by Rick Beck

Chapter 6

We Are the Champions

Bonner wasn't in school on Monday and he didn't appear at practice that afternoon.

Coach Winger ran his usual loose exercises and short scrimmage without equipment on the Monday after a game.

The defense was a tightly honed unit after nine wins.

His athletes were well conditioned. They'd loosen up and go through the motions. Players didn't need to be told where they belonged or what to do. If a player didn't know by now, he wouldn't be playing much when Saturday rolled around.

Coach Winger paced the sidelines. He didn't know if he had a quarterback or not. He wouldn't run his offense with anyone but Bonner at the helm. He didn't want to mess with their timing and he kept them doing light exercise, after telling them that Bonner needed a couple of days off for him to be ready for the game against Duval.

In the back of his mind the coach knew Bonner would play if he could play. Until he knew different, he made no move that looked like he was planning to use Scott to call signals and handle the ball. If it came to that, they'd only run simple running plays. The ball would stay on the ground and Scott would do what he was told to do.

Coach Winger remembered his foul mood after Casterbrook was hurt. He thought about how shaky he was after he received that note. He wasn't sure if Bonner would play or not. He had a plan if he couldn't play but he wasn't going to write Bonner off yet.

He didn't know how seriously Bonner was hurt. He refused medical attention once he got up after he was blindsided. He had been alert but there was no doubt he took a serious hit.

The linebacker who hit Bonner was ejected from the game and it cost Woodruff fifteen yards for the late hit. It didn't matter in either case. Woodruff was going to lose. Grant was going to win. It remained to be seen what the final cost for that win would be.

The penalty was assessed on the subsequent kickoff. With the score Grant 21 and Woodruff 7 and a little over two minutes to play, the game was virtually over . Woodruff hadn't moved the ball well for the entire game and there wasn't much time left on the clock.

Woodruff's season was over. Grant was going on to play Duval in the league championship game.

Monday, spaghetti day in the cafeteria, Coach Winger stopped at the office before going to get his lunch. He asked for Bonner's file and he wrote down his listed phone number.

"He isn't in school today Mrs. Myer said. "Do you know about that?"

"Did you ask the principal?" Coach Winger asked.

"No, it's only his second absence this year. You're asking for his file. I thought you might know something."

"He was injured in Saturday's game. He's probably been told to rest. I didn't expect him to be in school today."

"There was a game Saturday?" Mrs. Myer asked.

Coach Winger closed the file and put the sheet of paper with Bonner's number on it in his pocket. He didn't say anything else. If the principal asked, he could say he'd checked on Bonner, which he had no intention of doing. What he didn't know could hurt him, but he was willing to take his chances.

How was it the principal's secretary didn't know Grant won the biggest game in school history Saturday?

He resisted the desire to clue her in.

While Bonner said he'd be fine, Coach Winger knew better. Bonner was having difficulty breathing and that indicated trouble. Most doctors familiar with athletes were going to tell Bonner to avoid physical activity for two weeks.

Coach Winger was playing on Bonner's field and he'd wait until Bonner got in touch with him. He'd seen the hit and it was the kind of thing he feared all along. Bonner held up well until last Saturday. If Bonner was more seriously injured than bruised ribs, he'd have called by now.

Showing courage, Bonner walked off the field under his own power, while leaning on Johnson. Walking and breathing were different functions and Bonner's breathing sounded strained. The coach was familiar with such injuries and he wasn't going to write Bonner off for Saturday.

Bonner said he'd see his own doctor once he was home. He favored his right side as he walked. Tad Johnson stayed very close to him.

Bonner left for home once the bus returned to Grant. Coach Winger should have insisted on talking to his doctor, but he remained conflicted about his roll in Bonner's game.

The principal came down to the sidelines on Monday afternoon. Everyone had seen the hit that knocked Bonner out of the game. Once he was able to get up, he maintained he'd had the wind knocked out of him.

"Have you heard from Bonner, Winger?" The principal asked.

"No, he went to his doctor Saturday. I didn't expect him today," Coach Winger said. "We don't really do much the Monday after games. If I don't hear from him by tomorrow, I'll call his house."

"He wasn't in any of his classes today," the principal said. "I'd hate to think he won't be playing in the championship game. We need that boy on the field."

"He took a mean hit. He'll be sore for a few days. If it was anything more serious than a bruise, he'd have called," Coach Winger said. "The doctor told him to go home and rest until he's feeling better. You'll need to cut him some slack until after Saturday. He knows we're playing for the championship. He won't be sitting on the bench if I know Bonner."

"He'll play Saturday?" The principal asked. "I wouldn't want him to play in a game if he's not physically able, but we need him in that game, Winger."

"I'll know when I talk to him," Coach Winger said. "He took a hard hit. If Bonner can play, he'll play. Hell, he'll try to play if he can't play. The boy has no shortage of guts."

"Keep me posted," the principal said.

As if Coach Winger didn't have enough on his mind, he'd become responsible for reassuring the principal that everything was going to be OK.

Bonner showed up Tuesday afternoon. He didn't attend any classes before coming out to practice. The only thing on his mind was football.

Coach Winger walked and talked to him on the opposite side of the field from where he had the team running drills. Tad Johnson jogged over to intercept them as they walked and talked about Saturday's game.

"I'm OK," Bonner said.

Coach Winger thought Johnson beamed when he came face to face with Bonner.

"You look OK. You going to play Saturday?" Johnson asked.

"Why wouldn't I play?" Bonner asked. "I'm the quarterback."

Talking to Bonner told Coach Winger nothing. Bonner intended to play and he intended to let him play, until he saw evidence that told him Bonner needed to come off the field. He'd deal with that when the time came.

He would devise a game plan to keep Duval's defense away from Bonner. They'd keep the ball on the ground and ware Duval down in the first half. After that, he'd decide if Bonner could pass effectively or not and act accordingly.

Duval was not the football power Woodruff was. If the Grant Lions defense played up to expectations, they shouldn't have a lot of trouble from Duval's offense. With Bonner hurt nothing was for certain, but Grant should be able to run the ball once the offensive line wore down Duval's defense for two quarters.

Bonner said he'd be OK. His doctor was going to get him a flack jacket from one of the local professional teams on loan. This would protect Bonner's ribs in case of another hard hit, which Winger was sure the doctor advised against.

On Wednesday afternoon Bonner appeared wearing the flack jacket. He was moving better on Wednesday than he was on Tuesday. He threw two passes at the swinging tire while no one was watching him, but Coach Winger watched every move Bonner made. Besides those passes, Bonner limited himself to stretching exercises.

Bonner still didn't mingle with the other players. He was in his own place, searching, stretching, seeing what his limitations might be.

The offense seemed willing to give Bonner plenty of room, except for Tad Johnson who walked and talked to Bonner late in the practice on Wednesday.

Bonner was aware that after one more game the dream would end for him. He had no doubt that Grant was better than Duval, but better teams lost to lesser teams all the time. His injury was a factor. If his team did what they were capable of doing, Grant would be league champions Saturday afternoon.

Even though Bonner didn't mingle with his teammates, the mood on Grant's practice field improved quite a bit once the players knew Bonner was there. This meant that all systems were go for Grant to field the team they'd been winning with all year. While no one mentioned playing for the championship, it was on every players mind.

It was on Bonner's mind. Grant was playing good football. If they became league champions, they were going to attract a lot of attention. The game with Woodruff had been the only game Bonner wasn't sure they'd win.

He'd be playing hurt Saturday. He'd do his best to play as well as he was able, but if he thought the offense would do better without him, he'd sit on the bench. It's not how he'd envisioned it going, but playing starting quarterback was never a vision he had, until he was given the job.

Bonner knew he'd gone farther and risen higher than he'd ever imagined was possible. While a championship would be a fine way to cap off a successful season, he'd already done way more than he set out to do.

He could walk away happy and even proud without winning the league championship, but he'd love having the championship to throw in his brother's faces when they gave him a hard time. His brothers were the reason he loved football and they were forever giving him a hard time.

Whatever happened Saturday, they'd be proud of him.

On Thursday Bonner ran the offense and he went through the motions. There was no equipment, no physical contact, no running. He took snaps and went through the motions of handing off. He never passed the ball down field.

The team was ready for Duval and what they needed to see is what Bonner showed them. He could move the way he was supposed to. It caused discomfort, but Bonner didn't let on that he was still hurting. He wanted to play Saturday.

Coach Winger had been careful all week. Having an important player injured while practicing a few days before the biggest game in school history wouldn't be smart. Risking any more damage to Bonner was out of the question.

Coach Winger watched Bonner move. He watched the way Bonner's right elbow stayed flush against the flack jacket so it couldn't bounce against his ribs.

The drills were motion drills. There was motion without any follow through. Coach Winger knew why Bonner didn't pass the ball to Johnson a few times. No one questioned the lack of intensity in the drills.

Everyone's mind was on the Duval game by then.

Bonner knew throwing passes was going to hurt. He'd save the passes he had left in his arm for the game. When he backed away from center and looked for Johnson down field in the game Saturday, that's when he'd know if he'd already thrown his last completed pass in a football game.

That's when Duval would find out if Bonner was too wounded to throw passes. Grant could win the game staying on the ground, but the championship game was a showcase for the more talented players on both teams.

College recruiters and coaches would be in the stands. They'd want to see how the boys they were interested in played under pressure. They wanted to see how boys they would recruit played in the biggest game of the season.

Johnson and Taylor were both heavily recruited and if Bonner couldn't throw passes, his receivers wouldn't be able to show off their talent and that would never do. Bonner needed to be able to throw passes.

Coach Winger smiled to himself when he'd thought that he was finally able to keep Bonner on the ground.

The principal came down to watch practice on Thursday. He'd been waiting to be told that Bonner was in school, even if he didn't come until the afternoon.

Hearing Bonner was there eased the apprehension everyone at Grant shared that week.

"Can he play?" The principal asked.

"He seems determined to play. We won't know if he can play, until he takes the field. I'll try to limit him. I've had Scott taking snaps and handing the ball off to Carlos and Johnson. I'll spell Bonner during the game. If he paces himself, and avoids a big hit, we should be OK."

"I want this championship, Winger. Grant needs this championship. I just don't want that boy seriously hurt in getting it," the principal said.

"Duval knows Bonner took a hit he nearly didn't get up from. They'll be going after those ribs. The only chance they think they have is by putting Bonner out of the game," Coach Winger said.

"You know this how?" The principal asked.

"It's what I'd do under the same circumstances. Football is a rough game and part of it is knowing the weaknesses of your opposition. That's where you attack," Coach Winger said.

The principal processed what Coach Winger said. He didn't have anything else to say. There was no hint of any controversy concerning Bonner. It didn't necessarily remove his anxiety but it eased up some, and Coach Winger stayed away from his mailbox.

Johnson wanted to meet Bonner after practice on Thursday, but Bonner wanted to go home to continue healing. Johnson wanted to win as badly as Bonner did, and he accepted that Bonner needed rest.

Friday was an even lighter day at practice. There were warmup exercises and some jogging. Boys sat on the football field and enjoyed a mild November day.

Coach Winger made no speeches and he didn't tell his boys how important tomorrow's game was.

He'd let his team do the talking on the field Saturday.

Coach Winger was ill at ease. He didn't know which of his concerns about Saturday's game bothered him most, but he said all he had to say to his boys.

Once practice ended on Friday, it was out of the coaches hands. It was up to the boys now. He told them everything he thought they needed to know. If they protected Bonner, they'd be in the driver's seat. If they failed to protect Bonner, the game would be up for grabs.

There was another matter tickling the underside of Coach Winger's worries. Something was lurking in the shadows and he couldn't put his finger on what.

There was no sign of trouble during the game on Saturday afternoon. The Grant fans were reserved. Everyone had an eye on Bonner. With his ribs taped and wearing a flack jacket under his jersey, Bonner took the field with the offense.

For two quarters the game remained scoreless. Grant kept the ball in Duval's territory most of the first half.

It was Grant 0 and Duval 0 at halftime.

Bonner hadn't thrown one pass. His offensive line played like junkyard dogs. They refused to allow entry into Grant's backfield. It remained to be seen whether or not Grant could score against Duval's defense by keeping the ball on the ground. Grant made no effort to score so far.

Bonner moving on and off the field was a relief to Grant's fans. Bonner's line holding back Duval's defensive players gave the fans hope, but handing off to Scott, Carlos, Scott, but there were no scores. Duval spent the half defending against the run.

Everyone was sure that Bonner couldn't pass the ball.

Since Bonner didn't take any hits, it was a tradeoff that left the Grant fans hoping for better things in the second half. They were going to be disappointed right off.

At the start of the third quarter, Scott lined up to take snaps, handing off to Carlos and Johnson who lined up in the backfield. Sometimes Scott ran the ball himself.

Bonner sat alone and without motion on the Grant bench.

Johnson broke free for 12 and 8 yard runs in the third quarter. They stood alone as the only two Grant first downs. Duval did no better as Grant's defense kept pushing them backward.

It ate up the clock and it kept Duval from getting anywhere close to a score, but the fans were growing restless.

From behind Grant's bench fans began to chant.

"Bonner! Bonner! Bonner!"

For the most part it seemed to be ignored. Bonner sat with a warmup jacket over his shoulders and the game went on without him. So far it was played between the twenty yard lines.

As the third quarter was coming to an end, Duval punted yet again to Grant.

The chant continued.

"Bonner. Bonner. Bonner."

Coach Winger decided to rest Bonner for the third quarter. He'd let Duval's defense dash itself against Grant's offensive line for a quarter longer.

He told that line, "Keep them out of the backfield."

His boys refused to move. Duval became more and more determined to move them.

The coach smiled to himself toward the end of the third quarter. So far so good, he thought.

"Bonner, do some stretching. The fourth quarter is close."

Grant fans pointed at Bonner doing exercises behind the Grant bench. A buzz went through the crowd as the time out was called before the fourth quarter started.

The score remained, Grant 0, Duval 0.

It was time for Coach Winger to see if his plan worked.

There were many facets to the plan. The first was already in play. The fans were getting excited over the prospect of Bonner returning to the game.

On the other side of the ball, Duval thought Bonner was out of the game for good. When Bonner returned to the field, Duval would be disappointed, because Bonner represented a real threat to break the game open.

Even with Bonner back in the game, if he kept on running the ball, he was far less dangerous, so Duval had to be fired up to stop the run. They were determined not to give Grant a lift by allowing them to move the ball.

Bonner gave his team a lift by being in the game.

"Bonner," Coach Winger said. "How do you feel?"

"I'm fine, coach. I'm ready."

"All those restrictions I put on you before the game?"

"Yeah, coach," Bonner said smiling.

"Forget them. Go out there and play some Bonnerball."

"OK, coach."

"Whatever you need to do to beat these guys, do it. It's your game now."

"OK, coach."

Not even Coach Winger knew if Bonner would be able to throw accurately. With Duval's defense worn down and conditioned to expect the run, the pressure on Grant's quarterback should be less intense. He'd have time to pass the ball, if he could pass the ball.

No one thought the game would end in a tie.

Bonner ran back onto the field to join the huddle at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Grant fans were elated. Duval fans, not so much.

Duval players were not overjoyed to see Bonner come back into the game, assuming he was done for the day.

Bonner knelt in the middle of the Grant huddle.

He yelled, "Go," after calling the play.

On first down he took three steps backward, faked to Scott, and he handed the ball to Carlos who ran for three yards. They huddled and he called the second play of the fourth quarter, handing off to Scott who ran for five yards.

Now Duval knew what they needed to know. Bonner probably wasn't able to accurately pass. They brought nine guys up on the line, leaving a man to cover Johnson and one to cover Taylor down field. Everyone else would concentrate on stopping Scott.

On third and two with everyone in the stadium thinking Scott would run on third and two, Bonner took the snap. He took three steps back. When Duval's defense broke through Grant's line, they went straight for Scott.

Bonner faked to Scott and once Duval was in the backfield, he stepped up and tossed the ball to Johnson on the left sideline. Johnson faked left, went right, and the defender fell down as Johnson ran down the sideline and into the end zone.

Shortly after putting the ball on the ground at his feet, a jubilant Bonner jumped into Tad's arms. The team showed up a few seconds later to celebrate with their quarterback and star receiver.

Bonner could pass the ball.

, Grant fans went crazy. They screamed and yelled.

"Johnson. Johnson. Johnson."

With the extra point being almost automatic by this point in the season, it was Grant 7, Duval 0.

Coach Winger walked with satisfaction behind the Grant bench. It was rewarding. His team had done everything he asked it to do. Now they were in a position to win the game.

There was little to say once Grant's offense sat on the bench. With Grant's defense on the field, the game was in good hands. Few offenses had scored many points against Grant's defense. A solid defense was the hallmark of a team Coach Winger put together.

However, Duval's offense knew they only needed one touchdown and the extra point to tie the game. Duval wasn't in the championship game because they were a pushover and the Duval players still believed they could win.

As the clock ticked, Duval went about looking for a way to score a touchdown, but Grant was equally determined not to allow them to score.

Coach Winger stood behind where Bonner sat and he watched the combat. He knew anything could happen in a football game.

"You OK, Bonner," the coach finally asked.

"I'm good. I'm glad that play worked. I don't know if I can throw another pass, coach but I'm going to try. It would be nice if the defense holds Duval without a score though."

"With luck they will and you won't need to throw another pass, Bonner. I'll use Scott to eat up the clock, once we get the ball back. One touchdown might be enough."

Grant had the lead and their defense refused to give up a yard. It was three and out for Duval, and with the clock running, there were less than five minutes left when Duval was forced to punt the ball.

"I want to finish," Bonner said. "With all those recruiters in the stands, I want to at least make an effort to send Johnson off with a little more to brag about."

"You can't be sure you won't take a hit, Bonner. I think the game is won. We can run most of the time off the clock. Duval hasn't done much offensively all day," Winger said.

"I want to go in," Bonner said, and he ran on the field once the punt was run back to Grant's forty.

"I'm calling two plays," Bonner said in the huddle. "I'll hand off to Scott on the first play. Take it up the middle. Listen up, we can ice this game with no time left. I want the line to do what it did on the last pass. Let them in on the count of two. Johnson, go for the left sideline, and then cut to the middle of the field ten yards past the line of scrimmage. The ball will be there when you arrive, if I'm not flat on my back. Go!" Bonner yelled, breaking the huddle.

Bonner figured Duval expected him to pass the ball, so he ran Scott straight up the middle for twelve yards.

Duval was confused when Grant didn't huddle between plays. Grant's offensive line immediately came to the line of scrimmage and got set.

Duval had to scramble to get lined up in time. They went back to their run defense, thinking Bonner would run time off the clock.

Instead, Bonner threw the ball to Johnson and he galloped into the end zone. Bonner hoped to finish his football career with a flourish that gave Tad Johnson something to brag about.

Bonner was finally satisfied that he'd done enough.

Tad Johnson had never looked better scoring a touchdown. His team gang tackled him and they rolled in the end zone with the certainty of champions.

Bonner walked off the field once Johnson was over the goal line. He'd given it all he had and he was never more worn out than after that last pass.

"You going to be OK, Bonner?" Coach Winger asked.

"They are playing our song," Coach Winger said.

"What do you mean?" Bonner asked.

"See the suits standing behind us with the state trooper?"

Bonner turned his head to see over his shoulder where four men in suits stood beside a very tall state trooper.

"Yeah," Bonner said.

"The tallest suit. That's the league president. Judson Hermann. The other two are league officials. The fourth guy I suspect is the league's attorney. They aren't standing there for their health," the coach said.

Bonner turned to look again as Grant players came back to the bench. Grant had been assessed a five yard penalty for delay of game. Not everyone was celebrating Grant's almost certain win.

"You OK," Tad Johnson asked Bonner.

"I won't be going dancing tonight, but I'm OK."

"You boys stay on the bench. I'll put in subs to run the clock to the two minute time out. Then Scott can run the offense. Just take a knee once the snap it made."

Scott didn't need to run the offense. Duval ran for two first downs and time ran out.

The final score was Grant 14 and Duval 0.

It was like no other game Grant played that season. With the flamboyant Bonner largely restricted, Grant did what they needed to do to win.

Grant didn't play pretty football that day. They won anyway. Good teams find a way to win.

Coach Winger left the celebrating players once they came off the field at the end of the game.

He'd been called over to where the men in suits stood.

Not much was said before he walked over to Bonner.

"Our presence has been requested in the parking garage. There is something the league officials wish to speak to us about."

As they left the bench, no one noticed. Pandemonium had broken loose as Grant fans stormed the bench and the players. There wasn't anyone who didn't have something to say.

The absence of the coach and the quarterback hadn't been discovered yet, but it would be, and soon.

"What are they going to say?" Bonner asked.

"It's anybody's guess. I'm thinking it won't be, 'Nice game,'" Coach Winger said as the two walked shoulder to shoulder down the ramp and into the garage.

The men in suits and the state trooper who stood behind Grant's bench, now stood at the bottom of the ramp.

"Coach Winger," Judson Hermann said. "You know why we are here?"

"To congratulate me on finally winning the championship," Coach Winger said happily.

"I'd have done that on the field," Mr. Hermann said.

"Doesn't matter to me where you say it. It's just nice to win the big one."

"It's about your quarterback," Mr. Hermann said.

"I'd rather you compliment me on the field," Bonner said. "There's an entire team that deserves your attention."

"Yes, I'm sure you're right. This is about the note you received the week of the Woodruff game," he said.

"Note? Refresh my mind," Coach Winger said. "It's been a long season. A lot has happened."

"You didn't get a note telling you that your quarterback was an ineligible player?"

"Ineligible? Me?" Bonner asked.

"If it's the note I think you're talking about, Bonner and I got a rather big kick out of it. We laughed about it all week, but what does that have to do with this?" Coach Winger asked. "I understood someone was hoping to disrupt our preparations for Woodruff. If you noticed the results of the Woodruff game, it didn't work. We won that one too, but being the sharp administrator you are, I bet you knew that."

"Coach Winger, we regard this a serious matter. Your cavalier demeanor is reckless. I assure you we take the violation of league rules seriously."

"As you should. Wait a minute, Jud, don't tell me. Someone sent you a note too. Doesn't that beat all. Some people never give up. I'm glad you didn't fall for that load of crap. Now that we're champions and will soon get the trophy to prove it, no one can deny Grant its day in the sun. Next they'll be sending you a note saying I'm a chartreuse kangaroo, but you can plainly see, I'm not chartreuse."

"So you did get the note. This isn't over, Winger. We take those charges seriously," Mr. Hermann said. "This is a serious matter we're investigating. I expect both you and Bonner to be available when we call on you."

"Yes, I can tell by where we're holding this meeting how serious it is. Jud, if you are going to file a formal complaint, well, don't ask me to come to the basement to get it. OK. File your complaint and I'll answer your questions as best I can but my team has won the league championship and someone is going to begin wondering where I've gotten off to, not to mention Bonner."

"We have reason to believe you may have played games with an ineligible player. Doesn't it concern you?"

"Look at me," Bonner said. "Do I look like a player who gives Grant an unfair advantage? No. The only advantage I have is that I'm good at what I do. I'm legally enrolled at Grant High. I'm seventeen. I have a physical that says I'm in good enough health to participate in athletics. My grades are excellent. Anything else is academic. That is what your investigation will reveal. Everything I've done is by the book. People who were interested in making sure I got to play football saw to it that we broke no rules."

"What people?" Mr. Hermann asked.

"You conduct your investigation. You want to pursue what this anonymous note says, that's on you. I did what I came to do and what you need to ask yourself is, do you want to force me to go public? If you do, I'm going to tell it all and you're going to be left with a lot of questions to answer. You'll need to explain how Grant managed to beat all the other teams in our division on the way to the championship. No one is going to believe I gave Grant an unfair advantage. That's what you need to think about. I'm done here. I did what I came to do. The game is over."

"What the hell is that?" Mr. Hermann asked as the garage begin to shake. "Go up and see what's going on out there."

The state trooper took long strides up the ramp. Before he returned voices could be heard in the underground structure.

A minute later the trooper reappeared and he came back to where the group stood.

"The people in the stands were stamping their feet. Once I started back down the ramp, they began yelling, "Bonner! Bonner! Bonner!"

Mr. Hermann looked at Bonner and then he looked at Coach Winger.

"You haven't heard the last of this. There is going to be an investigation, Winger," Mr. Hermann said.

At that instant there was a new chant wafting its way into the parking garage.

"Winger! Winger! Winger," the crowd screamed and they began stomping their feet again.

"I'd like to stand here and chat, but our public is playing our song. Well, it's been nice speaking with you. Bonner, let's go give these people what they came for."

Bonner walked with Coach Winger as they returned to the field for the trophy presentation.

The crowd roared when they saw both Bonner and Coach Winger walking toward midfield. Only the Grant fans hung around to see the presentation of the trophy.

It had been a remarkable season.

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