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‘That energy is still here’: How D.J. Looney continues to inspire Louisiana football



Ever since her son died in August, Sarah Looney starts her day with a text message.

“I will say, ‘Good morning, I hope you have a fabulous day. I love you,'” Sarah said. “And then I started doing this when D.J. passed away, do #beDJstrong. I send that to him every time.”

When Rob Sale, Louisiana‘s offensive coordinator, receives these messages, he immediately writes back, a way for both of them to cope with the grief.

Sarah Looney bonded with Sale after her son, D.J. Looney, the Ragin’ Cajuns’ co-offensive line coach, died of a sudden heart attack during a team workout on Aug. 1 at age 31.

Sarah and D.J. would send each other messages via Snapchat every day. When she first told Sale she wasn’t going to have that any more, he said, “Well, you can do that for me.”

And so they have, through phone calls and texts.

“Talking to me every day, letting me send him those little messages to keep some kind of — something for me to look forward to,” she said. “Some way for me to be able to share this love that I have with somebody, because it would just have been building up in me. It’s just invaluable for me, for my peace of mind and everything.”

The special friendship between the coaches is indicative of Looney’s larger-than-life personality and ability to get along with anyone. When he first joined the Louisiana staff to help with the offensive line, Sale was skeptical. “O-line guys, we’re kind of territorial,” he said. “When we first got here, Coach [Billy Napier] said, ‘I want to break up the offensive staff and have two full-time O-line guys,’ and I’m thinking, every place I’ve been I’ve done it myself. I was kind of hesitant, you know?”

“The only thing that’s similar with those guys is that they played O-line in the SEC,” defensive backs coach LaMar Morgan said.

But Looney immediately won Sale over. Both men put their egos aside and formed “a little yin and yang,” as assistant head coach Jabbar Juluke said.

The duo would walk together in the mornings and talk about football, family and life. They were so connected that after spending an entire day together, Sale would immediately call Looney after leaving the facility so they could continue the conversation on the ride home.

On official recruiting visits, Looney and Sale would do karaoke together. It didn’t matter if it was gospel, rap, or country, they could do it all. Sale will admit, “He could sing a whole lot better than I could, that’s for dang sure.”

And as was typical with people who met Looney even just once, the connection went far beyond the office. Sale’s kids referred to him as Uncle Looney, and Looney treated Sale’s kids like the rest of his nieces and nephews — constantly asking how they’re doing, and showering them with gifts. Sale now has a list of all of Looney’s nieces’ and nephews’ birthdays, and plans to send them cards when the time comes.

There’s a photo of Looney kissing his baby nephew, who died in the spring of 2018, that Sale keeps on his desk. “I have that picture of Coach Looney on my desk and I see it every day, because I just know what kind of uncle he was, not only to my kids, but to his nieces and nephews.”

“I loved that man,” Sale said. “I still to this day catch myself wanting to pick up the phone and call him.”

Sarah feels the same way.

“I tell people I’m devastated beyond devastation,” Sarah said. “Sometimes — it’s been over two months — and sometimes I just cry. I just cannot believe that I won’t ever be able to talk to him, hug him, love him again on this earth.”

So their daily text messages serve as the next best thing.

“[His family] will be a part of my life for the rest of my life,” Sale said.

The qualities Looney showed at Louisiana were evident from an early age.

In elementary school, he was a popular pick for games because he was the biggest. His best friend at the time was usually among the last picked, if he was picked at all. And Sarah recalls him being protective and saying, “If you don’t pick him, don’t pick me.”

Sarah also recalls a teacher telling her that Looney walked up to her, complimented her on her new haircut, and walked away. The teacher told Sarah, “My husband didn’t even notice.”

By the time he hit high school, Sarah said he was so popular he was known as “The Mayor” because he knew everybody, and everybody knew him. His mayoral qualities would be apparent when he arrived at his wrestling matches.

“As he progressed through the gym, I saw he was kissing babies and shaking hands,” Sarah said. “I mean literally, he would take a step, somebody would say something to him and he would smile and pat them on the back or something. Two or three steps later somebody else is saying something.”

Looney didn’t start playing football until he was in the seventh grade. “He was not a very good football player at all,” she said with a laugh. “He was just big, and he played defense at the time — he was a nose tackle. He really didn’t know what was going on.”

But Looney was a talented athlete. He was starting the next year, playing in one of the best districts in Alabama. By the time he was 15 years old, he realized he wanted to play Division I football. His coach would pass out letters players received from colleges in front of the team to motivate them to work harder. It worked on Looney, and he eventually landed a scholarship from Mississippi State to play for Dan Mullen.

Looney was a favorite there too, and by the time he was done with his playing days in Starkville, “The Mayor” was now known as “The Governor.”

When his playing days were over, Looney got a job as a manager at Target. After six months, he came home and told Sarah, “Mom, I’m going back into football, that’s where my heart is.”

That’s when Looney landed a job at East Mississippi Community College. Coaching on a low salary, Looney lived in a rented trailer in a town with only two gas stations and the nearest Walmart about an hour away. But he was coaching football, so he was happy.

“That’s how important it was, he loved the sport that much,” she said. “He knew what he wanted to do was coach, and he needed to get back into coaching.”

EMCC won a national title during Looney’s second season there, before he went to Central Arkansas to coach tackles and tight ends from 2014 to 2015. He was a graduate assistant at Georgia in 2016, and spent the 2017 season coaching tight ends at Mississippi State before joining Louisiana in 2018.

“He didn’t put off things that he wanted,” she said. “He went ahead and got what he wanted, when he wanted it.”

Anybody who spent time at Louisiana’s facilities felt D.J. Looney’s energy.

“He was the life of the party,” center Shane Vallot said. “It was fun to look forward to going to practice every day, the meetings every day, and see Coach Looney.”

Former Louisiana offensive lineman Kevin Dotson said, “As soon as he comes around the corner, he’s going to say something that’s either hilarious, or just trying to perk everybody’s energy up. It don’t matter football player, soccer player, anybody who is in the complex is going to have that experience with him.”

Everyone has different memories of Looney, but one thing that stands out is his literal and metaphorical open-door policy. No matter who you were or what he had going on, you could talk to him.

For Sale, it was hearing him on FaceTime with his nieces and nephews, and how happy they were to be hearing from their uncle. For Vallot, it simply was hearing him sing. For former offensive lineman Robert Hunt, it was walking in, sitting down and talking about anything.

Looney’s presence wasn’t limited to the office. For Morgan, the defensive backs coach, it was the way Looney gravitated to him immediately after Morgan’s twin daughters were born after just five months, both weighing under two pounds.

“Looney was always checking on me,” Morgan said. “He would call my phone so much that even my little 2-year-old, every time my phone FaceTimed, she’s ‘Coach! Coach! Coach!’ she starts screaming it, because he’s always talking to her.” Morgan says that to this day, any time somebody tries to FaceTime him, she screams for Looney.

Sarah has now taken over that role for Looney. “She has all the appointments that my kids have, and she’s messaging me asking how the appointments went,” Morgan said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Napier added, “What I appreciated about D.J. was — he really cared. It was real with him. He had sincere interest in helping people. He had a lot to do with the culture we’ve been able to build here.”

Looney’s FCS coaching roots helped him handle more things than most FBS coaches might be able or even willing to do. More simply, it was who he was.

Doing it all meant being the guy players were willing to talk to. No matter what position a player was playing, Looney was willing to give them the time to help fix whatever might be affecting them.

Morgan said multiple coaches on staff would ask Looney to talk to a player to make sure everything was all right.

“A kid that won’t say nothing to nobody, will go in there and spill everything,” Morgan said. “Looney would come back in there and change the kid, the kid would be brand new after Looney talks to him.”

“He could always tell what your needs were — if you needed a hug, or a laugh, or somebody to set you straight,” Sarah said.

Looney was able to help players flip the switch in a similar way on the field, too.

“He’d find a way like, ‘Hey man, come on! I’m looking for something big from you freak!’ And the kid would just smile like, ‘All right I got you coach,’ Juluke said. “And that kid’s whole persona of his body language would change because of those few words that D.J. may have spoken to him.

“And to me, that’s what you miss, the dynamic staff member that’s like that.”

That same energy made Looney great at recruiting, which was one reason Napier wanted to bring him in. Louisiana signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the Sun Belt for both 2019 and 2020, and Looney was a big reason why.

“There would be a five-star kid, four-star kid that shouldn’t be able to get on the phone, and the dude’s blowing him up all the time, they’re just having casual conversation,” Morgan said. “There’s a lot of guys that we didn’t get late that we shouldn’t have even been in the mix on.”

Sale said, “He’s an O-line guy, but recruited a linebacker from Mississippi that might be in the linebacker room now. But he continued to work on those relationships and investing in those kids. It wasn’t just like, ‘OK linebacker coach, he’s yours now.’ He wasn’t like that.”

Looney didn’t forget about players once they left campus, either.

He helped Hunt pick an agent when he needed the guidance. Hunt said that Looney was asking the important questions that he himself hadn’t considered, and was able to make sure he was taken care of as he took the next step in his playing career. “He was like a big brother to me,” Hunt said

Dotson didn’t get an invite to the NFL combine, and as the coronavirus pandemic started, there was plenty of concern as to what Dotson would do in order to give himself the chance to be drafted in the best position possible.

“He went out of his way to find a place, find coaches — reliable coaches,” Dotson said. “Coaches that — if they gave the time — everybody would believe.” Dotson ended up being drafted in the fourth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and was starting by Week 2.

The extra care Looney showed everybody made him a good coach on the field, too. His chemistry with Sale extended to the field, and made for the strongest units on Louisiana’s roster since the Napier era started.

The players will tell you Looney was a tough coach who loved all his players.

“He would make the coaching fun,” Vallot said. That was the big thing about him. He’ll coach us hard, he’ll tell us straight, but we could all respect him and have fun with him because it was: Coach us hard, but there’s a joke with it.”

Vallot never played center before coming to Louisiana, but because Looney did in college, he was able to get him up to speed. “He was right by my side the whole way — I was having trouble snapping the ball, so he was showing me,” he said.

Dotson said that Looney’s ability to adjust his attitude was key to their success. Looney became much more serious on game day, and the players fed off of it. “You could feel the intensity on game day,” he said. “His happy-go-lucky mood — it’s not gone — but his intense mood at the forefront.”

“It gets you in the right mindset. It tells you this is not practice. When Looney is like this, you can tell that this is not practice. There’s no playing around anymore, it’s ‘you gotta match my energy.'”

Looney had many sayings the players keep in mind today, but the one that sticks out the most is “5 = 1.” Five offensive linemen working together equal one unit. It’s now on the wall of Louisiana’s offensive line meeting room. It’s an attitude they carry with them every practice, and every game.

“This guy was going to be a rock star,” Morgan said. “He was a rock star, but he was really gonna be a rock star, period. Nobody can argue that with me.”

When Sarah and her husband, David Looney, went to Lafayette after D.J.’s death, she was asked if she wanted to speak to the team. At first, she wasn’t sure what to say and joked about how much she didn’t like it when the team went for it on fourth down because of how nervous it made her.

Then, Sarah told the team they had to carry on, because she knew that’s what D.J. would have wanted.

“D.J. told me one time after a game — I was upset, and I was talking about it. He said, ‘Mom, we have a 24-hour rule, that no matter what happens after 24 hours, we move on. We start preparing for the next game, for the next day, for the next opportunity.’ I just encouraged them to remember that. Not that you could ever forget when it came to your knowledge of him and knowing who he was — but that you couldn’t let that stop you in your tracks, you had to keep on.”

There could never be anything that would immediately make things better for a team that lost the person they loved the most, and were around every day. But Sarah did better than anybody else could.

“Seeing her be so strong for her own son — I mean that’s her son — and seeing her be so strong, going up there and telling us that she would want us to move on, that helped me a lot,” Vallot said. “Because if I can see his mom being strong, that makes us want to be strong for her.”

“I hated to see those kids so broken up by it,” she said. “I understand their anguish, I really did. But I wanted to give them something positive to think about — kind of like giving them permission to go ahead and restart life.”

The Ragin’ Cajuns have worked to get back to normal during a time that is anything but. They opened the 2020 season against No. 23 Iowa State, and upset the Cyclones on the road. Sale and Morgan walked off the field together, arms around each other, crying until they got to the locker room.

“It was just crazy to me,” Morgan said. “Just amazing that we went through all this stuff to get where we at now, knowing how he would have responded, he would have had a ball. He would have loved it — he would have been dancing, having fun.”

Since then, Louisiana has remained unbeaten and takes its 3-0 record and No. 21 AP ranking into Wednesday’s game with Coastal Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App).

Despite working to move forward, somebody with an impact like Looney’s doesn’t just go away. That’s a good thing for Louisiana’s program moving forward.

“He had a bright future in this business,” Juluke said. “There are not many Black O-line coaches in America, and D.J. had the ability to become one of the best in doing it. I think that the impact that he had is going to continue on to tell people work hard for what you want, do it with a smile on your face, and make sure you’re giving it 110 percent on a regular basis, and you’re gonna have good things happen to you.

“That energy is still here, those beliefs are still here, those fundamental things we do are still here, and we are excited that our young men are going to continue to honor him in that way.”


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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