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Life as an MLB catcher: Violet bruises, ballooned ankles — and now, broken arms

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Life as an MLB catcher: Violet bruises, ballooned ankles — and now, broken arms

Catching was a family tradition, so when Red Sox backstop Reese McGuire was 8 or 9, as he recalled, he tested out his new catching gear in the backyard on Christmas. As he crouched in the grass and baseballs caromed off his forearms, his grandfather told him: “It takes a tough kid to be a catcher. You have to enjoy the bruises.”

“We’re all kind of crazy, I think, to get back there,” said Diamondbacks catcher Tucker Barnhart, who has spent the last 11 seasons as a target squatting behind home plate.

Catching is not for the faint of heart — or thigh or wrist or toe or hip or knee or hand or shoulder.

Around the league, most catchers are banged up, always hovering on the edge of the injured list.

Late last month, Angels catcher Logan O’Hoppe was dealing with a black-and-blue shoulder, leaving him hardly able to lift his arm after absorbing a foul ball. His backup, Matt Thaiss, had a bruised hand after catching José Soriano’s 98-mph sinkers. Then O’Hoppe left a game last week after taking a foul ball to the hand. Giants catcher Patrick Bailey took a foul ball last month on the exposed area of the toe where the foot shield doesn’t quite reach. Three days later, he landed on the concussion injured list after taking a foul ball to the face mask. Red Sox catcher Connor Wong also recently dealt with a bruise under his toenail. Wong went on to describe a previous bruise to the teardrop of his quad, which made crouching painful and, well, crouching is a key part of the job.

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“It’s our duty to be that tank back there and roll with the punches,” Wong said.

And for over a century, they have, accepting the bruises and strains that have come with the long-established territory. But as the game evolves, the demands of the job are making it even more hazardous; catchers have shifted closer to the plate to aid with pitch framing, but as The Athletic’s Katie Woo wrote last week, that has caused a rise in catcher interference calls and has opened up catchers to more punishment.

Last week, Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras was struck by the swing of New York Mets’ J.D. Martinez and has a broken left arm to show for it.

“There’s always a risk being a catcher,” Contreras said after the injury. “Could have been something different. It could’ve been off my knee, it could be a concussion. That risk is always going to be there.”


Contreras is expected to miss six to eight weeks with a fractured forearm. (AP Photo / Jeff Roberson)

Add it to the list. There’s a reason Barnhart and other veteran voices, including the thick Boston accent of Cleveland bench coach Craig Albernaz, can be heard on the first day of spring training every year relaying a familiar message: It’s all downhill from here.

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“The amount of excitement,” Barnhart said about the dawn of a new season, “and, ‘Man, I feel great’ — and then Day 2 happens.”

They won’t return to 100 percent until the depths of winter, after they’ve recovered from every foul tip, every achy muscle, every nick and bruise in every nook of the body. The job is unrelenting and unforgiving; the pain and danger are ever-present.

And yet, for a team to succeed, so much necessarily falls on a catcher’s sore shoulders. They build a rapport with each pitcher. They know their tendencies and what’s been clicking. They know how they’ve attacked certain hitters in the past. They see the scouting reports on every single member of the opposing roster. That’s quite the learning curve for any fill-in, and Barnhart said it’s why catchers are so motivated to avoid time off.

“You have to have, for a lack of a better term,” Barnhart said, “a ‘f— it’ mentality.”

“If you cut my arm off,” said Guardians catcher Austin Hedges, “if I can play, I’m gonna go f—ing play.”

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Well, as long as it’s his left arm, he clarified. He still has to throw the ball back to the pitcher 150 times a game, a tall order if he’s limited to his non-throwing hand.

Hedges scrolled through thousands of photos on his phone one day last week in search of evidence of the gnarliest bruise he could find. He located one that occupied nearly his entire right thigh, one with rich shades of indigo, plum and mulberry. He shook his head and laughed. The culprit? One single foul tip.


Austin Hedges’ thigh bruise. (Courtesy of Austin Hedges)

“The foul balls seem to always hit you in a spot where you don’t have gear or have the least amount of gear,” Barnhart said.

In 2022, Hedges suffered a low ankle sprain while lunging toward first base. Two weeks after that healed, he suffered a high ankle sprain as he tumbled into the dugout trying to corral a pop-up. His heel turned a dark violet and his ankle ballooned in size. He struggled to rotate while batting. He couldn’t comfortably position himself behind the plate or push off his backside, which resulted in him long-hopping the ball to second when trying to nab a base-stealer.

“You’re in pain, but you never get to shut it off,” Hedges said. “If you can play, you play. There’s no hesitation. You see how people react to getting hit by pitches. It doesn’t feel a whole lot better getting a foul tip off flesh. Then you just have to come back and act like it’s not even a thing.”

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Austin Hedges’ swollen ankle. (Courtesy of Austin Hedges)

In June 2011, Chris Gimenez was scheduled to catch Mariners ace Félix Hernández one afternoon, but during batting practice the day before, Gimenez strained his left oblique. Seattle’s starting catcher, Miguel Olivo, experienced leg cramping that night, so Gimenez, who could barely inhale without cringing in pain, had to fill in for the final six innings.

For Gimenez, there was no dodging the pain in his side, especially when trying to corral Michael Pineda’s upper-90s heaters and when applying a tag at the plate on an assist from Ichiro. Gimenez tried to drop down a bunt when he batted since swinging proved unbearable. Chipper Jones shouted at him from third base, asking why he was bunting with two outs, but Mariners manager Eric Wedge had instructed Gimenez to do whatever caused him the least suffering. Seattle just wanted to keep Gimenez physically able to crouch behind the plate. He headed to the injured list the next day.

Albernaz was listed at 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds as a player, small stature for a catcher.

“I got plowed over a lot,” he said.

He also knew he couldn’t afford to sit out when granted a chance to play since he was an undrafted free agent who waited nine years for a big-league opportunity.

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At one point, he thought his playing career had ended early, thanks to loose bodies in his knee getting wedged in his joint and leaving him unable to crouch.

Albernaz’s fellow coach in Cleveland, Sandy Alomar Jr., lasted 20 years as a major-league catcher. He has the battle scars to prove it. He underwent six surgeries on his left knee and three on his right.

“If you want to be a catcher,” Alomar said, “you’re never going to be 100 percent. Ever.”

Even now, he has a bone spur in his left foot from years of absorbing foul tips.

Even with all that catchers of Alomar’s generation had to deal with, it was rare for them to be struck by the hitter’s backswing. That has become an increasing problem for the modern catcher, as was highlighted by the Contreras injury.

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Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said that teams are trying to walk the line between asking their catchers to steal strikes via closer-to-the-plate pitch framing, and putting them in dangerous situations by inching a bit too close.

“We do want our guys close enough to be impactful with the low strike but not walking into harm’s way,” Hinch said. “It’s a tough balance when the incentive to do it is real and the risk is extreme.”

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Catcher’s interference calls are skyrocketing in MLB. It’s putting players at risk

Even as the risks become more intense, there are teams and individuals trying to find ways to make catching less of a burden on the human body. Hinch noted teams are searching for methods intended to “chip away at some of the physical responsibilities” of catching, whether altering their stances or adding bullpen catchers to lighten their to-do list. Giants manager Bob Melvin suggested everyday catchers like J.T. Realmuto are an endangered species.

With that in mind, some catchers have dropped one knee to the dirt to save the wear and tear on their knees, but several catchers and coaches stressed it’s not a cure-all. Hedges said it places more of a burden on his ankles, and it makes his inner thighs more vulnerable to foul tips.

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“There’s nowhere for it to miss you,” said Jerry Narron, the Angels’ catching coach, who suggested catchers need “a football mentality.”

“It just seems like there’s always something that’s hurting,” Barnhart said.

“You feel like if you play a guy two out of three,” Melvin said, “that’s about as far as you can go with it.”

Most appearances at catcher, by season

2023 2022 2021 2003

J.T. Realmuto, 130

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J.T. Realmuto, 132

Christian Vázquez, 125

Jason Kendall, 146

Cal Raleigh, 121

Sean Murphy, 116

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Salvador Perez, 123

Ramón Hernández, 137

Elías Díaz, 120

Martín Maldonado, 110

Martín Maldonado, 119

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Iván Rodriguez, 135

Jonah Heim, 120

Will Smith, 108

Yadier Molina, 118

Brad Ausmus/A.J. Pierzynski/Jorge Posada, 133

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Shea Langeliers, 118

Cal Raleigh, 107

Will Smith, 115

Mike Matheny, 132

On Sept. 9, 2021, after socking a pair of solo homers against the Nationals, then-Braves catcher Stephen Vogt blocked a ball in the dirt, twisted his body and attempted an off-balance throw to third, where Juan Soto was trying to advance 90 feet. During his throwing motion, Vogt felt a pop in his hip. He couldn’t squat. Two muscles had ripped off his pelvis and he had a sports hernia. He needed season-ending surgery, which had him contemplating retirement after his team marched to a World Series title.

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“You get beat up every single night as a catcher,” said Vogt, who now manages the Guardians. “It’s just part of the job.”

When Vogt made a mound visit during a recent series in Houston, he told catcher Bo Naylor: “Man, you’re getting your butt kicked tonight.’”

Naylor said nothing is more irritating than a foul ball off the hand. He added that he’ll occasionally be completing his pregame routine on a foam roller when a sharp pain pops up unexpectedly. That’s when he cycles through every possible pain-inducer from the previous night.

“Wait, why does this hurt? Oh yeah, I got a foul ball there last night,” he said.

McGuire said he wakes up “every day” with a mysterious bruise or ache. On April 30, it was his thumb, from a foul tip that struck his mitt at an awkward angle. Adrenaline fueled him the rest of that game, but it was stiff when he woke up the next day; he hadn’t realized how hard he had jammed it.

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“Most of us have some sort of thumb injury,” said Cubs catcher Yan Gomes, who uses a protective guard and a stockpile of tape for added security.

All of them, not most, have some sort of something. Hinch, who caught for parts of seven big-league seasons, said it’s “the reason we all look like hell when we’re done playing.”

In August 2018, Joey Votto joined the Reds’ injured list, and Barnhart and Curt Casali, the club’s catchers, shared some of the first-base duties in his absence. For the catchers, it was like a spa day.

“We’d always joke with each other,” Barnhart said, “that, ‘Man, if my body always felt like this and I got to go to the plate, this is a great feeling. You don’t have to squat down. You’re not worried about getting hit. All you have to do is stand at first base and catch the ball? That’s it? My body feels great.’”

The Athletic‘s C. Trent Rosecrans, Chad Jennings, Stephen J. Nesbitt, Sam Blum, Cody Stavenhagen and Andy McCullough contributed reporting.

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(Top photo of Contreras suffering a broken arm: Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images)

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Culture

Jimmy Aggrey was a victim of the Chelsea racism scandal – now he wants to talk

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Jimmy Aggrey was a victim of the Chelsea racism scandal – now he wants to talk

He was the tallest player. Even at the age of 16, Jimmy Aggrey stood well over six feet. The big lads went at the back. Line up and smile for the camera, please.

Chelsea liked him. They thought he had a good chance of making it. For such a tall kid, Aggrey had quick, skilful feet. His future was bright at a time, in 1995, when Chelsea were re-establishing themselves among the most glamorous football clubs in England.

“When I joined Chelsea, Glenn Hoddle was the first-team manager,” says Aggrey. “Ruud Gullit arrived later. The place was full of superstars: Gianfranco Zola, Frank Leboeuf, Roberto Di Matteo. So I can understand why many people might think it’s a great photograph. They should have been the greatest times of my life.”

Aggrey was in his fourth year in Chelsea’s youth system when that photograph was taken at their home ground, Stamford Bridge. So how does it feel, all these years later, to look at it now?

“You can see it in my face,” he says. “It’s full of stress, there’s no joy. I’m not smiling.

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“I look at that boy and I just want to tell him, ‘You’re all right now, you got through it’. Because I know what he suffered. I wouldn’t want to go back to my life at that time.”


Jimmy Aggrey, circled in yellow, with Chelsea’s youth squad and the coaches who bullied him — Gwyn Williams (middle row, circled) and Graham Rix (bottom row, circled) (Courtesy of Jimmy Aggrey)

This is the first time Aggrey has spoken publicly about the culture of racism and bullying at Chelsea that led to an independent inquiry by children’s charity Barnardo’s and prompted the Football Association to bring in the police. It was, in Aggrey’s words, a “feral environment” in which he and other young black footballers were subjected to what the FA’s safeguarding investigation described as “vile abuse”.

In speaking to The Athletic, Aggrey has waived the anonymity that was granted to him by the High Court in 2018 as the first of four ex-players who launched civil action against Chelsea. On the night before it was due to go to trial, Chelsea agreed out-of-court settlements. The club do not accept liability but have apologised for “the terrible past experiences of some of our former players”. A number of players have received damages in follow-up cases.

The two perpetrators are on that team photograph, circled in red, and the most shocking part is that they were the coaches who had been entrusted to look after boys as young as nine.

One is Gwyn Williams, who spent 27 years at the club and was found by Barnardo’s to have subjected boys to a “daily tirade of racial abuse”. The other is Graham Rix, a former England international who was allowed to keep his job as Chelsea’s youth-team coach despite being sent to prison for under-age sex offences.

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“Between them, they took away a large part of my childhood,” says Aggrey. “They were a tag team, every bit as bad as one another. And yet, I look at them now and I just feel pity. I refuse to let them keep me in some kind of mental jail.”

He is 45 now, a father-of-three happily settled in a part of Devon, in England’s south west, that likes to call itself the English Riviera. He has a charity, which has the Chelsea Foundation as a partner. Life is good. Waiving his anonymity, he says, is another part of the healing process.

In 2018, Aggrey was listed only as AXM in the High Court action against Chelsea that exposed one of the worst racism scandals in English football. Three weeks ago, The Athletic successfully applied to the court to overturn the anonymity order, including a written submission from Aggrey and a supporting letter from Chelsea.

“I’m ready to talk,” he says. “I’m proud of who I am and the resilience within my DNA and soul. But it’s not just about me. It’s about trying to help others and, if telling my story helps only one person, I’ve done my job.”


Jimmy Aggrey has a new life in Devon (Daniel Taylor/The Athletic)

If you want just a tiny insight into the culture Aggrey had to endure, it can be found in the glossy pages of Chelsea’s matchday programme for their game against Ipswich Town on January 20, 2001.

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It was the day Zola made his 200th Chelsea appearance. Claudio Ranieri, the manager, paid tribute in his programme notes. So did Dennis Wise, as vice-captain, and chairman Ken Bates. Chelsea won 4-1 with Marcel Desailly and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink among the team’s A-listers.

On page 61, meanwhile, there was an article that briefly mentioned Aggrey, who had moved to Torquay United, and the observation from his time at Chelsea that he was “almost too nice to make it in football”. Aggrey, according to the author, was a “very tall, very lean, black guy who was the butt of a lot of jokes”.

It was a strange choice of words — why even mention the player’s colour? — and it would need a warped mind to portray what Aggrey encountered as innocent humour.

“I’d never experienced racism before,” says Aggrey. “I knew it existed. I’d seen it on TV and heard my parents speaking about it, but nothing had ever been said directly to me. Then I arrived for my first day at Chelsea and my first encounter with Gwyn Williams. His first words were, ‘Who’s this lanky f*****g c**n?’. That was my welcome to Chelsea. I was 12 years old.”

Aggrey, the youngest of three children, had been raised by Ghanaian parents a short distance from Griffin Park, Brentford’s old ground. He went to the same boys’ school, Isleworth & Syon, as Mo Farah, the future Olympic and world champion runner, and started attracting attention from football scouts while playing for West Middlesex Colts under-12s.

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Football was his dream, but even at a young age he also knew it was a way to help his family to a better life. His mother was a cleaner, working long hours to provide for her children. His father ran a security company based in Wembley, north-west London.


Jimmy Aggrey, aged 11, with his youth football team Middlesex Colts (Courtesy of Jimmy Aggrey)

So the young Aggrey realised, early on, that if he wanted to fulfil his dreams he may have to learn how to deal with the abuse from his own coaches.

“How does a 12-year-old boy react to an adult in that position of power? He (Williams) calls you a lanky black b*****d. He refers to how dark you are. ‘Can you run like Linford Christie (the British sprinter)? Do you rob grannies on your estate? Are you keeping fit so you run drugs round the tower blocks?’. He would look at me in this way I’d never experienced from anyone. I didn’t know how to deal with it. All I wanted was to play football.”

Williams joined Chelsea in 1979, running their youth system for 20 years and taking huge influence at all levels of the club. He was racist, hard-faced and so divisive there were times when he arranged whites-v-blacks training matches. It was, to quote one player, like a “mini Apartheid state”.

Yet Williams somehow managed to keep it away from some of the key personnel at Chelsea even when, in Aggrey’s words, “we had a manager (Ruud Gullit) rocking dreadlocks”. Williams went on to become assistant manager to Ranieri and formed part of Jose Mourinho’s scouting staff before leaving Chelsea in 2006.

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“I used to dread getting picked up for training,” says Aggrey. “We would go into the changing room. He’d walk in: ‘Hey, look at the f*****g blackies in here … f*****g rubber lips’. Let me tell you something, that was the most demoralising feeling you could ever have.

“I remember walking to the training ground and I’d be thinking, ‘Oh my god, what am I doing? I can’t wait for this day to be over’.

“It was relentless, and it got physical, too. Gwyn would give you a slap. He’d flick your scrotum. Or if he was really mad and thought you’d had a bad game, he’d give you a crack round the side of the head. It was hard, a man hit. ‘You little black b*****d… you w*g’. I was 13. It took a lot out of me. He addressed me that way every single time he saw me.”


Gwyn Williams, then Chelsea’s assistant manager, at the 2000 FA Cup final (Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images)

Some people might wonder why the players never reported it at the time. Why, Aggrey is asked, did he not speak out? But that would be to underestimate Williams’ position at Chelsea and the sport as a whole.

“That guy had power. You’re scared of people with power. It was said he had the biggest black book in London,” says Aggrey. “There was no proper safeguarding back then, anyway. If I said I wanted to raise an issue, guess where I would have been told to go: Graham Rix or Gwyn Williams. Go to the top of the club? But that was Ken Bates, the chairman, and Williams was his right-hand man. So you’re helpless, you’re cannon fodder. I was a minor. And that guy (Williams) was the governor.

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“He could make or break you, not just at Chelsea, but break you when you leave — ring another manager and say, ‘Don’t touch him, he’s just another aggressive black guy’. I wouldn’t have had a career.”

Aged 15, Aggrey tried to find another way. He got a number for the FA, rang it from his home phone and asked to speak to the chief executive, Graham Kelly.

“I told the person on the other end of the line what it was about. She said, ’Can you hold the line?’. Then she came back a few moments later. ‘No, he’s too busy to speak to you today’. It was a brush-off.”

Terrorised by his own coaches, Aggrey started to develop a stutter. He was playing, he says, with “strings of confidence”. Every day was an ordeal.

“I’ve got diaries that I wrote at the age of 13, 14 and 15 and they’re harrowing. It’s a cry for help from someone who didn’t want to be alive. I was coming home quiet, all my confidence stripped away. It affected my life, my self-worth, my self-love. Even in my twenties, it affected my relationships. I didn’t really care about whether I lived or died until my kids came along.”

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A former schoolteacher, Williams’ working relationship with Bates was so strong he followed him to Leeds United, taking on the role of technical director, in the years after Roman Abramovich’s 2003 takeover of Chelsea.

Williams, credited with discovering the young John Terry, ended up being sacked by Leeds for gross misconduct after he emailed pornographic images to colleagues, including a female member of staff. He had three years scouting for Hull City and, now 76, he is permanently banned from the sport after a FA safeguarding investigation into the bullying and racism claims ruled he posed “a risk of harm to children within affiliated football”.

Although he denies ever assaulting a player, Williams has accepted that he used extreme racial language. In his evidence to the High Court, he said it was never his intention to cause any hurt or offence, on the basis that “it was just the typical banter that would have been found in almost any male environment at that time”.

As for Rix, he was sentenced to a year in prison, serving six months, and put on the sex offenders’ register after admitting, in March 1999, two charges of unlawful sex with a 15-year-old girl.

Rix was reinstated by Chelsea immediately after his release. He was the first-team coach when Chelsea, under Gianluca Vialli’s management, won the FA Cup in 2000 and had a spell as caretaker manager after the Italian’s sacking later that year.

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Rix, who won 17 England caps as a player for Arsenal, was suspended for two years while the FA investigated the complaints of bullying and racism. He was allowed back on condition he attended a series of educational courses. Up until a fortnight ago, Rix, 66, was the manager of Fareham Town in the Wessex League, but banned for life from under 18s’ girls’ football.


Graham Rix (right) with Gwyn Williams at Chelsea’s 2000 FA Cup final against Aston Villa (Mark Leech/Offside/Getty Images).

“How that man is still in football, I will never know,” says Aggrey. “What other profession do you know where someone can be put on a paedophile register and go back to work in that industry within six months? It’s scary. I find it hard to understand how he’s still allowed in football.”

Rix has always denied any form of racial, physical or emotional abuse. A seven-month police investigation concluded without him or Williams facing charges and the Barnardo’s report, published in 2019, concluded that Rix could be “aggressive and bullying” but, on the evidence presented to its inquiry, not racially abusive.

Aggrey’s evidence to the High Court, however, depicted Rix as a racist bully with violent tendencies.

On one occasion, Aggrey says he was cleaning one of the first-team player’s boots when Rix started abusing him and, according to court documents, threatened to “lynch (his) black arse”. Tired of the constant harassment, Aggrey made a retaliatory comment. Rix’s response, he says, was to go red with anger and throw a cup of hot coffee into his face.

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Rix, he says, assaulted him more than once, with punches and kicks and one incident in a training match when the ball went out for a throw-in.

“They (Rix and Williams) had this stereotypical idea that a big black guy should be mouthy and forever smashing people,” says Aggrey. “They thought I was soft. I liked to read, I could write poetry. I was a gentle person. My feet were my gifts.


Jimmy Aggrey, aged 17, featured in a Chelsea matchday programme (Courtesy of Jimmy Aggrey)

“I was 16, in the first week of my YTS (youth-training scheme), and Rix used to join in with training. He went to take a quick throw and I was standing directly in front of him. So he has just gone — bang — and thrown it as hard as he could into my face.

“There was no reason for it, just all that anger and hate inside him. Those balls were pumped up hard. My nose popped, there was blood everywhere. I was on the floor and Rix was shouting for me to ‘f*****g get up’.”


It was a month after his release from Chelsea that Aggrey tried to take his own life. He was 18 and free, finally, of the two men who had made football so hard and unforgiving. But he was lost, broken.

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“I had a massive argument with my dad. He felt I’d wasted my life and that I could have gone to university. I went to my sister’s, bought two bottles of wine with whatever money I had, and got smashed. I was there, drunk, and I saw some tablets on the side. I just thought, ‘F*** it’. I grabbed a load and dashed them down the back of my throat. Then I just went to sleep.”

His sister, Lillian, saved his life. “She had been out that night and came back to find me. She literally dragged me to the toilet and put her fingers down my throat. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was puking up. All I can remember is waking up and her saying we needed to go to hospital.”


Jimmy Aggrey with his sister, Lillian, who found him after his suicide attempt (Courtesy of Jimmy Aggrey)

Aggrey was taken on by Fulham, then a fourth-division side, where the manager, Micky Adams, could never understand why a talented and dedicated midfielder from one of England’s top clubs had been “stripped of self-confidence”.

Adams submitted a written report as part of Aggrey’s legal submissions to the High Court. Aggrey, he wrote, was “a good professional with a beaming smile, but I always felt behind that smile was a person who clearly had his confidence knocked out of him at Chelsea. Whoever was responsible for that, I don’t know. He never gave me a problem. He was always on time and always gave his all”.

Aggrey moved to Torquay where he reinvented himself as a centre-half and won the supporters’ player-of-the-year award in 2001. Life on the south coast suited him. But the trauma was still there. There were nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks, waking up drenched in sweat, swinging punches in his sleep.

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He played with fire burning behind his eyes. “If I came up against an opposition player who had the same accent as Rix, or spoke like Williams, they were triggers. I’d try to take them out, two-foot them. I ended up being one of the most booked players in Torquay’s history. I was trying to play the role of henchman because they (Rix and Williams) used to say I was too nice.”


Jimmy Aggrey with a player of the trophy award at Torquay (Courtesy of Jimmy Aggrey)

Over time, he came to realise he had post-traumatic stress disorder. It is the same for a lot of the kids at Chelsea who understand why Barnardo’s referred to a culture in which “the ongoing and repeated use of racially abusive language appears to have created an atmosphere in which abuse was normalised”.

These kids are now in their forties and fifties. Some find it too difficult to watch Chelsea on television. Others cannot go anywhere near Stamford Bridge. Aggrey has learned how to manage his own issues. But he can remember how “unnerving” it felt when he was invited to the ground in 2019 to meet Bruce Buck, then Chelsea’s chairman.

A psychiatric report, presented to the High Court, talks of him, as a younger man, experiencing “very severe distress and feelings of isolation and humiliation, all of which totally undermined his confidence in his footballing ability and as a young person at a critical age”.

He spent the rest of his playing career drifting through a variety of non-League clubs. There was an enjoyable spell with Welsh club TNS, lining up against Manchester City in a UEFA Cup qualifier in 2003. Overall, though, Aggrey’s love for football had diminished in his youth. He retired at the age of 27.

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“I felt relieved,” he says. “But as a father of young children and, with the 2008 financial crash around the corner, the timing couldn’t have been any worse.”


To spend time in his company now is to find a man who is entirely comfortable in his own skin. Aggrey has a big smile and a big personality. The thought occurs more than once that football’s anti-racism organisations should want to tap into his knowledge and experience.

But it is only in the last 10 years, he says, that he has been able to shift the “heavyweight burden of unpacked mental trauma”. It was a long battle to get through “the internal, intrusive day-to-day thoughts that played on a loop. ‘What could I have done? Why did I let them do that to me?’. The self-blame, guilt and anger”.

There were other issues, too. Aggrey never earned the money associated with Premier League footballers. At the age of 28, his house was repossessed due to being unable to keep up with mortgage payments and arrears.

“One of my friends let me use his car, a Volvo S40, and that became my house. I’d find car parks where I wouldn’t be recognised and I’d sleep in the back seat. I spent my 32nd birthday sleeping in my car.”

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Other friends gave him food. If he was in London, he would go to Brentford leisure centre for a shower. The woman at reception knew him from when he was a boy and waved him through. Or returning to Torquay, he would go to the Grand Hotel on the seafront and sit in an alcove where he knew there was an electricity point.

“I’d plug in my phone, ask for a glass of water and make it last, sometimes four or five hours. Then I’d get back in the car, park round the corner and try to keep warm and get some sleep. This went on for months. I felt like a failure. But these experiences have helped make me what I am today.”

It is an extraordinary story even before we mention that Aggrey has worked as a football agent, had a role in the Sky One series Dream Team and has written an eight-part TV series of his own. ‘Jimmy’ tells the story of his life — powerful, gritty, yet also uplifting.

His foundation, set up with the backing of the Professional Footballers’ Association, is dedicated to helping young people in marginalised, poverty-hit communities. TNS are one of the partners via his friendship with the club’s owner, Mike Harris, and their kits have been distributed to kids as part of one project in Cape Town, South Africa.

It is easy to understand why Aggrey talks so passionately about the Homeless World Cup, which will be held in South Korea in September. He became involved via his friend, Kasali Casal, a former Fulham player who became the football director for TV series Ted Lasso.

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“Playing football after being homeless is dear to these people,” says Aggrey, “and it matters to me greatly after everything I have experienced.”

His father, James Sr, died in 2021. So much went unspoken and it will always be a source of pain that they never healed a rift that, at its heart, stemmed from a boy trying to protect his family from the brutal realities of Chelsea’s youth system.

“He had dreams of me becoming a lawyer or a doctor,” says Aggrey. “Because I was strong academically, he didn’t understand why I was embarking on a journey to be in a sport where I wouldn’t be accepted.


Jimmy Aggrey, pictured aged 13, had anger issues as a result of his treatment at Chelsea (Courtesy of Jimmy Aggrey)

“I didn’t want to tell him what was happening. Mum, as well. That was a heavy coat to wear as a kid. But they weren’t ones to confront institutions, so it would have been internalised and affected the whole house.

“He saw the changes in me. I had temper issues, getting into fights. I was going out too much. I think he saw an unobliging kid who had wasted his gift of academia.”

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Life continues to have its challenges. Aggrey is coming to terms with the recent death of his aunt Irene. Last week, it was the funeral of Paul Holmes, his friend and ex-Torquay teammate.

Overall, though, he is in a good place, radiating warmth, signing off emails with “love and light”. He has learned to heal. And, in a strange way, it feels therapeutic for him to share his experiences, no longer living a secret.

“I feel blessed how my mind, my resilience and unwavering hope has kept me alive and going,” he says. “The line was thin and I can’t change the past. But I have to use my experiences for good and be grateful I’m still here.”

The Athletic asked Gwyn Williams and Graham Rix to comment, but neither has responded. Fareham Town have also failed to respond. Graham Kelly, who left the FA in 1998, said he could not recollect being told about the telephone call from Aggrey.

Whatever you’re going through, you can call the Samaritans in the UK free any time, from any phone, on 116 123.

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(Top photos: Daniel Taylor/The Athletic; courtesy of Jimmy Aggrey; design: John Bradford)

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Do You Know the Manhattan Locations of These Children’s Books?

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Do You Know the Manhattan Locations of These Children’s Books?

A strong sense of place can deeply influence a story, and in some cases, the setting can even feel like a character itself. As shown in classic works like E.B. White’s “Stuart Little” and Kay Thompson’s “Eloise,” Manhattan is a popular location for children’s books and this week’s literary geography quiz celebrates several more stories set around the borough.

To play, just make your selection in the multiple-choice list and the correct answer will be revealed. Links to the books will be listed at the end of the quiz if you’d like to do further reading.

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What's it like to play Rafael Nadal on clay? We asked the players

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What's it like to play Rafael Nadal on clay? We asked the players

This article is part of the launch of extended tennis coverage on The Athletic, which will go beyond the baseline to bring you the biggest stories on and off the court. To follow the tennis vertical, click here.

“He makes you suffer. First he takes your legs, then your mind.”

Casper Ruud is describing what it’s like facing Rafael Nadal on Court Philippe-Chatrier at Roland Garros: the court where Nadal has won 14 French Open titles. Ruud was the beaten finalist for the most recent of those triumphs, in 2022. When asked to relive the experience of facing Nadal there, his eyes widen and he lets out a small laugh.

This was a pretty typical reaction of the dozen-or-so players The Athletic spoke to in an attempt to understand exactly what it’s like playing Nadal on clay — a surface on which he has a 90.9 per cent winning record over a career that has spanned more than two decades. He has won 479 matches on clay, losing just 48.

At Roland Garros, that figure is a ludicrous 97.4 per cent. Played 115, won 112, lost three.

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The players we heard from, including world No 1 Novak Djokovic, almost unanimously described playing Nadal on clay as “the toughest test in tennis”. Others, like Ruud, went as far as saying it was the toughest test in any sport. “He is the ultimate clay-court player,” says Gael Monfils, the one-time world No 6, who has been beaten by Nadal in all six of their meetings on the surface.


Nadal’s aura on clay is unlike any other in the game (Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Some players don’t even think it’s real. “It’s a bit like playing against someone on a PlayStation because every ball comes back,” is the view of Karen Khachanov, a two-time French Open quarter-finalist.

Ruud’s words call to mind Andy Roddick’s famous “first your legs, then your soul” description of Novak Djokovic, so what exactly makes playing Nadal specifically so terrifying?

From the size of the Chatrier court and the feeling that it’s impossible to get the ball past him, to the heaviness of his ball, to the mental torture he is able to exert, those who have faced him explain exactly what it’s like playing Rafael Nadal on clay.

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Let’s start with the ultimate, ultimate test — playing Nadal on Chatrier. Since winning his first French Open in 2005 as a 19-year-old, this has become his court. He knows its dimensions perfectly; he knows how the ball will bounce in any spot; he knows how to inflict the maximum amount of damage on his opponents. Sometimes a player and a court become so intertwined that it feels as though the venue were made for them. Roger Federer and Centre Court, Serena Williams and Arthur Ashe, Djokovic and the Rod Laver Arena.

First up, the man who has inflicted two-thirds of his defeats on the court and who has played him there more (10 times) than anyone else — Djokovic.

“The court is bigger,” he says. “There is more space, which affects visually the play a lot and the feeling of the player on the court. He likes to stand quite far back to return. Sometimes when he’s really in the zone and in the groove, not making many errors, you feel like he’s impenetrable. He’s like a wall.

“It’s really a paramount challenge to play him in Roland Garros. He’s an incredible athlete. The tenacity and intensity he brings on the court, particularly there, is something that was very rarely seen I think in the history of this sport.”

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Nadal and Djokovic duel at the net during the 2022 French Open quarter-final (Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

“It’s like Novak said, winners don’t come easy against him on Chatrier,” adds Ruud, who is a clay-court specialist and has been ranked as high as No 2, but was thumped in straight sets in that Roland Garros final two years ago. “He reads the game so well, as well as him being one of the best movers of all time.”

To reach that final, Nadal beat Alexander Zverev in the semi-final. In a very strange match with lots of breaks, Zverev had to retire with an unfortunate ankle injury in the second set while trailing 6-7, 6-6. He had somehow failed to win the first set, despite holding four consecutive set points, and the way he talks about it now underlines how much the match has stayed with him. The way he describes Nadal conjures up the image of trying to escape from the Terminator in the classic Arnold Schwarzenegger film.

“He becomes different,” says Zverev, who has lost five of his six matches against Nadal on clay. “His ball all of a sudden becomes a few kilometres an hour faster. His footwork and foot speed become a lot faster.

“It’s more difficult to hit a winner, especially on Philippe Chatrier, which is a massive court, so he has a lot more space. It is very difficult. It’s probably the biggest challenge in tennis playing Nadal on that court.

“You have a feeling that you just can’t put him away. I think the first set that I played against him (in that 2022 semi-final) basically describes it to perfection. I mean, I won that set I don’t know how many times against any other player and I still somehow managed to lose it in the tie-break.

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“I was up 6-2 in the tie-break. He aced me I think for the first time in the entire match. Then he hit one of the most ridiculous passing shots (skip to 9:09 below) I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

 

“Somehow you feel like you’re winning, but then somehow you end up not. It’s just something you only feel against him on that specific court.”

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Sebastian Korda, America’s world No 28, won just four games when he faced Nadal on Chatrier four years ago, losing 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 in a fourth-round shellacking. He feels Nadal’s comfort and experience on the court adds to the feeling for opponents that no situation could unsettle him there.

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“He’s as comfortable as someone can be on a tennis court and once someone gets comfortable on a court, it becomes extremely difficult to play them,” Korda says.

“He’s been through pretty much every situation on that court so plays as free as anyone can on a court.

“You feel like you can’t get the ball past him.”


Nadal rockets a forehand on his way to beating Korda (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Khachanov, the big-hitting Russian world No 17, was thumped by Nadal 6-3, 6-2 in their only meeting on clay — in Monte Carlo six years ago.

“It was a bit like playing against someone on a PlayStation because every ball comes back,” he says. “Sometimes you have trouble winning one point. And you can feel like you do everything right and you don’t win the point.

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“You serve well and open the angle, the ball comes back. That’s why he’s unique and the best ever to play on that surface.”

The feeling that whatever you do isn’t enough ties into Ruud’s description that “first he takes your legs and then your mind”.


There’s worrying about what to do when you’re hitting the ball. There’s the growing sense that whatever you do, it won’t be enough.

Then there’s the fact that for every ball you hit, Nadal’s ball is about to come for you.

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His ball on clay is known to be so full of spin that players struggle to comprehend it until they experience it first-hand. This can be quantified to some extent by looking at the extremely high revolutions per minute on Nadal’s shots, especially the forehand, but even that doesn’t fully do it justice, his opponents say.


Nadal and Ruud during their 2022 meeting (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

“His ball? It’s… heavy,” says Ruud, who was the French Open runner-up again last year. “And I think if you haven’t played tennis yourself it’s maybe hard to know what heavy means. I guess it’s the spin and rotation of his ball. The more RPMs he has on his ball, the quicker it will bounce up towards you. And when the ball bounces up at you, the more RPMs it has, the heavier it comes up at you compared to a ball that’s coming at you really flat.

“He has mastered that more than anyone else.”

World No 55 Miomir Kecmanovic lost to Nadal in straight sets in Madrid a couple of years ago and says: “His ball was different. Different in the way you know it’s Rafa behind the ball. Sometimes even if it’s not as good you still feel the pressure because you know it’s him. It’s completely different when you play him.”

Khachanov says it’s the variety of Nadal’s ball when playing him on clay that really struck him. “It’s always different,” Khachanov says. “He finds different angles, different trajectories, he always pushes you back when he opens the court. He has so much variety and the ball speed. So whenever he wants to be aggressive, he goes aggressive, and if he wants to be more defensive, he can take a step back. It’s like chess tennis — with the pieces, the shots he has in his arsenal. He is always trying to make you have trouble.”

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Such a kind person off the court, there’s no doubt that Nadal has a sadistic streak on it. He seeks out opponents’ weaknesses and exploits them mercilessly — especially on clay, where the high bounces suit the violent topspin he puts on the ball. Roger Federer could be forgiven for still having nightmares about those French Open finals when Nadal would loop topspin forehands to force him to hit one-handed backhands from shoulder height again and again.


Nadal used his forehand to dismantle Federer, out of shot, on clay (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

The punishment was so severe that Federer eventually remodelled the entire shot.

Grigor Dimitrov, the world No 10 and three-time Grand Slam semi-finalist, is another gifted shotmaker with a single-handed backhand. He has faced Nadal six times on clay and lost all six meetings — winning just one set in the process.

He recalls Nadal making his life as awkward as possible. “It was no fun. No fun at all,” Dimitrov says.

“I played him at his absolute peak on clay and how can I explain? It’s just very uncomfortable. It’s very difficult for a one-hander to play him on any surface, but clay especially. The direction on the ball is very different. You have to move a bit extra. You can’t make any cheap mistakes. Overall there’s so little margin for error and then if you can’t put him in an uncomfortable position, there’s not a lot you can do.”


Nadal sliding in Monte Carlo, a tournament he was won 11 times (Neal Simpson/PA Images via Getty Images)

One of Nadal’s characteristics is that he never takes things for granted. No matter the opponent or the event, he will always show every match the utmost respect. Part of that is properly researching his opponents and knowing how to exploit any holes in their game.

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That was the impression that Zizou Bergs, the world No 101, had when he was beaten by Nadal in Rome two weeks ago. “He was hitting such a high ball with lots of spin,” Bergs says. “Playing my weaknesses. You can tell his team did their homework on me, on what I don’t like.

“The intensity he can give sometimes with his forehand and backhand, it’s brutal.”

The feeling of being put under relentless pressure is draining and eventually, it becomes overwhelming. “It’s difficult physically, tactically to handle his speed, his angle, the way he puts you under pressure,” says Monfils.


Nadal beat Monfils in the 2016 Monte Carlo final (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Corentin Moutet, the world No 79, played Nadal at the French Open two years ago. He shakes his head as he remembers trying to reconcile the fact he felt he gave a good account of himself but still lost in straight sets. “I played well that day,” he says. “And left the court thinking I’ve played a really good level here but it’s still not enough.”


One of the biggest challenges about playing Nadal on clay is the mental aspect. Trying to go into the match not fearing what is about to come.

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And playing Nadal on Chatrier can do strange things to people. Ahead of their first-round match at Roland Garros five years ago, the German player Yannick Hanfmann was so frazzled that after the customary photo at the net, he stuck his hand out to Nadal as if it was the end of the match. A slightly bemused Nadal didn’t leave him hanging and politely shook it.

“That was weird. I don’t know what I was doing, to be honest. I was a bit out of it there,” Hanfmann said afterwards. “I saw him shaking this kid’s hand and the ref’s hand and I then stuck out my hand. I don’t know why.”

This is an extreme example, but there’s no denying that players struggle not to be overawed by the prospect of facing Nadal on clay.


Red clay swirling round him feels like his natural state (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

“I think the fear shouldn’t be a factor,” Dimitrov says. “But the way certain players are, and him on clay, with a 97 per cent winning percentage, it’s already difficult enough. But I think the mindset is really important. You have to really believe that you can play well enough to have a chance.”

As time has gone on, there’s also the challenge that many players who face Nadal grew up idolising him. How do you switch off the part of your brain that is so full of admiration for him and listen only to the one that tells you you need to go and, metaphorically speaking, kick the living daylights out of him?

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“It’s about being out there, having tonnes of respect for Rafael Nadal, but also seeing him as your opponent you want to beat and not just want to play,” says Bergs, who led Nadal by a set in Rome before succumbing in three.

“Sometimes you lose because you don’t really believe.”

Ruud was one of the players who grew up with Nadal as their childhood hero and then trained at the Spaniard’s academy. There was a feeling that he was overawed by facing Nadal in their final two years ago, which ended with a one-sided 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 scoreline and was happy enough just to be there.


Nadal consoles Ruud in 2022 (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

“Of course, I wish I could make the match closer and all these things,” he said afterwards. “But at the end of the day, I can hopefully one day tell my grandkids that I played Rafa on Chatrier in the final.

“I’m probably going to enjoy this moment for a long time.”

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Korda had a similar situation when he faced Nadal at Roland Garros in 2020, describing him as his “idol” in the lead-up to the match and having named the family cat after him growing up. Korda admits it was strange playing him in Paris having watched thousands of his matches growing up. “He was my favourite player, so nothing really surprised me,” Korda says. “But it still felt pretty strange seeing him on the other side of the net.”

Even older, more experienced players, confess that at times they had to grapple with the feeling of being honoured to share the Chatrier court with Nadal.

Fabio Fognini, 36 now, was a top-10 player and clay-court specialist. He has played Nadal eight times on clay, winning three of those meetings – including the most recent one, a 6-4, 6-2 hiding in Monte Carlo five years ago.

But he admits that during their one meeting at Roland Garros, he was too happy just to be there. Nadal won the match — a third-round contest in 2013 – 7-6, 6-4, 6-4. “I’m happy I was one of the 1,000 players who got to play at the same time as them,” he says. “Being in the second week of a grand slam was a party for me.

“I played with all three and Andy. I played Rafa at Roland Garros, Roger at Wimbledon, Nole (Djokovic) in Australia, Andy at Wimbledon. They were all incredibly tough.”

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As we head towards Roland Garros, where 37-year-old Nadal is battling injury to try to compete at one last French Open, it feels as though we’ve come full circle.

Nadal’s biggest opponent since his 14th title two years ago has been his creaking body. He has not competed at Roland Garros since, nor at any Grand Slam since January 2023.

Nadal finally has some insight into what his opponents have faced all these years. The doubts and fears that consume them. How tough has that been, suddenly having to manage your vulnerability? “Yeah, it’s tough,” he told The Athletic in Rome two weeks ago, where he exited the Italian Open early to Hubert Hurkacz. “Because I have to do the things very step by step, trying to make small improvements day by day.


Nadal during his defeat in Rome this year (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

“I need to try to play at my hundred per cent. It’s not easy because I need to lose a little bit of fear that I have in some shots, for example.”

Beating Nadal at Roland Garros has for so long been the toughest task in tennis, possibly any sport. But in his return from injury over the past month or so, Nadal’s physical issues have meant he is nowhere near as formidable on the surface as he once was.

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Perhaps it’s fitting that the only person who has properly got the better of Nadal on clay is, well, Rafael Nadal.

(Top photos: Left and right: Mike Hewitt; centre: Mateo Villalba/Getty Images; design: Dan Goldfarb )

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