central Valley (helped by a reported 600 buses) had trekked to Anaheim.

Solid 8-point favorites, and expected to run roughshod over one of the nation’s leakiest defenses (ranking 98th out of 107 teams), SC appeared to be in control of proceedings early, succeeding with bully ball and pounding away on the ground vs. the nation’s 95th-ranked rush defense, moving to a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter on a short scoring dive by RB Deon Strother, capping a 49-yard drive that had been set up by Curtis Conway’s 22-yard punt return.

That TD, however, seemed to awaken Fresno...especially the defense, which would not allow another point the rest of the night!

The Bulldogs, who saw a Derek Mahoney first-quarter FG attempt blocked, would then smartly navigate 70 yards in 11 plays behind Dilfer, who twice completed key passes, one of those a 4th-down strike to WR Tydus Winans, then a 20-yard hookup with flanker Malcolm Seabron despite taking a vicious hit from SC’s Lamont Hollinquest. All of that preceded Neal’s one-yard TD smash to tie the game, as the 7-7 score would hold into halftime.

At that point, even though many of the SC fans in the stands could still not envision their team actually losing to lower-rent Fresno, HC Smith was obviously concerned. His offense had managed to gain only paltry 92 yards. Touted QB Johnson didn't complete a pass until midway through the second quarter, and had connected on only two of eight attempts in the first half for 13 yards. One of his completions went for minus three yards. And the SC defense, while not breaking, was bending, allowing Fresno to more than double (196-92) the Trojan yardage, while the Bulldogs slammed away with 122 yards on the ground, and had almost doubled the time of possession. To the shock of many observers, it was Fresno winning the war in the trenches!

SC’s last gasp came on the opening possession of the second half. With Conway hurting on the sideline, Travis Hannah returned the kickoff 50 yards, and on the first play from scrimmage, Johnson combined with Johnnie Morton on a 27-yard pass play. A 10-yard run by Estrus Crayton put the Trojans at Fresno State's 16, but the drive stalled and Cole Ford missed a 37-yard field-goal try.

SC would not be heard from again.

Dilfer would quickly lead a march downfield into Trojan territory that would result in a 43-yard field goal by Mahoney to put the Bulldogs ahead 10-7, a lead that would hold into the fourth quarter. Stunningly, Fresno was wearing down the Trojans, who did not cross midfield again until the final minute of the game.

The lead was still tedious at 10-7 midway through the fourth quarter when Dilfer fired up the decisive drive of the drizzly night. Most of the damage was done on the ground, 32 yards worth, including a key 4th-down smash by FB Neal to keep the drive alive. Sensing the kill, Dilfer would immediately look for WR Winans, whose catch for 22 yards at the Trojan 2 preceded a short TD run by Daigle. As the Red Wave was ready to shake down the upper deck at the Big A, a subsequent interception by DB James Burton further upped the volume and allowed Bulldogs put the game away on the ground, traveling 56 yards, fueled by runs of 32 yards by Rivers and 17 more by Daigle. Rivers covered the last five yards to push the score to 24-7...which is how the game ended!

Fresno finished with a substantial advantage in almost every major statistical category. The Bulldogs, second only to Houston in total offense during the regular season, ran for 241 yards, passed for 164 and enjoyed an edge of more than 15 minutes in time of possession while racking up 24 first downs. Meanwhile, the Trojans, against a defense ranked among the worst in college football, ran for 88 yards, passed for 95, accumulated 14 first downs and were held scoreless in the second half by a team that gave up an average of nearly 30 points a game, including 46 in a loss to Oregon State. SC QB Johnson was especially ineffective, completing only seven of 18 passes for 95 yards, with three fourth-quarter interceptions. The Trojans also converted a sickly 1 of 9 on third downs. SC's 183 yards on offense were its fewest of the season. 

"I'm not shocked," Troy HC Smith told reporters afterward. "I'm never shocked in college football. You people (in the media) are because you don't understand it. But in college football, I've said many times, anyone can beat anyone."

If Smith wasn’t shocked, the SC fans and hierarchy surely were. With some alums labeling  the loss as "the greatest embarrassment in Trojan football history," Smith would be dismissed by outgoing AD Mike McGee two days later, as an inside job orchestrated by influential boosters would replace Smith with former HC John Robinson, who had been silently campaigning behind the scenes for the job.

Meanwhile, the Fresno tailgaters reveled through the night and all of the way through New Year’s. So overjoyed was FSU with the victory that it would arrange to transport the portion of the end zone painted with the “F” for Fresno to the Central Valley for display before the turf was to be torn up at the Big A.

No one, however, seemed to enjoy the moment more than Sweeney, whose Washington State teams had been on the wrong end of some savage beatings vs. powerhouse Trojan editions from a previous generation. “They (SC) used to beat me like a red-headed stepchild,” Sweeney said after, unable to conceal a wide grin.:”But not tonight.”

Fresno has won several bowl games and appeared in the national rankings since, but there is no question about the high-water mark of Bulldog football.  For the Red Wave, the 1992 Freedom Bowl will always be hard to top. 

Just ask Trent Dilfer!

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