It All Started With Utah

Every once in a while, a group of men get together whose talent and collective interactions lead to greatness. This is such a tale. In Part One, we provide the backdrop and special season recap for one of the greatest Boise State football teams in history--the 1980 I-AA National Champions.

Prior to beginning this article, I would like to express sincere thanks to Tom Scott, Michel Bourgeau, the Boise State Library, the Boise State Archives Department, the Boise State athletic Department and The Idaho Statesman for their assistance. I conducted research at Boise State and utilized stories contained in The Statesman and "The Broncos: An Illustrated History of Boise State University Athletics 1932-1994" by Dr. Patricia Ourada. Photos provided in the story are courtesy of Boise State University, the Boise State Athletic Department, the Boise State Library, the Boise State Archives Department and photographer Jerry Ingram. All rights are protected by copyright law and permission must be granted by the above individual and entities prior to use of any photo.

In this edition of the 45-Day Countdown, we open up a drawer in the Boise State time capsule, one of five we will examine this offseason. Not only will this help us relive past memories, these time capsules can also serve as a history lesson, both a reminder and a blueprint for future Bronco football teams.

This is a very special time capsule, for in this drawer is the time-kept formula for a national championship football team. The 1980 Division I-AA National Championship Boise State football team is next on the Countdown.

These are two age-old adages but they are timeless. 1)It matters not what gifts you are born with, but what you do with them. 2) You are important to be sure, but not as important as the world.

That Boise State was able to rise to the top of their division of football is testament to both of the wise sayings above. Of course the 1980 Broncos had talent—loads of it. You cannot excel at the level they did without plenty of talent. But they didn't just show up and expect to win—this was a blue-collar team in the truest sense. In this magical season, they would beat some teams that on paper, it seemed as if they didn't have a chance. This was a great team of fantastic players, not a collection of great players that happened to be on the same team. A great team will nearly always beat a collection of great players.

The other wise saying fits the 1980 National Champions as well. In this context, it means that each individual player is important but it is more important to understand your role on the team and to devote your time fulfilling that role. If all the parts of the team are doing their individual jobs, the team excels.

There was a saying when the fine group of American musical artists got together in 1985 to record "We Are The World", the USA for Africa project. Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, Steve Perry, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, Huey Lewis and more of the top musical talent in the United States at the time was on hand. All of these individuals had enjoyed great success and made millions of dollars in their individual careeers. Most of them were superstars or were certainly on that track. The saying was "Leave your ego at the door." It helped to put the collective mindset of this incredible collaboration of musical talent in the proper attitude. It is every bit as relevant to a college football team as it was to the world's greatest collection of musical talent ever assembled in one project.

The 1980 Broncos epitomized the team concept. They worked together, laughed together, practiced together and achieved their goal together. "The team had a bunch of chemistry; it was just a group of guys that worked hard," quarterback Joe Aliotti said. Had egos gotten in the way, there are some on the team that would have been hurt or angry. Perhaps they thought they should be starting instead of someone else. Or maybe they thought they should be getting a lot more snaps rather than sharing time.

Either the great members of this team didn't ever have these thoughts or they were deeply suppressed because on the outside looking in, no such thoughts or attitudes were perceived. These players not only had great talent but great human qualities. They were leaders. And they were winners. You will see that over and over again when you learn of the great career successes that these Broncos have enjoyed both on and off the field.

We begin with the backdrop to the 1980 season. In 1979, Boise State was placed on probation for the first and only time in their 78-year history of playing football for a scouting violation that occurred the year before. Boise State would not be eligible for postseason and as an added penalty, they would not be given the right to review films of the opposition prior to each game. Boise State would be required to send film to the upcoming opponent, but they could not receive any. The players didn't have any role in the incident but they had to deal with it. "We were disappointed," Aliotti said. "At that age, none of the players really knew what it meant. They just wanted to play. I just wanted to contribute, lead the team and win games. It gave the team the incentive to work harder because they didn't have film on their opponents each week."

With that penalty comes the ultimate decision that each player must make in a similar circumstance. 'Do I stay here and wait out the penalty, knowing there is basically nothing to play for except pride or do I transfer out?' Head coach Jim Criner anticipated this decision and had a sign made that would be posted outside the Bronco locker room for every player to see each and every day.

"Those Who Stay Will Be National Champions." The Bronco players saw that, pondered it, thought about the alternatives, and decided to stay at Boise State. Those Who Stay Will Be National Champions.

Boise State went out and played the 1979 season full out, despite knowing there would be no conference championship, no postseason. They blitzed opponents for a 10-1 season record.

So there you have the background for this story. In the offseason, Bronco players were chomping at the bit. The 1980 season counted. They could be Big Sky Champions, qualify for the NCAA Division I-AA national playoffs and after that who knew—maybe the locker room sign was prophetic.

Boise State featured a tremendous backfield consisting of quarterback Joe Aliotti, running backs Cedric Minter and Terry Zahner and fullback David Hughes. Aliotti came to Boise State in 1979 as a junior college transfer while Minter, Zahner and Hughes had played three full years in the program. The school marketing department seized on a promotional opportunity. Dubbing the backfield "The Four Horsemen" after the legendary Notre Dame backfield, they quickly and brilliantly marketed the quartet with the theme "The Four Horsemen Ride Again". It not only was a tribute to their ability but after the probation year, gave Bronco fans and players a reason to get excited again.

The first thing Boise State did to open the 1980 season was go down to Salt Lake City for a game with the Division I-A Utah Utes. It was generally felt that Utah's team represented the school's best in 20 years. The Utes returned 21 of 22 starters and were picked to finish second in the Western Athletic Conference behind BYU. Utah had 95 players on scholarship to Boise State's 65.

More than 3,000 Bronco fans traveled to support their team. Ute fans greeted the Bronco team with cries like "Welcome to the big leagues!" Boise State took the opening kickoff and marched 80 yards in 16 plays with Zahner carrying it over from the 2. The Broncos drove 96 yards on their next possession to score again. On a second-and-11 from their own 27, Aliotti hit Lance LaShelle at the 45. Two plays later, the pair hooked up again and LaShelle broke free and sprinted to the 5 before he was tackled. Minter dove over from a yard out and the Broncos were up 14-0.

The Boise State defense was outstanding in pressure situations. "Utah made some good adjustments at half and it took us a quarter to get the offense back," Coach Criner said after the game. Ron Chatterton picked off a pass at the goal line to halt Utah's opening drive of the second half. Ray Santucci got a pick of a Rick Harris pass at the Bronco 13. Dan Williams also had an interception to thwart a Ute drive. "The defense did a heck of a job," Aliotti said. "Santucci, Williams and Chatterton really came up with key interceptions when they were driving on us." Division I-AA Boise State shocked the powerful Utes 28-7. Zahner rushed for 113 yards and scored twice to become Boise State's second-leading all-time rusher (behind Minter) with 1,625 yards. He passed John Smith (1,596) and Fred Goode (1,581). Dan Williams had 15 tackles to lead the defense.

Nebraska Coach George Darlington watched the game from the press box. "I was just very impressed with Boise State's football team," he said. "The quarterback (Aliotti) showed tremendous poise and command of the offense."

The next thing Boise State did was come back home to Bronco Stadium and lose to Southeastern Louisiana 17-13. What the heck. "That's sports," Aliotti said. "It wasn't like anyone said that they had just beaten a major college team on the road and now we get an unranked I-AA team at home, but no doubt it was in the back of guys' minds. You don't figure it out until you're older that you need to focus each week no matter what."

A key road test at always-tough Northern Arizona loomed and the Broncos were 1-1. The Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff was a tough place to win. The Lumberjacks featured great speed in running back Ed Judie and sophomore wide receiver Pete Mandley. "Mandly on the reverse, Mandley up the middle. You can't afford to give him a whole lot of room," Criner said. Minter picked up 171 yards on the ground as Boise State escaped with a 20-18 victory.

Quarterback Scott Lindquist hit Mandley for a touchdown on fourth-and-9 with 1:54 left to bring NAU within two. But the Bronco defense held and the two-point conversion attempted failed. Northern Arizona had one more chance to win but a fourth down pass to Mandley was disrupted as Rick Woods, Chris Bell and Larry Alder (pictured in photo) were on hand to break up the play.

Nick Klistoff recovered a fumble in the end zone for Boise State's touchdown in the first half. Mandley ran one kick back 92 yards to set up NAU's first score and caught a 61-yard pass with just seconds left in the second quarter to set up his team again. However, the Bronco defense held four times from inside their own five-yard line and the half ended with Boise State ahead 13-9. Coaches John Fox and Claude Tomasini made adjustments at halftime, putting the Broncos in a zone defense--this enabled them to better contain Mandley's reverses. Boise State scored its only offensive touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter when Minter took a pitch and dashed nine yards into the end zone.

Lindquist finished 15-of-25 passing for 196 yards. The win moved Boise State to #10 in the Division I-AA national rankings.

The Montana trips were always tough and this year was no exception. Boise State fell behind Montana State 10-0 in Bozeman at the half. Minter scored on an 18-yard run to cut the deficit to 10-7. In the fourth quarter, Zahner capped a drive from two yards out for Boise State's first lead 14-10. With five minutes remaining, Kenrick Camerud booted a 41-yard field goal to give the Broncos a 17-10 lead. But MSU then drove 74 yards to score, followed by a two-point conversion, and Boise State fell 18-17.

Now Boise State was 2-2—not nearly the kind of season the Broncos thought they would have. However, there was an emotional meeting following the Bozeman defeat and the Broncos went on a five-game winning streak.

Boise State romped against Montana 44-10 as Aliotti threw for 244 yards and 3 TD's. Aliotti hew tight end Duane Dlouhy for 8 yards in the second quarter and Kipp Bedard for another 26-yard scoring strike with 4:25 left in the half to key the win.

Boise State faced Idaho the following week. Vandal quarterback Ken Hobart led Division I-AA in passing. He was 31-61 for 555 yards and 8 TD's passing and had picked up 252 yards on the ground in 4 games. Idaho came into the game averaging 278 rushing yards per game, second in I-AA. Tailback Russell Davis was averaging 90.5 yards per game. A record crowd of 21,812 watched Minter score 4 touchdowns and go over the 4,000-yard mark in career rushing. "I'd like to thank the 1977 line, the 1978 line, the 1979 line and the 1980 line," the typically humble Minter said after the game.

Minter had 176 yards in the first half as the Broncos held a 31-14 lead. The Broncos rushed for 342 that day against a defense that had allowed an average of 63.5 prior to playing Boise State. Idaho Head Coach Jerry Davitch had said pre-game that the Boise State offensive line was the weakness of the team. The Broncos prevailed 44-21.

Boise State drove 98 yards on their second posession with Zahner diving in from a yard out. After a Chatterton fumble recovery less than a minute later, Zahner scored on an 18-yard run. Hobart answered with a 9-yard keeper to make it 14-7 but Camerud's field goal made it 17-7. The Broncos kept the pressure up when, on a fourth-and-goal from the seven, Minter beat Idaho cornerback Greg Jennings to the end zone to make it 24-7. Reserve running back Mark Vigel scored for the Vandals to close it to 24-14. After a 38-yard kickoff return and 30 yards of Idaho penalties, the short passes of Aliotti put Boise State in position for another score and Minter went over the top for the 31-14 halftime lead. In the third quarter, Woods had a 36-yard punt return to set up Boise State with great field position. Minter took the handoff right, leaped over a would-be tackler and reversed field for a 21-yard run that put him over 4,000.

The following week, Boise State had another contest against a Division I-A team. Coach Criner said "I know the team is having fun now. They recognize how much better it is to play with enthusiasm and emotion and play hungry on every play as if it was the last play of their careers. That attitude has permeated the squad and they feel better." Fullerton running back Johnny Rayford had 402 yards rushing in four games but Boise State ran out to a 19-3 lead and won 26-11.

Boise State drove 69 yards to score with 16 seconds remaining in the first quarter as Aliotti hit Zahner in the right end zone with a 4-yard pass to make it 7-0. Tight end Duane Dlouhy recoverd a fumble and ran it in from 13 yards out with 8:58 left but the point failed and it was 13-0. Alder intercepted a Tom St. Jacques pass at the Fullerton 47 and returned it to the 34. Scott Newmann took a 21-yard pass from Aliotti in a leaping, twisting catch and was knocked hard by two Titan defenders at the 1. Zahner scored his second touchdown for Boise State's final score of the half.

Woods had a 27-yard punt return to the Fullerton 37 to set up Boise State's touchdown in the third quarter. At the Fullerton 12, Aliotti hit LaShelle in the end zone. Williams paced the defense with 15 tackles.

Boise State then battled Weber State, who had beaten Reno 10-0 and Montana State 12-7 and led the Big Sky. Weber coach Pete Riehlman said "Holy cow, Minter is the class football player in the league," when asked about Boise State's talented tailback. The Wildcats featured quarterback Bill Tantillo throwing to Curt Miller, Duane Barton and Dave Sebaher.

Woods' 20-yard punt return keyed Boise State's 47-yard drive to open the scoring. After a change of posession, Aliotti flooded the right side with receivers and then slashed behind the coverage for a six-yard touchdown run.

In the second half, Aliotti hit LaShelle with an 11-yard pass deep in the end zone and connected with Newmann on a 29-yard post pattern with 8:30 to play. The Bronco defense was superb, holding the talented Wildcats to five yards in the second half. Linebacker Dan Brown had 11 tackles and a sack to pace the defense. Aliotti hit 17-of-26 passes for 253 yards and 2 TD's to aid the cause on offense. The Broncos shut out Weber State 24-0.

Next up was a confrontation between the two top running backs in Division I-AA and in college football history for that matter. Boise State and Cedric Minter vs. UNR and Frank Hawkins. The Broncos won a hard-fought battle before a packed Bronco Stadium crowd 14-3.

Boise State had locked up a berth in the Division I-AA national playoffs. The team went on the road to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, a Division II school with a reputation for good football teams. The Broncos were upset 23-20 on a last-minute field goal. The Mustangs went on to eventually win the Division II national championship.

All that stood in the way of a Big Sky Conference crown was rival Idaho State in the Pocatello Minidome. Idaho State's program was given a shot in the arm when first-year coach Dave Kragthorpe took over. But Boise State prevailed in this one 22-13 to clinch the conference title.

Boise State was awarded a home game in the opening round of the I-AA national playoffs. The opponent would be powerful Grambling and its legendary coach Eddie Robinson. ABC-TV would do a regional telecast of the semifinal contest. Shifty back Trumaine Johnson was one of the best players in the nation. Grambling's quarterback was Mike Williams, brother of NFL QB Doug Williams. Williams led the nation with a 162.0 passing efficiency rating and was great throwing on the run. Fullback Robert Parham (nicknamed "The Animal") came into the game with 3,315 rushing yards in his career. Grambling was averaging 438.5 yards per game in total offense.

Everson Walls, who would go on to be an NFL star in the Dallas Cowboys' defensive backfield, started for the Tigers on this day. Grambling featured the "Trees of Terror" defensive line of 6-8, 230-pound end Robert Smith, freshman end Robert Thomas (6-3, 260) and tackles Arthur King (6-4, 253, Jr.) and Mike Barker (6-4, 253, Sr.) as the Tigers outweighed Boise State by 10-15 pounds per person on both sides of the ball. Most of Boise State's linemen weighed 220 poiunds sopping wet. Barker was a Kodak All-American and Walls had 11 interceptions to lead the team, which had 29 coming into the game with the Broncos.

The biggger, stronger Tigers couldn't wait to show Boise how bad they were going to beat the "little Broncos". They boasted all week on the radio, television and through the newspaper and even poked fun at Boise State in the pre-game banquet the night before.

It was a cold, foggy day, an inversion in the Treasure Valley. The atmosphere seemed surreal. There was frost everywhere, along the trees of the Boise River to the north, on the field itself—Bronco Stadium truly looked like a winter postcard. From the beginning, the Bronco Stadium crowd of 17,300 seemed like 70,000. Grambling made the mistake of running out of the locker room, through the Bronco drills and onto the stadium track waving towels and making cutting motions to the neck. They couldn't have done a worse thing if they had thought about it for five years. "Grambling came out waving red towels and they ran right through our drills we had set up so that fired us up," Aliotti remembered. The spectacle not only fired up the Bronco players but the crowd. Grambling scored first, however, moving the Bronco defense like a snowplow moves snow on a 59-yard touchdown drive. Grambling had considerable trouble holding onto the football on the cold afternoon, fumbling three times in the first half. Boise State would draw even , when Aliotti scrambled and found Minter for a 31-yard scoring strike in the second quarter.

Nearly the entire second half was played on Boise State's side of the field. Yet the game would remain tied at 7 through three quarters. As the quarter ended, an eruption came out of Bronco Stadium. Four fingers were raised on nearly every fan in the place to signify that the fourth quarter was Boise State's. It was a tradition that carries through to this day.

Through three quarters of football, Boise State had gone toe to toe with legendary Grambling and Eddie Robinson and were tied. As Tom Scott said, "A sudden surge of confidence bulged every stocking cap and blue helmet."

The fourth quarter had barely started. On the second play Aliotti handed off to Zahner. The Trees of Terror converged to suffocate their next victim. Zahner flipped it back to Joe. And there was wide receiver Kipp Bedard all alone past the fooled Tiger secondary. Aliotti let it fly to the waiting arms of Bedard at the 20. Walls dove for Bedard at the 10, but Kipp carried him and the ball into the end zone for a phenomenal 63-yard touchdown. Boise State led 14-7.

Time and time again, the Bronco defense would give up yards only to stymie the Tigers when it mattered most. Twice Grambling penetrated the Bronco 10 and twice they were denied. Scott, who was the best Bronco Stadium announcer ever, was doing the PA for the game. He says he would have been better off in the stands. No one could hear his announcements over the deafening roar of the crowd. Grambling several times appealed to the officials to quiet the Bronco crowd. This was the same Grambling team that two weeks previous had played Southern University before a sold-out Superdome in New Orleans. But this was Boise's Bronco Stadium and they simply could not hear.

Ron Chatterton's sack of Williams halted a Tiger drive inside the Boise State 20. With 38 seconds remaining, Aliotti consumed time with a scamper to the back of his own end zone and then backed out for a safety. Boise State punted. Grambling would get one more chance. But if you believe in destiny, you would understand what ensued. Safety Rick Woods jumped up and ended the game with an interception.

Grambling had 21 first downs to 11 for Boise State. Grambling rushed for 300 yards while holding the Broncos to 228 yards of total offense. The bulk of the game was played on Boise State's side of the field. Grambling had an All-American back. They had a player who would become an All-Pro in the NFL. They had the Trees of Terror. They had size, strength and speed. But Boise State had the win 14-9.

How did the Broncos do it? "You had guys on Grambling that were 6-5, 275, which was big at the time," Aliotti explained. "Our guys were like 6-2, 215. The coaches just did a great job of preparing us and taking advantage of what we needed to do during the game. The flea flicker was a great call against that defense."

Ah, the defense. What defense! Every single member did their part in what was a collective masterpiece. Dan Brown led Boise State with 13 tackles while Williams, Dan Lukehart, Larry Lewis and Chatterton had eight each. Michel Bourgeau, Randy Trautman and Phil Espisoto had seven while Jeff Turpin, Mike Bradeson and Santucci had six each. It was truly a team effort with gang tackling galore. The Broncos limited Grambling to just 41 yards passing. While Aliotti was 10-22 for 141 yards against the talented Tiger secondary, he was money in the clutch. Minter ended up gaining 83 yards on 28 carries. Boise State had punched its ticket to the national championship game!

The going didn't get any easier. Fresh from the jubilation that came with the dramatic semifinal win was the announcement that Boise State's opponent would be defending national champion Eastern Kentucky. Colonel offensive coordinator Joe Kinnan had talked to Denny Schuler, head coach at Utah State. The Aggies had played the University of Kentucky earlier in the year. Schuler told Kinnan "Boise State was probably one of the powers in the entire West, and that included several Pac-10 teams."

Bronco guard Shawn Beaton had watched film on EKU and said "They are very well-coached on fundamentals." Quarterback Chris Isaac (half-brother of star NFL receiver Wes Chandler) was a great dual threat for the Colonels.

December 20, 1980. Sacramento, California. Once again, the Broncos played in a stadium shrouded in fog. The field was in poor condition from numerous football games played already during the fall. The grounds crew used green paint to make it look as good as possible for national television. Over 4,000 Bronco fans made the trip to see their team.

Boise State emerged from the first half with a 14-10 lead. Aliotti floated a five-yard pass to Bedard and fullback David Hughes dove in from a yard out for Boise State's two touchdowns.

In the third quarter, Boise State began to take command. The offense that Bronco fans had seen operate during the year looked more familiar. The Four Horsemen gobbled up huge chunks of yardage and roared to a 24-16 lead. Minter finished off a drive with a one-yard touchdown and Camerud nailed a 24-yard field goal.

Then the game got wild. An interception proved costly as EJU scored just a few plays later to cut the lead to 24-22. With three minutes left, the Colonels had a chip shot field goal to take the lead. But the snap was bad or the holder panicked and the play backfired. Boise State had to punt on their next possession.

With 55 seconds left, Eastern Kentucky would get one more shot. Bronco players and fans looked on in stunned silence as a long bomb floated over the Bronco secondary into the arms of David Booze for a touchdown. Boise State had played so well. But the shocking touchdown had the Broncos' backs against the wall. After the 1979 probation and all they had worked for to get this far, Boise State was 55 seconds away from ending the season disappointed.

But then that isn't how winners think. "I never thought for one second we weren't going to win, even on the last drive," Aliotti said. Like a dramatic movie or a field general leading his team in battle, Aliotti fired three conseuctive strikes to Bedard of 19, 13 and 34 yards. The Broncos had moved from their own 20 to the Colonels' doorstep in just 20 seconds. Three straight incompletions set the stage for one of the greatest plays in Boise State history, still thought to be the #3 play of all-time in BroncoCountry voting three years ago. It was fourth down—do or die. Quarterback Aliotti recounts the moment for us: "I walked into the huddle and the linemen said, "Just do your job." "I said, ‘Did you see what the guy in the fifth row just did?' When they asked him why he was looking at the fifth row, he said "I just wanted to loosen you guys up!" Aliotti dropped back, but EKU's Buddy Moore slipped through. On the play, Aliotti recalls that tight end Duane Dlouhy ran a shallow cross while Bedard was to run a deep cross. When Dlouhy was not open and Moore was penetrating the backfield, Aliotti's eyes left Dlouhy. Moore slipped on the loose stadium turf and fell. Joe used the opportunity to scramble to the right. All of a sudden, he turned his head. There in the left corner of the end zone stood Dlouhy all alone.

The defense had followed Aliotti's scramble to the right and had become "distorted" as ABC color commentator Frank Broyles (former Arkansas coach and until 2007 its Athletic Director) said. Aliotti let it fly across the field. All Dlouhy had to do was squeeze it in, which he did, setting off a mad celebration on the Bronco sideline. "We had run that play several times," Aliotti reflected for us. "Dlouhy did a shallow cross and Bedard a deep one. Our coaches had been saying during the game that the TE was coming open late in the play," he said. "Then out of nowhere," Aliotti recalled, "something clicked in my head. To this day I don't know why but something told me to turn my head." "All I had to do was get open and then he saw me in the clear," said Dlouhy. Boise State held on as EKU's last-gasp try was unsuccessful and the Broncos of Boise State had won the National Championship! Aliotti reflected on one of the biggest victories in school history. "EKU's quarterback was very good; they had a great team. "We had enough weapons to get things done." Aliotti finished 21-41 for 358 yards and 2 scores. Bedard was sensational with 11 catches for 212 yards and a touchdown.

Santucci's mother owned a Sacramento establishment and the team celebrated some more. All across the Treasure Valley, Bronco fans were doing the same. "I feel 15 feet high!" Coach Criner said. "Never-say-die, that's why we're champions," said Aliotti. When the team arrived at the Boise airport, throngs of people met them to congratulate their champions. This indeed was a team of destiny who had experienced the lows and now the ultimate high for a college football team.

But as mentioned, this isn't just a story of a football team. It is a story of the guts, the passion and the character—the deep character required to win a national championship when all odds are against you. This team was composed of the necessary individuals to make up the formula that wins championships.

The quality of the players on the 1980 National Championship Boise State football team is evident not only in what they achieved that season but in what they have done with their lives since. A brief synopsis follows of their careers after Boise State. So spend some time catching up with these great men and you will see the deep character that resonates from them. You will also see why in the winter of 1980 they captured the hearts and minds of Boise and Bronco football fans everywhere.

They are leaders. They are winners. And they are champions!

to be continued...

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