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'We’re going to beat their ass:' How Jamaal Williams is pumping life into the Detroit Lions
Last year, he was depressed... for many reasons. But now? Jamaal Williams wants to change everything you think about the Lions. He doesn't hold back in a conversation with Go Long.
To smash history and everything that comes to mind when we hear The Detroit Lions, this level of passion is required.
HBO couldn’t have cast a better character if they tried. No Thrones character would’ve come close to topping this screaming, tearful running back demanding more out of everyone during a sweltering training camp practice.
Yes, Jamaal Williams is exactly what a cursed franchise needs.
I first met Williams five years ago in Scottsdale, Ariz., for this Bleacher Report story. He was a draft prospect out of BYU back then and a weekend spent at the “Thrill Hill” with his uncle (Luke Neal’s own life story is jarring beyond belief) was all the proof anyone with two eyes needed. Williams clearly possessed the relentless work ethic NFL head coaches dream of. The Green Bay Packers took Williams 134th overall in that year’s draft. And then, ahead of the 2020 NFC Championship Game, we chatted again for this at Go Long. What a peaceful time that was for Williams, a vet morphing himself into the protagonist of his own anime.
Of course, Green Bay lost to Tampa Bay and Williams signed a two-year contract with the Lions ahead of the 2021 season. After seeing this impassioned speech from HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” it seemed like a perfect time to check back in. Clearly, Williams had entered a new chapter in his life.
Holy, I had no idea.
This week, we chatted for an hour about the (emotional) pain Williams endured last season. A trio of deaths stung — Aaron Jones’ father, his own father and his great-grandmother. As detailed in the B/R story, his biological dad deserted him in ninth grade after the two had been incredibly close. That’s what made this death hurt. Williams knows now what they missed. Meanwhile, losses mounted and relationships soured and his depression worsened.
Now? He’s back on track. Jamaal Williams is ascending and hoping to take these Lions with him. He may be the force of nature who embodies everything Dan Campbell says in front of a room. The Lions are an extremely young team with just one player over the age of 30. To build it up, they tore it all down first. Last season, Williams ran for 601 yards and three touchdowns but his impact on the roster — 1 through 53 — obviously runs a hell of a lot deeper than any statistical measure.
Here’s our full chat below. Good luck finding another Jamaal Williams in an NFL backfield.
When he’s not ranting on the universal disrespect his Lions receive from the NFL, from opponents, from everyone, he’s explaining how he pisses off defensive players in practice and how fans at training camp have gotten out of control and why he values real relationships that transcend the football field.
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Hey, you’re a celebrity now.
Williams: Please, don’t start with all that. I really don’t care about none of that. I wish I could just make money in silence.
I was thinking about that. The world’s falling in love with you and you seem like the kind of guy who doesn’t care.
Williams: I really do not care. I just want to make money without having to do all this extra stuff.
We’ve caught up at three different stages of your football life — running the “Thrill Hill” out of BYU to being a fan favorite in Green Bay to, now, changing the Detroit Lions.
Williams: Trying, man. Trying. I’ve never been through this one before. It’s a different time in my life. It’s a challenge.
We all saw the passion you’re bringing this team every day with that speech but that’s probably just an extension of how you live your life out there.
Williams: Honestly, I’d rather not say anything at all and just work. But sometimes, people need to hear your voice to know what type of person you are. I just try to help my teammates understand that I’m here to help everybody be good. I want to be good for my team. If we’re not up to a certain standard, you have to say something. That’s the type of person I am.
What’s it like to be on ground zero there? You’re trying to build something. Where do you even start?
Williams: It depends because I’ve never been in a situation where a team hasn’t really been good. Luckily, I came in with the Packers and I had a lot of vets and people to look at to see a championship type of style. The mentality you have to have to win and what you need to do on a daily basis to build a winning team. With the Packers, I didn’t have to talk. I didn’t have to give any speeches. There were vets there. A-Rod, David Bakhtiari, Marcedes Lewis. They were teaching me. Now, I come to a team where I’m one of the oldest. I have to do my best to help the younger players and help them understand stuff ain’t going to be easy. No matter what college you came from, this ain’t college. This is the league. Nobody cares what school you came from. Nobody cares about any of that. What are you going to do now? They’re just young. We have a young team. So it’s more about telling them: “Every day you need to come in and have a championship mentality. Focus. Understand this is nothing like college. This is a business. This is how you make money. This is how you can lose your job.” You could take it for granted and act like you’re the only great player out here and they’ll find another person.
I’m trying to show my team, “We can do it. No matter what people say, we still have to go out there between the lines and force our will on somebody and win the game.” That’s what football is. Especially the NFL. And it comes down to one or two plays most times. We can’t go up three scores and think they won’t come back. They will come back. It always happens because everybody’s professional, everybody wants to win. Nobody wants to give up. That’s the whole point of being disciplined, being strong-willed, being mentally strong when you’re tired and doing your fundamentals and then going out there being a dog. And you have to do it every week. You have to do your job or you’re going to lose. That’s the mindset I have: Working hard and helping my teammates to let them know I care and I’m doing everything I can to get wins.
Whatever the stigma is of being a Lion or being in Detroit, that has nothing to do with our season. That has nothing to do with us making sure we come out with a win. I feel like the energy is switching. The energy is better around here. More people are committed. More people are all in.
You have to somehow take that stigma, bring it out back to pasture and put it out of its misery. To change what it means to play for the Detroit Lions, it has to come with passion and fight, doesn’t it? So many of your 13 losses last season were decided by inches. How excruciating were those?
Williams: I don’t like losing. I don’t like the stigma of being OK with losing. It’s getting everybody to understand: “We don’t have to lose.” It’s all mental. It’s trusting your teammates and if we do everything right? We’ll win. Being us. Being mentally strong. We have to focus. People think focusing is so easy — it ain’t when you’re tired, it ain’t when you don’t want to work today. There’s days you don’t want to get up at 6 o’clock in the morning.
Your hatred of losing — that feeling — where does it come from for you?
Williams: The competitor in me, even though I’m a really laidback, non-aggressive person. If confrontation happens, I’d rather walk the other way. When am I really going to see you again? That’s most of the time how I feel. I’m really good with temporary people because I don’t let temporary people get to me at all. I can walk the other way and literally not see you again. With football, I’m just trying to be the best me and keep pushing to see how hungry I am to get what I want. I want to keep pushing and try to not let people steal my joy. Not let people stop me from loving football. Because last year was hard. I never had a losing season like this. It was three… something. And we tied. That shit’s stupid. That just irked my nerves.
Nobody likes ties.
Williams: Being the person I am, I don’t like that. So, this year I came in with a new attitude of just knowing that I’ve got to be more positive. Talk more. Set the tone. Set the vibe. Get the mood going. If I have to piss the defense off by talking shit to get them going, I’ll do it. I don’t care. It’s going to get us better. That’s it. That’s why I appreciate Tracy Walker. He’s my dog on defense. I’ll talk to him and let him know, “This is why I’m doing it.” And he’ll go, “Yeah, I got you.” He’ll do the same thing back. I’m making better connections with my teammates. Now, it’s getting to the point where we have positive chemistry. Now we know what this team can be. There’s a lot of people on this team who are dogs.
Look at our season. We have no primetime games. All them motherf-----s are in the f-----g morning. That shit pisses me off, too. I’m like, “Damn, you motherf-----s really think we’re an in-the-morning team.” That shit pisses me off so bad that we should whip everybody’s ass in the morning. When they think… (lowers voice to comical level) “Uh, the Lions. It’s going to be an easy-ass game.” Yawning and shit in the morning and not taking it serious because we’re the Lions. I’ve done it before! Trust me. Being with the Packers, I’ve done it. I’ve thought the Lions were nothing. I’ve done it before. But now that I’m here, it’s “F--k it. They think we can’t do shit? We’re going to beat their ass.” That’s my mindset. That’s the mindset you have to have. I feel like that’s what I need for this year to keep going.
I was honestly dealing with a lot. Mental health-wise. It really became serious. There were a lot of deaths in my family. So losing and deaths in the family and how the season was going and not feeling like I’m performing at my best, it got me into a depressive mode. Really depressed. I got to the point where I cut my hair off. I cut it off because I didn’t feel like I was worthy of my locks at the moment.
Williams: Yeah, that’s why I’m starting it over now. I said, “I’ll start it over and enjoy this new me I’m trying to be.” Because I’m growing every year. I’m growing from my experiences. I’m just trying to be a better me and not let people steal my joy and my happiness playing football because there’s a lot that goes on with being a football player. If you’re a football player, people already know you have money. So the first thing they’re going to ask you is to try to get money from you. Me, I don’t like people already. And I’m definitely not going to like people if they want something from me because I play football. One, this is a job. This isn’t who I am. That shit irks me. I’m like, “This is my job. I’m here to work, do what I can, so I can go home.” For other people, this is an experience. They just love the ambiance of being there and having people around and all that bullshit. I don’t give a shit. I’m here to f-----g work, play football and call it a day. So, I’ve been cleaning house and keeping people away from me who ain’t genuine. If it’s not unconditional love and you’re doing it because you love me, and not because you’re trying to get something out of me, then it’s a different story.
That’s a good way to live in general. What did you go through last year? Deaths in your family?
Williams: The three main ones were Aaron’s Dad that died (Aaron Jones’ dad, Alvin, in April 2021), then my Dad died May 10th of last year. After that happened, I was like, “Damn.” It was a hard time. I couldn’t really understand how to wrap my feelings around it. Then my great grandma died. She was 92. So I had two deaths and my great grandma was at the end of her road.
I know you and your Dad had a difficult relationship, but that must’ve been tough.
Williams: I didn’t really have time to get to know him as my father. When I was little, he did a lot. Video games. We’d watch Family Guy. Shoot, our favorite place was Chuck E. Cheese. He wasn’t rich or anything like that, but it was fun for me. And this is why I’m not a materialistic person. I enjoyed the time I had with my Dad. Going to Chuck E. Cheese was the biggest thing to me. Eating “welfare burgers.” That was basically eating burger meat with just the bread. Being able to watch wrestling with my Dad, and when it got close to our bedtime, Family Guy would come on. So he’d let us watch Family Guy before we went to sleep. And then he'd come in and scare me and my sister. He had this mask that’s basically a bald man with a big nose and a mustache — he called him Mr. Wimpy. And he’d put on a trench coat and start flicking the lights, like “Oooooo!” My sister used to go under the blankets and scream, “Ahhh!” Once he’d come over and start messing with us… “Mr. Wimpy! Beat him up!” Those are the fun things I remember as a child. And when I think about it now, I’d much rather be a child. It’s much simpler. I enjoyed simple things.
Now, I’m still the same. For me, I’d rather keep it simple, keep it non-materialistic. Because when you have genuine, unconditional love, the blessings come. When I can feel that you’re trying to get something from me, it shuts me down. You get no personality. You get none of that from me. You get a blank board, and probably not even that. If I sense evil or a bad energy from you, I’m going to walk away. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care how much money you’ve got. I don’t care how many people think you’re famous. I don’t care who you think you are. If I don’t like you, I’m going to just go. I’m making sure no one takes my joy of playing football. That’s what I’ve been battling with — just enjoying football, the game I’ve loved playing for all these years. Now that I get paid to do it, people are trying to take my joy from football by making it a materialistic thing and making it about them coming to see me. You can literally be at home and send me a “good luck” text. That’s the same thing to me. Most of my friends do that. They don’t go to games. They just text me and I know that they care. If they’re looking up to see when we play and texting me early to say “good luck,” that means they care. They took the time out to look up my stuff for unconditional reasons to show love. Not to look up a game to come and see me so I can pay for the ticket. If you’re going to come see me? Pay for your own ticket. That shows that you really did care to come see me.
It’s all about your intentions.
Williams: If you make it seem like, “I’ll be out there. I got my ticket.” Cool. If you say things like, “Hey, I’ll be in Detroit for the such-and-such game,” what am I supposed to say to that? Do you want a ticket? I don’t like greedy people who think supporting me is me paying for their ticket to come see me.
As we talk here, I’ve got two kids rolling around at my feet. It is true. When you’re younger, you preserve that innocence, that joy. I can see missing that. So, it’s great you have those memories about your Dad.
Williams: That’s all I really remember about my Dad. I don’t say anything bad about him. I just wish I had more time to talk to him and figure out what type of man he was. I truly miss him.
How did he die?
Williams: It had something to do with high blood pressure, he didn’t take his pills and he just didn’t wake up. … We were out in L.A. because “JG” (Jared Goff) brought everybody out there to throw. It’s crazy how it happened. The night of, before I got the call, my hand was itching. I’m like, “What the…?” My hand was itching. I don’t know what it was. I went to sleep, woke up and then my sister told me our Dad died. I was like, “Man.” It was hard. Sitting there, honestly, it didn’t hit me until I came back this year to work on compartmentalizing everything and not overflow myself with emotions. But at the same time — and this is why I feel more comfortable being myself — there are certain people I feel comfortable talking to, and I can talk about things that have happened in my life. Just being able to talk to a male. Because usually I do not talk to males about feelings. I just feel better talking to females because they can understand. It’s not like I’m going to put my problems on them but they actually care. I know I’ve got three people I can go to any time. Call them any time. Four people. And they would they understand.
It seems like what you’re getting at is that this season you really want to take your joy back. In practice, going nuts and getting after guys, is that a big emphasis in rediscovering your joy, your love of football?
Williams: Yeah, I’m enjoying it. I’m loving football more now. I’m just trying to make sure nobody steals my joy. I’m trying to be the best version of me and give the best version of me to my teammates.
You’re getting after the defensive guys in practice? How are you bringing it in a different way now?
Williams: I’m not talking shit all the time. We had a goal-line drill and the defense, with no pads on, they’re tagging us and saying, “Oh, that’s a tackle! That’s a tackle! Ughhhh!” And it was goal line. Third and 1. Third and 3. Are you going to stop this or what? And that’s my specialty. I can hit those any day. Anything like that is me. Goal line, hitting it. So, I was turnt. “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! That’s a first down — yeah! What y’all doing!?” And then we get to the goal line and we’re getting touchdowns. I’m talking my stuff to get them going, to let them know that “Now, it’s real. Now, when it counts, what are you going to do about it?” We’ve got to challenge ourselves. If we’re talking like this and competing like this every day, when we go against other people, it’s going to be nothing. Nothing. Because they’re not working like we’re working. They’re taking it easy on each other. We’re trying to make each other better around here.
Literally all of your games this season are at 1 o’clock with the one nationally televised game you do have coming against the Bills on Thanksgiving Day. I’m sure everybody assumes they’ll kick your ass, too. The disrespect is going to be real because it’s been three decades since this team even won a playoff game and forever (1957) that they won a championship. Nobody’s going to respect the Lions, so maybe you’re the guy who changes it.
Williams: I’m doing the best I can. I’m trying to work on me. Because, honestly, working on me brings the energy to other people. It’s so crazy. I don’t like people but they love coming up to me and love saying, “Oh! I want to hang out with that guy!”
You’ve got anime. You’re running people over. You’re giving these impassioned speeches.
Williams: That’s because I have to be out there. If I don’t have to be out here, I’m in the house.
There’s a parallel here though, right? As Jamaal Williams gets his joy back, maybe the Detroit Lions get theirs?
Williams: I hear that. I’m working on just being happy and enjoying my time. I’m not letting anything take my joy this year. I’ll be happy. Last year, I was doing those “Jamaal That” videos on YouTube. The reason I stopped doing them was because we were losing. And I don’t feel comfortable doing anything on social media while we’re losing. I don’t want anybody thinking: “He cares more about this stuff than he does playing football.” I’m like, “Nah! I was just doing it because I can do it. It’s easy-peasy.” Now, I’ll do them just ‘cuz and I’ll still do football — it’s another thing that’s part of my joy.
What gives you hope that things are changing? You’re there every day. Are you seeing tangible reasons things will change and the Lions will be different?
Williams: I believe so. Sometimes, it’s hard to get rid of all the negativity, and sometimes it’s people. It’s the energy. And when certain people are used to losing, their mindset is different. You’ve got to change that mindset. If you don’t change that mindset, it’s going to be Bad News Bears for you.
I’ve never met Dan Campbell, but I can’t get enough of these speeches that don’t make a lot of sense. I don’t know what he’s always trying to say but I want to run through a wall. What’s it like being in there listening to him?
Williams: It makes sense to us. He’s trying to tell us basically that people don’t respect us already. We’ve got to be hungry — and dogs. One of his favorite ones to use is the water. He says the playoff teams are used to being in deep water. They’re used to being out there. The ones who don’t make it love the shallow water. Closer to the beach. For us, we’ve got to be that team that takes people who are in that shallow water, that open water, take ‘em and take ‘em even further out into the depths. Let them know they’re going to drown out here.” That’s alright. I like stuff like that. It’s a mentality. All he’s saying is that we need to force our will on people and let them know, “Whatever you think about the Lions, that’s not who we are.”
To change the Lions, it’s not going to happen on a spreadsheet. It’s not about analytics and numbers. It’s about kicking people in the teeth and everything he talks about. Do you feel that? Does it feel like the energy can change?
Williams: We’ve got to. That’s why we say, “If you ain’t down with this shit, if you ain’t down with what the coaches are talking about, if you ain’t down with what the players who are all in are talking about, if you ain’t down with this team, get the f--k out. Stay in the locker room. Let the real ones go out and let’s go f-----g play ball.” So, we’re not taking that, “If you ain’t with the team, you’re still here.” Nah. We need everybody all in and all about us.
Are you seeing that attrition? Are you seeing guys who can’t hang leaving?
Williams: It’s more about the challenge. Sometimes people need that push. And some people need more of a push than others.
Anything else you need people to know about you this year?
Williams: I just feel like I’m in a happier place. I feel more like myself again. I understand people have been missing my locks, my hair, and I never really told people why I cut it. I’d just say personal reasons. My hair’s coming back. I’ll never cut my hair again, no matter how bad I’m feeling. I’ll keep pushing and try to be a better me every day. Love my loved ones.
And, oh, man, what’s happening with fans throwing their stuff at players? Please stop doing that. I had that happen to me after the preseason game. I was very disappointed. Someone threw a football at me. I looked up in the stands with my anime mean face like, “I know you didn’t just throw something at me, think I’m going to sign it, and throw it back.” If I’m going to sign it, I’m going to sign it. If you’re throwing stuff and think we just have to sign it because we’re here, we don’t! We’re taking time out of our day to make sure you all feel special about whether we want to sign it or not. We just had a long day of practice. You really think we want to sign something after 2 ½ hours on the field? Sweaty. Sore.
That’s why I tell people, “Talk to me like a person. Don’t talk to me like a football player.” Even kids! I’ll get on a kid real quick if they don’t say “please” and “thank you.” I’ll call them out: “Where are your parents at? Because your son right here has no manners. He literally is just trying to tell people what to do.” I’ll get on anybody because I will not be disrespected for something I barely even like doing. I do it because I have a good heart and I understand from the perspective of being a fan, of being out there, of wanting your stuff signed. These kids want their stuff signed. I get it. But at the same time, you’re going to respect me as a person before you ever disrespect me by throwing something at me, saying something crazy. I hear everything. After someone says something crazy, they’re the first one to say, “Can you sign this?!” It irks my nerves.
One fan threw a ball at you?
Williams: You know me, I did my ninja evasive moves. I looked at the ball. I looked up. And I kept walking. Fans like that mess it up for other fans. Because I’ll go straight in there. As soon as someone makes me mad, I’m done. I was sad watching the freakin’ clip of Stefon Diggs. People were throwing their stuff on the floor and he’s picking ‘em up and signing it. That is horrible. That is horrible.
And the amount of adults who do stuff like this everywhere is insane. Get a life. Get a job.
Williams: I’ve seen kids crushed on the fence because people want something signed. I’m like, “Y’all really don’t care about anybody’s health, but you want your stuff signed.” I can’t deal with none of that. I almost got in a fight at Universal Studios one time because a dude — you know how they have side attractions, like Harry Potter Land? — a dude, a grown man, pushed kids out of the way to be in front of something that’s literally for kids. I literally went to him, “Bro, these are kids. You’re getting excited for this? Go pay some bills. You’re a grown-ass man and you’re pushing kids for something that ain’t even for you anymore.” It irks my nerves.
You really do see the death of human decency everywhere in society. Nobody returning their shopping carts. Budging ahead of people when you’re deplaning. It’s everywhere. It’s a poison.
Williams: That’s why I say, “If you can’t talk to me like a regular person, and you’re only giving respect to people that you adore, and all that bullshit?” That’s bullshit. If you can’t respect the person who’s right next to you that you see every day, y’all have more in common than you do celebrities or anybody you look up to, then you don’t deserve to meet good people. I know so many great people who aren’t rich and famous. They’re normal people. They’re my idols. I have a whole bunch of idols who are grown males who are a husband, a father doing their manly duties. Those are the people I admire the most, the people who handle their business as a man, as a husband, as a father, as a son doing whatever they can to help their families and they’re doing as a man. They’re not trying to be something that they’re not. That’s why I adore most of my coaches growing up. They were my father figures. They were my Dads who I looked up to, to learn right from wrong. Open doors for women. Put gas in the car for the women. I learned these things from them, my father figures.
The realist heroes are the ones you hear nothing about. They go about their life the way you’re supposed to — as a real person trying to be the best you every day. Those people don’t get the credit they deserve. For me, I say to all the males in my life, “I’m proud of you. I’m happy the way you’re doing things. I want you to keep going.” I’m grateful to play a game where playing a game gets me paid. I’m grateful I don’t have to work a 9-to-5. Some people do. And they still make things work. It’s prospering for them and I’m like, “Man, I’m proud of you.” I’m grateful to know there’s people living the right way and are actually good people.
Everything you said, put it on a wall and sell it. How do you feel — right now — after everything?
Williams: I’m getting better at expressing myself, especially to the people I feel comfortable expressing it to. I feel better every day. Some days aren’t as good as others. That’s life. You have your ups and downs. But I’ve been doing way better than I have before. Last year was a dark time. I’m feeling so much better than how I did before. I’m not dwelling on it. It’s really just accepting my mistakes in the past or experiences that happened and learning from them — and learning not to make them again. Improving from my experiences to make life better for myself.
What was your darkest time then? When you were at your lowest was it literally during the season? How bad was it?
Williams: Mostly during the season. Last year was a bad time for me honestly. I just had a lot of stuff happen outside of football. And then football wasn’t going as good as I wanted it to be. I felt like things weren’t going as planned, and then I felt like people were around me just because I played football. That’s why I was trying to get people away from me. Like, “I don’t know want y’all around me.” Family members. All that. “I just don’t want y’all around me. The only reason you’re around me is so you can get something that has to do with football.” And I don’t want that. Everything is “How’s football!?”
You get sick and tired of talking about it. People make that out to be your identity, and it gets old?
Williams: If I know talking to you that you’ll want something from football, need something from football, and we’re going to talk football all day, I don’t want to be around you. I don’t. I don’t have time. I just want to sit down, play a video game and watch anime and call it a day. I know once I get back into football, I’m football 24/7. We’re at meetings 24/7. We’re at practice, weightlifting, meetings again. People think they can wake up every day at 6 o’clock, I’m in here. I’m in meetings. And you’re here until 8. And then you only get one day off. And that’s not even a day off. You’re using that day to recover. And people think that we’re not doing anything. People would not even wish they could do this. They couldn’t do this.
Not everybody has this standard football players go by if you want to be successful. The good ones are here for a reason. They’re here because they do things a certain way. They’re here because they have a routine. Even though they don’t even want to do it some days. Trust me, there’s days I don’t want to do my routine but I just do it because I know what the results will be with me putting this effort in.
Is there a wife on the way? More kids?
Williams: I’m trying. I’m getting to that point of knowing what I want and how I want to do it. That comes back to, “Do they like me for me or do they like what I do? Do they like me for what I could do for them?” I’m already a different person. I am not your typical NFL player. I’m not at clubs. I don’t wear jewelry. Anything I have on with any type of branding was a gift — I didn’t buy it. My money goes toward anime and video games and saving up as much as I can. I like peace and solitude. The thing I hate is asking another person, “Hey, what do you want to eat?” I don’t give a shit! I just want to get my food and go the f--k home.
I’ve got a 4-year-old right now. That’s why I’m working on being a one-woman man so I can find somebody and show my daughter how a person is supposed to be loved and how a relationship is supposed to go. How a husband is supposed to love his wife. I want that. I want to have kids with my forever woman, and then we’ll have a full family. Life doesn’t happen that way but, at the same time, I take responsibilities for my actions and I’m still doing the best I can to be a Dad. That whole situation is another aspect as to why I went into depression. But I’m dealing with that a little bit better now.
It’s still hard.
It’s getting better, it’s getting better.
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