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June 13, 2024 30 mins

Join host Jay Harris as he delves beyond the football glory to unveil the internal struggles and the stark contrast between public triumph and private turmoil. Explore how a young athlete's promising future spiraled into infamy, unraveling the secrets and tragedies behind one of the NFL's most enigmatic figures.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:08):
Welcome back to Playing Dirty Sports Scandals. I'm Jay Harris,
your host with the most including tons of juicy sports
stories to serve up. Over the past twenty years of
my career as a journalist and sportscaster, I've hosted ESPN
shows from SportsCenter to Outside the Lines. But here on
Playing Dirty, you know, I turn on my dark side

(00:28):
to guide you through the murky, behind the scenes world
of some of your favorite games. Pull up a chair
and pass me your yetty Rambler cup because you are
going to need all the insulation for today's tale on tap.

(00:50):
It's one of the very darkest bruis I've shared ever.
I'm talking about the life of football player Aaron Hernandez,
a story that me r ror is the most tragic
of Shakespearean dramas, marked by a meteoric rise to playing
tight end for the New England Patriots, followed by a
harrowing descent into violent despair. Oh yes, Aaron Hernandez was

(01:12):
a man who seemingly had it all. Talent that made
him a gridiron titan, an amazing career, and a private
life that outwardly seemed to fulfill every facet of the
American dream. Yet Beneath his veneer of success lay a
tumultuous world of secrets, struggles, inner demons, and rage. This

(01:33):
scandal goes to show that, much like a chocolate milkshake
looks identical to a prune and oat milk smoothie, you
never know what lies behind a megawat's smile and epic athleticism.
So clear your palette why you can, and let's dive
into the depths before the stadium's packed with more than

(01:56):
sixty thousand spectators, before the news headlines declared arring him
and Rob Gronkowski to be the NFL's top tight end duo,
and long before his fall, Aaron Hernandez's life began on
November sixth, nineteen eighty nine, in Bristol, Connecticut. Bristol is
a pretty new England town with plenty of tree lined streets,
quaint attractions like a carousel museum, and even the oldest

(02:20):
continually operating amusement park in the US. Like compounds, it
seems like a nice place to grow up. But location,
location location does not, of course, always translate to a
happy childhood in quite the same way a real estate
investment might. And Aaron Hernandez youth in Bristol was hardly ideal.

(02:40):
His parents, Terry Valentine and Dennis Hernandez, were an unstable combination.
Terry fell in love with Dennis when they were both
students at Bristol Central High School. They married young, and
at first things seemed to be going well for the
newly wits. They both had careers in Bristol's public school system,
Terry as an administrative secretary and Dennis as a custodian.

(03:01):
The small towns sweethearts welcome their first son, Dennis Jonathan Junior,
known as DJ and then erin it sounds like an
American fairy tale, right boy meets girl. They fall madly
in love and then welcome two healthy children into the fold.
But sadly, it soon became clear that Dennis and Terry

(03:22):
were destined to struggle. Their relationship was, by most accounts,
extremely volatile, and Dennis and Terry even briefly divorced in
nineteen ninety one when Aaron was just a toddler, only
to remarry five years later. Day to day life in
the Hernandez household was complicated by financial struggles, culminating in
a bankruptcy filing, and marred by frequent episodes of alleged

(03:46):
domestic violence. Several accounts suggest Dennis Hernandez would often come
home drunk and become violent with his wife and boys,
prompting Terry to expel him from their home on several occasions.
And Terry herself had issues too, with an alleged gaming
habit and string of gambling related criminal offenses, such as
her arrest in two thousand and one for being a

(04:06):
bookie for a local restaurant owner, though she was never
formally prosecuted. With Dennis and Terry as an unstable patriarch
and matriarch, the only consistent aspect of Fernandez's family life
was sports. Dennis Hernandez lived and breathed sports with Terry's
full support. The highlight of his life had been playing

(04:26):
football in high school, and as anyone from a small
town knows, high school football stars are often treated as
local celebrities for years after their last performance under the
bright lights of the stadium. It was natural for Dennis
to push his sons towards football, and fortunately both Aaron
and Dj displayed early natural ability. The boys had to

(04:49):
be sports standouts because Dennis's affection was often doled out
in direct correlation to their athletic performances. He instilled in
his sons the belief that greatness comes from within and
requires relentless effort. You can't rely on other people. If
you do anything great in life, it's going to come
from within. Dennis would often say. This self reliant mantra,

(05:11):
coupled with the desire to keep their father happy and
their home life running as smoothly as possible, created an
environment in which both Aaron and dj were constantly pushing
themselves to the limit. His father was pretty strict, Bristol
Sheriff Thomas Hodgson told CNN in twenty fifteen, I mean,
Aaron told me his father used to make him shoot
five hundred shots before he went to play with his friends.

(05:34):
His dad clearly kept them anchored. But what did Dennis
Hernandez version of anchored mean really? Sure, anchored can mean
having a solid foundation, but it could also mean weighed down.
Beneath the veneer of familiar solidarity around sports that was
presented to the outside world, the Hernandez household harbored dark secrets.

(05:56):
The Boston Globe unearthed the history of horrific abuse decades Laiter,
revealing a pattern of violence where Dennis Hernandez, whom everyone
in the family called the King, inflicted severe beatings on Aaron,
DJ and their mother, Terry. This kind of cycle of
violence has monumental impacts on its victims, especially on children

(06:16):
who either witness or suffer violence along with their mother.
Unless addressed with mental health intervention, violence in the family
can become cyclical, sometimes spanning generations. Our father would hit
us for anything from a bad grade to disrespectful behavior
to sheer clumsiness, DJ wrote in his memoir. We saw

(06:40):
our dad slamming our mom's head against the white sink
over and over until she slumped to the ground. At
one point, a young DJ even told his dad he
would call the Department of Children and Families, but that
didn't go well. DJ recalled how his father handed him
the phone before saying call them. As soon as you
hang up the phone, I will beat you boys harder

(07:01):
than you've ever been beat before. They will have to
pull me off of you after they break down the door.
Jeff Morgan, a former assistant football coach at Aaron Hernandez
High School Bristol Central, told The Boston Globe that he'd
wondered if Dennis had taken his discipline too far behind
closed doors. After Aaron got in trouble for drinking before
a school dance, the next time we saw him, he

(07:24):
looked like his father did discipline him some Morgan shared
with the reporter, Aaron had a black eye. I'm assuming
that Dennis is where that came from. Despite living in
a violent home and suffering routine physical child abuse, Aaron
Hernandez quickly transcended his father's high school athleticism, becoming an
absolute phenomenon at Bristol's Central High School. A multi sports standout,

(07:49):
Aaron excelled in basketball and track, but it was on
the football field where his rising star shone brightest. Beside
him on the grid iron was his brother DJ, who
played quarterback while Aaron played receiver. In their first ever
game together, DJ threw Aaron a touchdown, leaving their duplicitous father, Dennis,
crying with pride and joy. DJ remembered that day well,

(08:12):
writing years later that quote, our dad opened his arms
and pulled us in a giant bear hug, holding the
two of us so tight and not wanted to let go.
I'm the luckiest father in the world, he said in
a whisper, I love you boys, I could hold you
both here forever. How complicated it must have been for
Aaron and DJ to have a father who could be

(08:34):
a loving parent one moment and a violent disciplinarian the next.
And so it was, with the Hernandez household existing as
an environment of contrasts, for achievements on the field were
what the outside world saw, while inside the house the
story was largely one of pain and criminality. Per the

(08:55):
National Library of Medicine article titled Fear in Love, Attachment
of use, and the developing brain, it seems inconceivable that
any child would develop an enduring bond with an abusive parent,
but the research of Harry Harlow at the University of
Wisconsin and Madison beginning in the nineteen sixties demonstrated that
that is exactly what tends to happen. Harlow raised infant

(09:19):
monkeys with a surrogate mother he built out of a
wire tube wrapped in cloth with a plastic monkey head
on top. Then, once an infant monkey was attached to
the constructed surrogate, he would have the wire tube blast
an unpleasant puff of air. The baby monkeys would still
cling to the makeshift surrogate wire tube, even though it

(09:40):
was blasting them with air. Harlow repeated the experiment with
other species, including chickens and rats, and again and again
the same result presented. Since Harlow's groundbreaking studies in the sixties,
additional research has supported his findings, and we the public
see the pattern ourselves in the many heart wrenching headlines

(10:01):
of kidnapping victims, battered wives, and abused children who stand
by their tormentors. So, while it seems counterintuitive, Aaron Hernandez
considered himself to be extremely close to his abusive father, Dennis,
despite the overbearing expectations, despite the beatings, despite witnessing the
repeated battery of his mother and brother. Keeping this in mind,

(10:24):
it is understandable, if somewhat alarmingly so, that Aaron Hernandez
were all crumbled in two thousand and six when Dennis
unexpectedly died. Dennis Hernandez went into the hospital for what
was supposed to be a routine hernia surgery and never
came out. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Aaron's brother

(10:46):
Dj Hernandez recounted the eerie premonitions that clouded the day
after their father's surgery, saying he said he wasn't feeling well.
It was an alarm bell for a family accustomed to
Dennis's unwavering strength. The last hour of the father's life
wore a blur. Sports Illustrated wrote, painting a haunting picture
of the family's vigil by Dennis's side, a stark prelude

(11:09):
to the grief that would envelop erin and envelop him.
It would. The loss of Dennis Hernandez left an unimaginable
void in sixteen year old Aaron's life. It was like
a shock. Everyone was close to my father, but I
was the closest, Aaron reflected in a conversation with USA today.

(11:30):
I was with him more than my friends when that happened.
Who do I talk to? Who do I hang with?
It was tough. Aaron's words capture his state of flux,
and indeed, Dennis's death was not just a personal loss
for Arin, but a seismic shift in the foundation of
his world. The structure and discipline his father had enforced evaporated,

(11:56):
and Arin, in his grief, turned to drugs, seeking solace
and substances that offered temporary escape but led to problems
of their own. I didn't know what to do for him,
His mother, Terry reflected years later about this time in
Aaron's life. He would rebel It was very very hard,
and he was very very angry. He wasn't the same

(12:18):
kid the way he spoke to me. The shock of
losing his dad, there was so much anger. Anger is,
of course a common reaction to the untimely death of
a parent. It is also a very common reaction to
the death of a violent parent. After all, children have
complex emotions around an abusive parent. Guilt, shame, sadness, confusion, anger.

(12:43):
All of these feelings swirling around inside a teenage boy
was not surprisingly a recipe for disaster. Aaron later spoke
about it to USA Today, describing the aftermath of his
father's unexpected death as quote a mess with a lot
of family issues, fighting, and disagreements to top off an

(13:04):
already tumultuous situation. Aaron's mom, Terry, was distracted, focused on
grappling with her own new reality. She had suddenly transformed
from a wife to a widow. In her grief, which,
given Dennis's violence, may well have been tempered by relief,
Terry found comfort in a new relationship with Jeff Cummings,
a landscaper and Aaron's cousin, Tanya Singleton's husband. Now it's

(13:28):
important to understand that Tanya Singleton was very important to Aaron.
Since Terry had never really been a parent, Aaron felt
he could count on. He had often turned to his
cousin Tanya over the years as a makeshift mother figure.
The two were very close, and Aaron was beyond outraged
to discover that Tanya's husband, Jeff, was having an extramarital

(13:49):
affair with none other than his own mother, Terry, Despite
the fact that her teenage sons were reeling from the
loss of their father and that Aaron completely objected to
her relationship, Terry Hernandez nonetheless succeeded in breaking up Tanya
Singleton's marriage and marrying Jeff Cummings, whose nickname was Meathead,

(14:10):
in Las Vegas in two thousand and nine. This development
unmoored Aaron from any moral center. He moved in with
his cousin Tanya and seeming defiance of Terry, totally distancing
himself from his mother. Even when Terry's new husband proved
more abusive than Dennis Hernandez had been slicing a three
and a half inch deep laceration in her right cheek

(14:32):
with an eight inch knife blade. Aaron could not see
past his mother's choices. It seemed Terry was drawn to
dangerous men, and even though being knifed by Jeff the
Meathead resulted in their divorce in twenty nineteen, we know
that they were back together based on Terry's mother's obituary.
Edith Valentine's August sixth, twenty nineteen obituary actually lists Jeff

(14:55):
Cummings as a surviving family member alongside her daughter Terry.
In a sense, it's understandable that Aaron Hernandez allegedly saw
red when he witnessed his mother wreaking havoc on his
beloved cousin's life and perpetuating the cycle of abuse. It's
also not surprising that Aaron was spiraling, looking for other

(15:16):
people to fill the enormous void left by his father. Unfortunately,
it was in this new, unhinged orbit that Aaron encountered
Ernest Wallace and Carlos Ortiz, Bristol, locals who would later
be implicated in the very darkest chapter of his life
ever heard. The saying the company you keep will have

(15:36):
a positive or negative impact on you, So choose your
friends wisely. Well. For all three boys, Aaron, Ernest and Carlos,
their association, steeped in collective feelings of anger, rejection, and disenchantment,
was doomed from the start. They pulled one another down
even as Aaron's football career was going up and up

(15:58):
and up. Aaron's burgeoning football careers seemed to offer real
hope for his future, even amidst the unrelenting darkness of
his personal life. For Aarin, his skills on the field
were also a testament to his unwavering dedication to his
father's memory. I wasn't the number one tied end in

(16:19):
the country, and then my dad passed away, and so
I started to work harder and harder for him, Aaron
once stated, encapsulating both his enduring drive and deep despair.
As captain of the Bristol Central High School football team,
Aaron rose above his inner turmoil to display a talent
destined for the national stage. His senior year performance was electrifying,

(16:42):
securing his place as a high school All American and
setting state records that heralded his potential for the NFL
Hernandez racked up one thousand, eight hundred and seven receiving
yards and twenty four touchdowns. Amazing, But football is a
tough sport, and as many players discover, it's not all

(17:02):
cheers and celebration, even for the winners. In one game,
Aaron was hit on his blind side and lay motionless.
A registered nurse in the crowd thought Aaron was unconscious,
since coaches called for an ambulance. He was taken off
the field and diagnosed with a concussion. Now concussions are
much talked about, especially after the film Concussion starring Will Smith,

(17:25):
came out in twenty fifteen, featuring the story of Bennett Amalu,
a forensic pathologist who fought against the NFL's efforts to
suppress his research on chronic traumatic incepalopathy or CTE. But
back in the two thousand and six two thousand and
seven school year at Bristol Central High School, no one
was thinking about concussions, let alone talking about them. Aaron's

(17:48):
hard knock high school play was brushed off at the time,
and it wasn't until years later that doctors flagged it
as a major injury contributing to the onset of CTE
in his behavioral the and there was definitely a behavioral decline.
His high school coach told the Hartford Current that he

(18:09):
personally always had concerns about Aaron and his increasing engagement
with what many would consider a bad element of local associates,
but no one did anything to intervene. After all, Aaron
was a teenager, and for all of his acting out,
he towed the line where most people thought it counted
on the gridiron and in the classroom. Amazingly, even while

(18:33):
juggling his sports commitments, Aaron was an honor student who
graduated early at age seventeen. For those looking at this
young man from the outside, it appeared that he had
teenage angst, but surely he would come through it. He
had everything going for him. For one thing, the University
of Florida, which is a powerhouse in college football, offered

(18:55):
Aaron Hernandez a scholarship out of high school. This was
a golden opportunity that promised to catapult him into the
national spotlight. Aaron grabbed hold of this lifeline, and just
like that, he was out of Bristol, Connecticut and headed
for glory in sunny Gainesville, Florida. At the University of Florida.
Aaron Hernandez was more than just a football player. He

(19:18):
was a symbol of the diversity and talent that thrived
within the Florida Gators' ranks. We call him Chico, said
offensive guard Mike Pouncy to USA Today, highlighting not just
a nickname with a nod to Aaron's proud Puerto Rican heritage,
but a shared camaraderie that transcended the field. This bond,
rooted in respect and mutual recognition, underscored Aaron hernandez place

(19:42):
within the Florida Gators. It seemed that at last he
had found an environment in which he was fully accepted,
where he truly belonged. But sadly, even Aaron's warm welcome
in Florida proved too little, too late. Aaron simply hadn't
developed a sense of right and wrong that might have

(20:03):
helped him avoid his violent date with destiny. How could
he After our childhood marred by brutal expectations, inconsistency, and violence,
It seemed that Aaron's inner demons simply could not be contained,
and even his relatively happy time at the University of
Florida was not without its controversies, His emotions simmered always

(20:26):
and outbursts were inevitable, and wasn't long before seventeen year
old Aaron Hernandez found himself in a physical altercation. It
was just a few months into his time playing for
the University of Florida, and already the signs of volatility
were there. Despite the efforts of his teammate Tim Tebow,
who was known for his composure and leadership, Aaron's tempered

(20:47):
flared uncontrollably, culminating in a violent fight with a restaurant manager.
Tebou attempted to keep Hernandez out of trouble during the
infamous two thousand and seven bar squabble, but not even
the mild mannered quarter could keep the hot headed, tied
end from slugging a Gainesville, Florida, restaurant manager and puncturing
his ear drum, reported USA Today's Sports. This incident, which

(21:10):
occurred before Aaron even took his freshman year finals, revolved
around an argument over an unpaid tab for two drinks,
just two drinks at the Swamp restaurant. According to police reports,
Aaron Hernandez, who was under age at the time and
was not even legally entitled to, Drake had refused to
settle the bill for the beverages he consumed. The situation

(21:32):
escalated when the restaurant's manager, Michael Taphorn, confronted Aaron, asked
him to leave, and led him outside the bar. Aaron's
response was violent and impulsive. Police records detail how after
Michael Taphorn turned to re enter the bar, Aaron Hernandez
struck him on the side of the head. Aaron didn't
deny having done so when questioned. His response certainly suggested

(21:55):
that he lacked critical impulse control and had yet to
learn to leave physical encounters on the football field. The
aftermath of the punch Aaron landed on bar owner Michael
Taphorn saw Tim Tebow stepping in, attempting to mediate the
situation by urging Aaron to leave peacefully and offering to
settle the bill himself, but despite Tebow's intervention, the damage

(22:18):
had been done. Initially adamant about pressing charges, Taphorn's stance
softened following discussions with the University of Florida's legal staff
and coaches. Michael Taphorn did state that he had been
contacted by legal staff and coaches with uf and that
they may be working on an agreement, noted the police
in their supplemental report. Ultimately, Taphorn decided against pursuing criminal action.

(22:42):
So was it a happy ending to the episode at
the Swamp restaurant? And not really? And we should take
a moment to review the various flavors flowing from what transpired.
That certainly doesn't sit well on the palette. After all,
the incident not only highlighted Aaron hernandez propensity for confrontational behavior,

(23:03):
but also suggested an environment at the University of Florida
where the football program's influence could mitigate legal repercussions of
criminal actions. Double yuck. The settlement reached to prevent Michael
tap On from pressing charges against Aaron Hernandez raises unsavory
questions about the extent to which the university was willing

(23:23):
to go to protect its athletes, seemingly at the cost
of their individual accountability and personal growth. During Urban Meyer's
tenure as coach of the Florida Gators, the football program
experienced significant success, including a national championship in two thousand
and eight that Aaron Hernandez contributed to significantly. However, this

(23:45):
period was also marked by a troubling number of player
arrests and a culture that appeared to prioritize on field
success over acceptable player behavior. Of course, influence wielding to
protect star athletes isn't limited to the University of Florida.
It's a disturbing and enduring hallmark of sports programs across

(24:05):
the US, in both high school and college. Nonetheless, coach
urban Meyer's time with the Gators was particularly notable, as
he dealt with at least thirty one arrests involving twenty
five players, but he also oversaw the careers of future
NFL stars like Cam Newton, Percy Harvin, and Mike Poucey.
He even mentored assistant coaches who were going to lead

(24:28):
their own major football school programs. Through the lens of history,
Meyer's time as head coach would ultimately be remembered more
for turmoil, criminal behavior hushed up, and the kind of
favoritism that ultimately destroyed team cohesion. But in the moment,
back when Aaron Hernandez was a Gator, well, many thought

(24:48):
urban Meyer was doing his job by protecting his star
players at any cost. It was in the anything goes
for athleteses environment enabled by coacher and Meyer that in
two thousand and seven, Aaron Hernandez found himself entangled in
a particularly grave situation along with three other Gator football players.

(25:10):
Aaron was questioned by detectives in Gainesville concerning a nightclubs
shooting that critically wounded two men, twenty eight year old
Corey Smith and nineteen year old Justin Glass. At around
two twenty am, Smith and Glass were leaving the Venue nightclub,
which had been packed with Gator players drowning their sorrows
after a defeat to Auburn, when someone went up to

(25:31):
their car and began firing shots into the vehicle. Corey
Smith was shot in the head, which left him in
critical condition, and Justin Glass was wounded in the arm.
This alarming incident, wherein Aaron Hernandez was implicated but never charged,
raised significant concerns about his associations and decision making off

(25:52):
the field, but coach Urban Meyer and the University of
Florida largely turned a blind eye because despite his off
field issue, Aaron's on field performance was absolutely stellar. By
his sophomore year, Aaron Hernandez had become an integral part
of the Florida Gators offensive strategy. He consistently showcased his

(26:12):
unique blend of speed, power, and agility and became a
favorite target of Gator quarterbacks. In two thousand and nine,
Aaron Hernandez achieved what he'd set out to do in
his father's memory. He won the John Mackie Award, awarded
to the nation's best collegiate tight end. His contributions were
pivotal in leading the Florida Gators to a thirteen and

(26:34):
one record and a Sugar Bowl victory. He was a
veritable force of nature, amassing sixty eight receptions for eight
hundred and fifty yards and five touchdowns. Yet, as Aaron
Hernandez prepared to make the leap to the NFL, concerns
about his past behavior in the company he kept did surface.
His draft stock was affected by multiple failed drug tests

(26:57):
and the dubious reputation of some of his friends. Remember
how I mentioned some of the questionable pals from Bristol
in addition to his rowdy mates on the Gators team. Well,
they all became red flags during the highly selective draft process.
We stayed away because we hated the people Aaron hung
out with, and how trouble always finds this guy, An

(27:19):
unnamed NFL scout told cbssports dot com. You see, NFL
teams really investigate the approximately three hundred players who ultimately
get drafted, and they look to more than just talent
when deciding who to pick and win in the NFL draft.
After all, team cohesion is critically important to winning, and

(27:40):
teams want a player to fit in. They definitely don't
want to bring on someone who would generate publicity headaches
with bad behavior off the field. Aaron Hernandez himself knew
his off field issues jeopardized his chances of getting drafted
and being highly paid, so he wrote letters to the
NFL teams directly offering to get frequent drug tests and

(28:01):
assuring prospective teams that he was a reasonable risk. If
you draft me as a member of your team, Aaron penned,
I will willfully submit to a bi weekly drug test
throughout my rookie season. In addition, I will tie any
guaranteed portion of my twenty ten compensation to these drug
tests and reimburse the team a pro rata amount for

(28:23):
any failed drug test. I realized that this offer is
somewhat unorthodox, but it is also the only way I
could think of to let you know how serious I
am about reaching my potential in the NFL. I am
literally putting my money where my mouth is and taking
the financial risk away from the team and putting it
directly on my back where it belongs. Between Aaron's efforts

(28:47):
to appear rehabilitated and his undeniable natural talent, there was
little doubt that he was destined to be an impact
player in the NFL. Someone was going to bet on him.
It was just a matter of which team was going
to take the gamble. In the twenty ten NFL Draft,
ignoring the cacophony of concerns about Aaron's character and off

(29:08):
field demeanor, the New England Patriots selected Aaron Hernandez in
the fourth round. This decision would add a new chapter
to his story, one filled with promise but ultimately marred
by darkness and a parallel to most of Aaron hernandez life.
Back in New England, close to where he grew up,
Aaron's life of crime would finally reveal itself in full,

(29:30):
rearing its ugly head, and one young man would pay
the ultimate price. No doubt that the rise and fall
of Aaron Hernandez is a truly tragic tale, but stay
thirsty and join me. Jay harrisse I explained how one
of the NFL's most promising players totally unraveled on next
week's episode of Playing Dirty Sports Scandals. Playing Dirty Sports

(30:02):
Scandals is a production of Dan Patrick Productions, Never Ever
Productions and Workhouse Media from executive producers Dan Patrick, Paul Anderson,
Nick Panela, Maya Glickman, and Jennifer Clary. Hosted by Jay Harris,
Written and produced by Jen Brown, Francie Haiks, Maya Glickman,
and Jennifer Claren.
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