You don't know Yannick Ngakoue
An abusive father. Cockroaches. Depression. The 27-year-old edge rusher opens up like never before to Go Long. It's been a tumultuous life but he knows for certain that 2022 is his year.
FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Zero seconds are wasted. Moments after he slides into our booth at the “Fish Shack” — in a white tee, arms camouflaged in tattoos, face stretched in a smile — Yannick Ngakoue orders a blackened salmon sandwich with a side of cucumber salad and puts an old acquaintance on the spot.
He has a way of holding eye contact beyond social norms, too. He never looks away.
“You know my journey from Jacksonville all the way to now,” Ngakoue begins. “Tell me what you think.”
Indeed, a lot has changed. The last time we chatted, it was on the eve of the 2018 season. We sat inside the club level of the stadium Ngakoue expected to morph into his personal gladiator coliseum for years. Those Jacksonville Jaguars were his first team and Ngakoue — two seasons in — was not shy. His eyes were dead-set on shattering Bruce Smith’s all-time sack record. What a time it was in Duval County. Those Jags even let visions of the ’85 Bears and ’00 Ravens dance in their heads after a surprise run to the AFC Championship. Yet, then, the roster toppled over like a house of cards and Ngakoue embarked on one of the most bizarre cross-country tours you’ll ever see out of such a talented player. He has totaled 55.5 sacks and 20 forced fumbles as one of only five players in NFL history to log eight sacks in each of their first six pro seasons.
The others? Reggie White, Derrick Thomas, DeMarcus Ware and Aaron Donald. Not bad.
So, my answer? Confusion. It’s unfathomable that a rising star at a premium position hasn’t been valued and treasured and locked up to a long-term deal by now. Ngakoue has traveled from Jacksonville to the Minnesota Vikings (53 days) to the Baltimore Ravens (143 days) to the Las Vegas Raiders (366 days) to, now, the Indianapolis Colts. Teams do not allow pass rushers this skilled to leave their building so haphazardly. Something, he’s told, is missing from his story. I tell Ngakoue that I got the sense he was holding something back when we chatted back in Jacksonville. We touched on his upbringing in Washington D.C., but he was clearly guarded.
Here, he cuts it.
“We can talk about everything right now,” he says. “Let’s really go into the gist of everything.”
And we’re off. First thing’s first. Let’s get everyone to say his name correctly. Six years of batting QBs around and everyone from announcers to teammates still butcher it. For the record, it’s “yah-NEEK in-GAH-kway.” No one has a clue what he has endured, either. Roaches darting all directions in a crowded house. An abusive father. Depression. The 27-year-old knows he has transformed as a person far more than a football player. Now, he believes people need to know what he’s been through. It’s time. It’s all going to lead to an exceptional 2022 season. Ngakoue fully plans on reintroducing himself as the best pass rusher in the sport.
As teams went wild signing pass rushers to whopping contracts two months ago, few noticed that Ngakoue shuffled off to Team No. 5.
The Las Vegas Raiders were one of those teams, discarding Ngakoue to make room for Chandler Jones.
An hour in, when those Raiders enter this chat, an overwhelming sense of revenge wipes that smile cleanly off his face.
“They’ll see how I feel when we play them,” Ngakoue says. “We go to their house. They’ll see why they f----d up.
“They’re going to have to pay. They’ll pay.”
The Raiders won’t be alone, either. Ngakoue views 2022 as a tour de force of sacks, of wins, of domination.
“The way I feel right now,” he says, “if you’re in my way? I would be afraid.”
Because, well, Yannick Ngakoue knows everything that gradually led to this imminent destruction.
He’s in a good place… but it wasn’t always that way.
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Thinking back, Ngakoue is positive his childhood injected him with a heavy dose of “darkness.”
The sights and sounds inside this own home were too raw, too traumatic.
Growing up in D.C., Ngakoue lived with his parents and his older brother “in a situation,” he begins, “that was not normal.” Under the same roof were typically six or seven random people. His father’s side hustle was to rent the house out to immigrants from Africa. He was Cameroon himself, so he knew people overseas who were seeking a safe haven in America. When a handful first made their way into Ngakoue’s home, they relayed the message back to Africa. Which led to what Ngakoue calls “an ongoing cycle.” To his knowledge, the immigrants were illegal. And even though his dad made money off filling his family’s home with total strangers — while also working a security job — there never seemed to be food in the refrigerator for his two sons, his wife. Yannick’s best guess is that his dad mailed the money back to relatives in Africa.
“He wasn’t doing his job as a man to make sure my mom was happy,” Ngakoue says, “and make sure his kids were properly nourished.”
His brother was four. Yannick was one. Mom worked double shifts to scrape enough money together to get by.
And the home? It was dirty. Like, really dirty. Ultra, ultra, ultra disgusting. As Ngakoue got older, he remembers flipping the light switch on in the kitchen and seeing cockroaches scattering all over the floor. He was so young that he honestly didn’t think anything of it. This was his “normal.” What also became normal was not even being able to use the shower at 4 years old because a new tenant was occupying it. Countless nights, his brother tapped him awake to tell him to get on the couch. Yet again, rats were scurrying back and forth on their bedroom floor. Those rats always seemed to throw a party the same time of night, too. Not that the couch was much better. Once, the brothers flipped it over and discovered a hairless mouse underneath that was just born.
Another time, at age 6, Yannick saw a possum in the fridge. He swears it’s true. Mom was the one who had to coax it out.
Again, nothing felt odd about this all. Not until he grew older and visited friends’ homes.
As bad as the living conditions were inside their D.C. home, it didn’t compare to how terribly his father treated the family.
He never uses his name but Ngakoue starts by saying this was the sort of dad he’d call and would tell him he’s 10 minutes away. Those 10 minutes would pass, he’d call him again and dad would say he’s down the street. More time would pass. And if son called a third time, it’d go to voicemail. When Yannick and his brother later attended the same Catholic elementary school, their dad totally forgot to pick them up from school on a half-day. Yannick was eight years old and his brother was 12, as the 100 or so kids outside were all picked up around 12:30 p.m. The arms on the clock swung to 1 p.m.… 2 p.m. … 3 o’clock and that’s when the school’s principal approached them to say that if a guardian didn’t pick them up within the 30 minutes, the school would need to call Child Protective Services.
The boys were spooked and decided to walk home themselves, several miles through the inner city, just to prevent that from happening.
He’ll never forget the terrain. A “jungle,” he says.
“It’s amazing,” Ngakoue adds, “that I’m here talking to you right now.”
Of course, this all pales in comparison to how his father treated his mother.
“There was definitely domestic violence going on within the house,” Ngakoue says. “I’ve seen my mom get hit by my dad before — at 4 years old. Just seeing my mom look at me with no sense of life to her. Because she’s looking at me like, ‘Damn. How am I allowing this to happen? I put them in this position. I thought their dad would be a certain way but when the kids were born, the script completely flipped.’ He was verbally and physically abusive.”
He does not have one positive memory of the family being together as one. No love. No good times. Nothing. Only the sound of mom and dad fighting and visuals that left permanent mental scars. He thinks the experience gave him PTSD and is certain it’s why he struggled to submit to male authority. He never had such a role model in his life informing him, “This is how you carry yourself as a citizen.” Teachers. Coaches. Whenever anyone tried to correct Ngakoue through his teenage years he admits he resisted. Such an upbringing with such a violent father is the reason.
The chip on his shoulder? The short fuse? It all has its roots inside that volatile D.C. home.
His mother, Marlene Chantelly, was born on the island of Martinique. From there, her parents moved the family to the south of France for a proper education. After graduating, Chantelly then moved to the states and that’s where she met Ngakoue’s father who had come from Africa. Unfortunately, their relationship went south fast. Ngakoue calls his dad a “drinker, a cheater, abusive,” adding that it killed his mom to see her kids grow up in this environment. Still, it took a nudge for things to change. When Chantelly’s parents spoke up and said they were ashamed to see their grandkids living like this, she made the move. “By the grace of God,” Ngakoue says, mom left dad and moved the boys to a new home in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Setting his salmon sandwich down, the “What If” scenarios loop through Yannick Ngakoue’s mind.
“If she never moved me out of that house,” he says, “I don’t think I would’ve ever talked to you. I would’ve fallen into the wrong crowd. Trying to get stuff done, to look a part of society, doing things that are not legal because we had no income. But I didn’t take that route. I took my anger and frustration out in practice and sports.”
Of course, he admits Chantelly would’ve also kicked his ass if he started hanging around drug dealers. She kept him on track because, truth was, Ngakoue could’ve easily fallen into that crowd. His high school, Friendship, was located “east of the river.” That is, in the thick of D.C. crossfire. He remembers gang members hanging around the school’s boundaries. His own high school football field — known as “Friendship Beach” — needed to be cleared of needles before practice. One time, a player was greeted by a grisly sight: a dead teenager with five bullets in his head.
Ngakoue stayed focused and earned a scholarship to the University of Maryland.
Mom’s work ethic remained absurd. A military nurse at Walter Reed, Chantelly worked with the “Wounded Warriors.” She’d wake up at 4 a.m. and wouldn’t get to bed until 11 p.m. On Friday, she’d also work the overnight shift from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m., relax for a moment, then return at 3 p.m. Saturday and work right into Sunday morning. The darkness of Yannick’s youth may be part of him… but so is witnessing this. “The way she did that?” he says. “It was instilled in me.” Because even though Chantelly worked nonstop, she was right there at his practices and games. If practice started at 5:30 p.m., she’d find a way to watch the entire practice and drive Yannick home to PG County with a McDonalds stop along the way. Then, quickly, it was back to work.
Every penny counted, too.
On to Ngakoue’s freshman year at Maryland, he’d always use his per diem money on mom. Once it went dry, it was hard to find food for himself. One day, he asked his mom if she could take him to Jersey Mike’s for a sandwich. She obliged, but she also wasn’t sure how much money was on her credit card. What happened next shaped Ngakoue’s mentality as a football player. “I’ll never forget it,” he says, holding an index finger to his temple. The workers at Jersey Mike’s made his sandwich, he shifted on down to the cash register, swiped the card and… it was declined. He swiped it again and… it was declined again. Ngakoue, embarrassed, told the cashier he must’ve used the wrong card and left his food inside. He walked out to the parking lot, slid back into the car with mom and told her the card didn’t work.
Both got emotional. Tears streamed down son’s face.
“From this day forward,” he told his mom, “my mission is to make sure you never work another day in your life.”
There were a few haunting close calls. That same freshman year, Ngakoue had a gun drawn on him. Inside a car with his older brother and a friend, a random person approached them and banged on the window with a pistol. Thankfully, his friend at the wheel reacted quickly and drove off before this person could try opening a door, punching the window or, even worse, pulling the trigger.
Seeing that gun alone, inches from his face, was enough to send a chill down Ngakoue’s spine.
“The first thing I thought,” he says, “was, ‘I’m going to die.’”
His friend sped off, took a left turn, found a wooded area down the road and stopped to see if anybody was tailing them. Nobody was. With a sigh of relief, the three merged onto the Beltway.
As his son’s star began to rise, as Ngakoue became an NFL prospect with 13 sacks the fall of 2015, dad tried to re-enter the picture. “All of a sudden,” Ngakoue thought, “you want to be involved?” Right then, he decided to cut his father off completely. No wonder Ngakoue is perturbed to receive direct messages from strangers on social media saying they received an Uber ride from his dad and, all ride, dad went on and on about how proud he was of his Yannick. It’s happened five times and, no, Yannick never responds. He cannot believe his dad would refer to him as his child when he was never there for him.
That being said, Ngakoue doesn’t run from his past. He wants everyone to know he is a direct product of all trauma.
“It gave me that chip,” he says, “that I needed to be able to last in this sport.”
Did it ever.
Six pro seasons in, he’s 100 percent certain people have no clue who he truly is as a person. To the extreme, Ngakoue believes his name has been effectively tarnished. The player has done precisely what the headline of my aforementioned Bleacher Report story suggested in all caps: “YANNICK NGAKOUE IS COMING FOR YOUR QUARTERBACK.” The 69th overall pick in the 2016 draft outperformed the Jags’ third overall pick in the draft prior, Dante Fowler, by a wide margin and even gained a strong relationship with the team’s old-school head coach, Doug Marrone. However, he did not see eye-to-eye with management.
After we talked in 2018 — after what should’ve been an epic Jags defense self-destructed — Ngakoue infamously took on the son of the team’s owner. He believes his willingness to challenge the top of the very top of an organization in such public fashion stained his reputation and is the No. 1 reason he hasn’t been able to latch on long term with any franchise.
“When I felt like I was getting disrespected,” he says, “I was vocal about it. Which I felt like led to this situation. All these owners know each other. I guess I left a bad taste in peoples’ mouth.”
A shame, too. Way back, Ngakoue imagined himself being a Jaguar for life. This is where he wanted to play, even as many others did not feel the same. As the ship sank in 2018 and 2019 and stars like Jalen Ramsey forced their way out, Ngakoue sought a long-term deal. He outplayed his rookie contract in every conceivable way over four seasons and, by March 2020, had enough. Ngakoue asked for a trade right on Twitter and, instead, was slapped with the franchise tag. That led to an ugly tweet exchange with Tony Khan, the owner’s son, who also served as the Jaguars’ head of analytics.
Ngakoue told Khan to stop hiding. Khan said he was not.
Ngakoue told Khan to answer his camp’s calls and called him “spoiled” with a clown emoji. Khan cited a new regime was in place and said using insults wouldn’t get Ngakoue traded any faster.
Finally, the spat ended with one more nasty back-and-forth. The edge rusher said, “Just trade me,” and Khan — likely fuming — told Ngakoue he was “really driving up the price today.”
When I dismiss this all as a stupid social media spat and suggest Twitter is not real life, Ngakoue’s eyes get big.
“Shit, look at me. Honestly somebody cares about it.”
The way Ngakoue explains it, he wanted fans to be aware of what was going on behind the scenes. Based on the market, he felt undervalued.
He did get his wish… sort of. The Jaguars dealt Ngakoue to the Vikings on Aug. 30, 2020 and GM Rick Spielman signed him to a one-year, $12 million. Optimism quickly evaporated, however, when those Vikings started the season 1-5. If he could go back in time, Ngakoue admits he would’ve stayed put in Minnesota and rode out that team’s 7-9 season. Spielman gave him the option to stay. It was totally his decision to leave for a contender. With the season nosediving, Spielman thought that’s what Ngakoue would prefer and Ngakoue even liked the team’s surly head coach, Mike Zimmer.
Yet, the Baltimore Ravens were 5-1 and sorely needed an edge rusher. This was a golden opportunity to go home, too.
“Where I messed up,” Ngakoue says, “is I didn’t do my research on what kind of scheme they ran. By the time I got there, the scheme didn’t fit my style.”
Under Don “Wink” Martindale, the Ravens ran a 3-4 that relied heavily on creative blitzes. Not a four-man rush. Not anything similar to Ngakoue’s familiar “Leo” position in Jacksonville, a combo of linebacker and end, that gave him the freedom to fly unhinged off the edge. Those Ravens finished 11-5, fell to the Buffalo Bills in the playoffs, and Ngakoue hit free agency.
It was a good time to be a pass rusher, too. The likes of Leonard Floyd (four years, $64M), Matt Judon (four years, $54.5M) and Bud Dupree (five years, $82.5M) were paid handsomely. Ngakoue did not enter this same stratosphere and those tweets, he believed, were the reason why. He wasn’t treated as chop liver by any means, but Ngakoue expected more than the two-year, $26M pact he signed with the Raiders. All along, he spiraled into depression. First, because he thought the team that drafted him — the Jaguars — would value him more than they did. Especially after he had played through so many injuries those four years. Pulled hamstrings. A pulled oblique. He gritted through a lot and felt disrespected by their contract offer.
Then, when it was finally time to be an unrestricted free agent, Ngakoue expected more than this.
“Seeing guys who didn’t have my numbers getting bigger deals, longer-term deals than me hurt my spirit,” he says. “They didn’t have that stigma that teams try to create behind your name. I’m the only guy who really went head-to-head with the owner on Twitter. There was a point in time when I was like, ‘Bro, why am I even doing this shit?’ That’s how I felt: ‘Why am I even playing ball if I’m putting up numbers but I’m getting labeled as a f-----g insubordinate?’ I was like, ‘Bro, why am I doing it?’”
When the depression was at its worst, Ngakoue flatly refused to leave his house.
He didn’t watch TV. He barely checked his phone. He didn’t know what was happening in the news. The music fanatic who was always on top of the hottest new tracks had no clue what his friends were even listening to. He moped around and literally did nothing in his free time. Talking to mom helped. Chantelly recommended Ngakoue get a puppy because she saw the therapeutic power of dogs with the Wounded Warriors. So, he did. And, honestly, getting a Belgian Malamute is what first helped Ngakoue escape his depression. This sweet fella named “7” became his best pal.
He embraced his fourth stop, too. In Las Vegas, Ngakoue realized just how much his mom was part of him.
It always bothered him that he was never named a captain in Jacksonville, so when Ngakoue earned the “C” on his jersey in Vegas? Depression officially flipped to pure excitement. Only excitement. His love for the game was back. The reason he earned that “C” was that he was the first person in the building. He treated his profession like mom treated hers. During training camp, Ngakoue would wake up at 4:40 a.m., get to the Raiders facility at 5 a.m. — “5 a.m. sharp,” he specifies — and be there until 5 p.m. Sometimes longer.
The Raiders hovered around .500, lost their head coach and then bad turned to horrifying when wide receiver Henry Ruggs, whose BAC was twice the legal limit, crashed into an SUV at 127 mph and killed Tina Tintor. There was no precedent for this tragedy inside this locker room but Ngakoue found himself speaking up more than ever. He describes himself as one of the leading forces holding that team together.
“I told my teammates, ‘Listen. I know all this bullshit is going on, as far as Gruden and Ruggs and stuff like that, but we have to remember the goal. The goal is to get to L.A., the Super Bowl. Get to the mountain. And guys bought in.”
The Raiders won their final four games to finish 10-7 and make the playoffs. Ngakoue finished with 10 sacks and 36 quarterback pressures. He cannot say enough about the team’s interim head coach, Rich Bisaccia, who’s now the Green Bay Packers’ special teams coordinator. They spoke every day last season and still keep in touch. Ngakoue fully expects Bisaccia to be a head coach soon. He was also tight with Raiders defensive line coach Rod Marinelli. The 72-year-old who has coached in the NFL since 1996 is the human who best pulled Ngakoue out of his dark place.
One comment served as a newfound source of fuel.
Marinelli told Ngakoue that if he kept attacking the profession like this he’d be in Canton.
“I will never forget that,” Ngakoue says. “That’s what burns inside of me every day as I train. Because Rod Marinelli has coached and helped develop Hall of Famers. And this guy’s telling me this? He's a straight shooter.”
When the Raiders signed Jones and traded Ngakoue to Indianapolis, Marinelli made a point to contact Colts GM Chris Ballard. He had to let Ballard know that Ngakoue was an “old breed” in the vein of some of the best players he had ever coached: Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, Julius Peppers. Marinelli believed Ngakoue had the best first step in the sport.
Damn right the Hall of Fame is a realistic goal in Ngakoue’s mind. “The only goal,” he asserts. He still wants to play 19 seasons, too. Sure, he’s been traveling all over the country but in his mind? This is only the beginning. Ngakoue is five years younger than Jones and, yes, he has done the math in his head. At this rate, if he hits Year 19, he’ll have a realistic shot of catching Bruce Smith’s record of 200 sacks. Reunited with his first-ever head coach, he fully plans to scream off the edge. Gus Bradley, the Colts’ new defensive coordinator, plans on plugging Ngakoue right into his beloved “Leo” spot.
The Raiders might’ve unloaded top dollar to Maxx Crosby and Jones with their new general manager (Dave Ziegler) and head coach (Josh McDaniel) valuing length over Ngakoue’s first step, over Ngakoue’s 2021 awakening. But he’s been undersized his entire football life on the defensive line and does not believe it matters one bit. To Ngakoue, his 6-foot-2, 245-pound frame is irrelevant.
What’s molded him more than anything are those hardships.
Day to day, one of his closest friends sees his dedication. Kevin Tchemi, a tattoo artist who met Ngakoue back in college, notes that it’s common for his pal to pull up YouTube clips of the best pass rushers ever at any given moment. They could be out. They could be sitting around at the house. If Ngakoue gets the itch, he cannot help himself.
“Yan has always believed in himself,” Tchemi says. “He has surprised me many, many times. He always believed in himself as one of the best defensive ends at his age. This is something he wanted to do since he was a little kid. I feel like he is finally home. You can plan life as much as you want but tomorrow’s not promised. Tomorrow, that plan may not go as you want. All the conversations we had, he feels like God put him in this position for a reason.”
The squabble with Khan, to him, boiled down a human being standing up for himself.
Since 2021 wrapped up, Ngakoue hasn’t taken a full day off. He has worked out — constantly — because he sees the potential for a terrifying defensive unit in Indy. On the other edge is 2021 first-rounder Kwity Paye, who Ngakoue is already calling his “young bull.” (“We are going to do some damage,” he promises. “Some damage.”) Inside, 28-year-old DeForest Buckner is squarely in the prime of his career. Stephon Gilmore arrives as one of the best cover corners. Slot man Kenny Moore, who chatted with us a year ago just a few miles from this very restaurant, is fresh off his first Pro Bowl. Linebacker Darius Leonard, the unabashed “Maniac,” has been an All-Pro in all four of his pro seasons and forced an NFL-high eight fumbles last season.
Proven playmakers reside at every level of the defense. No wonder Buckner said at a recent press conference he was “jumping for joy” when news of Ngakoue’s deal broke. He pointed out that Ngakoue is already leading younger players. With a thin smirk, he added that it’ll be nice for a teammated to absorb a double-team or two. And he also loves Bradley’s scheme because it puts the onus on the defensive line to disrupt. Whereas the previous scheme required the front four to move with blockers in read-and-react mode, this gets Buckner and Ngakoue vertical “on tracks.”
Buckner promised everyone that they’d see the Colts living in the backfield much more often.
“The D-Line is really the engine of the defense,” Buckner said. “We’re blowing things up. Everybody else is cleaning things up behind us. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Everyone should be hungry. There’s a good chance all holdovers still have a bad taste in their mouth from losing to the Jaguars in an ugly Week 18 finale. On offense, Ngakoue sounds equally excited to play with Matt Ryan and Jonathan Taylor. Playing in a small market appeals to him, too, because he’s not one to soak in the nightlife of a big city.
Eventually, people will get around to pronouncing his name correctly. As the sacks pile up, he assures they’ll have no choice.
Ngakoue still views himself as the NFL’s best edge rusher.
“Who do I go against every week?” he says. “The highest-paid guy on the O-Line. The toughest guy. The person who’s supposed to be the best pass blocker is the left tackle. And I battle him every single Sunday. I don’t want to go to the other side. I want to stay right on the left tackle. A lot of these guys who get a lot of sacks, who do they rush against? The right tackle. The right tackle is not known to be the best pass blocker.”
“I want Goliath. Just like David.”
His personal life has never been better — he’s genuinely beaming every morning. As we finish up lunch, Ngakoue glows talking about his girlfriend. A relationship that’s turning more serious. In fact, he turns the table again to ask what married life’s like. Off the field, he wants to change lives. He hopes to one day become the Walter Payton Man of the Year like his good friend, Calais Campbell. By partnering with “Everyone Home DC,” Ngakoue is giving as much money as he can to single mothers and kids growing up in broken homes. He wants kids to experience the stability he never had.
“I don’t want kids to be like, ‘Man, are we going to be able to live here this week?’ Kids who are constantly evicted out of their homes. The money that God blesses me to make and the future to come, I’m going to use some of that to help these people out. Because I’m not going to be here forever. So, I have to leave my mark in the real world. The real thing is, I went through those similar situations and I need to help them. I want to be a great, great humanitarian.”
And there’s that piercing stare again. Ngakoue assures it’s not his intention to come across as a scary dude to anyone. “Am I intimidating?” he asks, concerned. Not quite but one can only imagine what he’d say to his father. Bring this up and he shakes his head. In truth, Ngakoue says he wishes nothing but the best for him. He doesn’t want to hold a grudge against anyone.
If they ever do meet again, Ngakoue says he’ll thank his dad for putting him through tough times. It made him who he is today.
He knows he’s only in Year 7 of 19 and, by God, he can’t wait for the NFL’s schedule release in one week. That’s when he’ll find out when his Colts, of course, play the Las Vegas Raiders.
Everyone will learn a little bit more about Yannick Ngakoue that day, too.
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