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How WVU WR David Sills went from QB prodigy to NFL prospect

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MORGANTOWN, W.V. -- It sagged toward the back such that some nights he would wake up and find himself wedged under the back cushions, almost stuck, needing to reposition to free himself. Incalculably old and worn, the couch's original light brown color had given way to a more grayish tone, and sleeping on it could be unforgiving.

David Sills V's head always rested flat on the seat cushion, because sleeping with it on the armrest guaranteed a stiff neck in the morning. His calves crossed the opposite armrest if he unfurled his 6-foot-4 frame to its full length. That's how he preferred to rest, but if he awoke with numb feet from cut-off circulation, he'd curl up and roll to his side.

The dreams. The hype. The expectations. Two years ago, they all landed, with a thud, on Khaliel Rodgers' couch in a tiny studio apartment in Los Angeles.

Six years earlier, then-USC coach Lane Kiffin had made Sills the youngest star recruit in college football history, offering the quarterback a scholarship at the tender age of 13 before he'd ever taken a snap in a varsity high school game. A couple days later, "Good Morning America" put the wunderkind in front of a national television audience. This was the peak from which die-hard recruiting enthusiasts -- a massive segment of college football fandom -- began scrutinizing the career trajectory of a child.

Sills first walked through the door of Unit 106 in the Anatole Apartments just in time for the Fourth of July weekend in 2016. He surveyed Rodgers' studio, and began figuring out how he could share just a few hundred square feet with one of his best friends without being an imposition. The two had been teammates and close friends since middle school, though Rodgers is older by two years. This tiny living space was small enough to put the compatibility of any two people to the test. There wasn't room for Sills' clothes, so the trunk of his Dodge Charger served as his closet for a few months. He kept a few possessions -- a laptop, a few rolls of football tape, a couple pairs of shoes and footballs covered with large scuff marks -- in a corner of the studio, as far out of the way as possible.

He was there to reclaim and redeem a quarterback career in which countless hours and dollars had been invested. A career that everyone but himself, his closest friends and maybe a few people who shared his last name had given up on.

He came to prove all the doubters wrong.

He left to prove something entirely different.

* * * * *

IN THE FLAWLESSLY CLEAN DINING HALL for West Virginia football players, Sills sits on a cafeteria chair, politely skipping along the highs and lows of one of the greatest and most impossible tales college football will ever know. His neatly trimmed, short brown hair is a much more studious and mature appearance than the blonde, more moppish look he carried when America first saw his face at 13. Considering he's been asked constantly to update this saga since the day Kiffin made him famous almost a decade ago, he speaks with a remarkably calm and measured tone. And after nearly half an hour with an engaged, forward lean, he finally sits back and looks up. His first real reflection.

"Right now, I'm having the most fun I've ever had playing football," he says.

In 2017, his first full season to ever play wide receiver, Sills established himself as one of the best in the college game. His 18 touchdown catches led the nation, and with 15 more as a senior last year, he completed his career with an incredible average of more than a touchdown catch per game (35 in 33). His position coach, Tyron Carrier, describes a much more seasoned receiver than Sills actually is.

"He has great hands and comes in and out of breaks really well. He's smart, and he's gotten very physical on the perimeter," Carrier said. "And he doesn't give away routes, so you don't know if he's releasing inside or outside, breaking left or right, nothing. He makes everything look the same to the cornerback -- whether he's going to run past you, or block you, or run a 5-yard stop route."

An NFL career is coming for Sills, but the quarterback dream he relentlessly pursued from age 7 to 20 is now a pile of proverbial ashes, lost between those couch cushions back in Los Angeles. Near the end of his six months in L.A., he finally, painfully, acknowledged that the quarterback he'd always seen in the mirror was actually -- underneath it all -- a wide receiver scratching to be released.

Other than a limited foundation of experience, there is plenty for NFL scouts to like. At 6-foot-4 and 203 pounds, he's thin but wiry strong, with long arms and what Mountaineers QB Will Grier calls a "ridiculous catch radius." If Sills' testing results at the NFL Scouting Combine next week match what he's shown WVU strength and conditioning coach Mike Joseph, he'll broad jump 10-4, vertical jump 34 inches, and run a 40-yard dash in the low 4.5s -- all impressive marks given his size. Joseph used to be part of Notre Dame's S&C staff and sees athletic similarities between Sills and former Fighting Irish star WR Jeff Samardzija, who a decade ago passed on an NFL future for a Major League Baseball career as a starting pitcher.

Then, there is the ceiling factor. Sills' lack of experience as a receiver is, to WVU coach Dana Holgorsen, a potential strength where his NFL future is concerned.

"As good as he is, I think he's so far from what he could be," Holgorsen said. "He does things naturally, but as far as technique, he was behind last year. I'm not sure he really knew what he was doing, but he was catching touchdowns."

* * * * *

STEVE CLARKSON DIDN���T KNOW what to think.

The youngest quarterback he'd ever trained was 13-year-old Jimmy Clausen, and the accomplished instructor considered 10 to be far too young for formal private training. Nevertheless, when David Sills IV called and asked Clarkson to merely look at his son for a one-time assessment, the QB guru agreed. The Sillses flew to Los Angeles from their home in Bear, Delaware, for the introduction, and Clarkson was amazed at the young quarterback's ability to mentally absorb and apply instruction.

"He showed me enough that I started asking myself, 'How young is too young?' " Clarkson said. "I had always felt like 10 was much too young, but I took it on, almost like an independent study."

To the public consciousness, Sills' story didn't begin until Kiffin's scholarship offer made national news, but the work that compelled that offer began years earlier. Sills began playing quarterback at age 7, and his gift for throwing a football was quickly apparent. At age 9, he was named the top quarterback at a week-long Philadelphia Eagles youth camp in West Chester, Pennsylvania. In another year, he was training with Clarkson regularly.

With Clarkson's business based in Los Angeles and the Sills family living in Delaware, cross-country flights were the only way the two could train together. Clarkson estimated the lessons came with monthly frequency, and at certain times of the year, it was

Clarkson who flew to the East Coast rather than Sills and his father flying west. Eventually, Clarkson directed Kiffin to some video, without telling him Sills' age. Kiffin was impressed with the boy's arm and was blown away when Clarkson revealed the kid was only 13. Serving as an intermediary between Kiffin and the Sills family, Clarkson was shocked when Kiffin floated the idea of an immediate scholarship offer. When the offer was accepted, the news exploded.

"It wasn't taken very seriously. Everyone understood the kid could change his mind two or three times," Clarkson said. "But the idea that a school like that would offer a kid at that age, it just hit people like a bucket of ice water with their back turned. It startled people."

Sills' name was plastered across ESPN, and his subsequent appearance on "Good Morning America" provided the ultimate stamp of a cultural touchstone. The popularity that followed was overwhelming at times.

"It was a little scary," said Kenny Bigelow, a high school teammate who, after a few injury-riddled years at USC, re-joined his friend with a transfer to West Virginia. "People were asking if I was his body guard."

Kiffin was immediately criticized for what was thought to be an exploitative publicity stunt. To this day, he maintains his sincerity in the offer.

"I've never thought of it like a regret," said Kiffin, now the head coach at Florida Atlantic. "We offered a really young kid who was very talented. You don't know how they'll develop in certain areas, but you could see great feet. You could see gifts you're seeing now, you're just seeing them at a different position. There must've been a lot more backlash than I recall. I don't remember it being this horrible thing. If it was so bad, why is it now the norm?"

It's not, but Sills certainly blazed a trail for a few others that would follow, including Alabama LB Dylan Moses, who drew FBS scholarship offers at the same age, as did Kaden Martin, the son of USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin.

One impact of Kiffin's offer was that it put a target on Sills' back for opponents throughout high school. Talented pass rushers -- and there were some excellent ones, with the national schedule Sills' teams played -- wanted to make sure they got a good shot on the kid believed to have received the earliest scholarship offer in college football history.

On the field, they would speak openly about it. Rodgers would have none of it.

"I took it personally when guys talked like they were going to take him out," said Rodgers, who was ranked by Rivals as the nation's No. 1 offensive guard prospect in 2012. "It was disrespectful not just to him, but also to me because I'm the guy protecting him."

Then, there were the attacks that no offensive lineman, no matter how big or protective, could shield him from.

"You Suck!!!"

"You can't throw for sh--!"

"He's skinny and weak. What is USC thinking?"

Comments like these flooded a YouTube page to which Tim Kaub posted the first extensive public highlights of Sills. Kaub has worked with Clarkson for years, and at the time of Sills' commitment to USC, he ran Clarkson's social media.

As soon as Kaub posted clips of Sills competing in a middle school game as part of a promotional video for Clarkson's instruction, a deluge of nasty feedback spun his social media coordination role out of control.

"The vitriol in the comments, you would not believe," Kaub said. "I think every youth quarterback's dad in America commented, 'My kid is way better than this kid,' but it got much uglier than that, and I had to sit there and delete it all day. This was before YouTube got good at filtering. It was stuff that would be hurtful to a 20-year-old, and it was attacking a 13-year-old. I should've set it so nobody could comment, but my simple-minded football self eventually just deleted the videos altogether."

Kiffin had just been named head coach at USC at the time of the offer and was fired by the Trojans long before Sills ever reached college age. His replacement, Steve Sarkisian, told the Sills family he would honor the scholarship offer, but at the same time made it clear that Sills was not what he was looking for in a quarterback.

Looking back, David Sills IV doesn't consider Kiffin's scholarship offer to be a publicity stunt any more than Kiffin does, and he also doesn't believe it was a bad experience for his son. Still, if he could go back in time, he wouldn't allow his boy to accept it.

"I wasn't thinking, Hey, coaches get fired every 3-5 years. I was thinking Lane would be there," Sills IV said. "So, in hindsight, had I understood how much turnover there was in college coaching, I probably wouldn't allow it were it presented to me today."

* * * * *

NOV. 2, 2013 IS A DAY Sills won't ever forget, but he looks down at his right hand and sees no reminder of it. There is no noticeable scar, no physical indication of how badly it was mangled, but it was the day the unraveling of his career as a quarterback began.

Sills' high school teams played a gauntlet of a national schedule, against powerhouse programs from Ohio to Florida to Texas, and a game against Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward at the University of Penn in West Philadelphia took place on the day everything changed. In a brutally physical game, a St. Edward player's helmet crushed Sills' throwing hand, breaking a knuckle and causing significant swelling. Although he played through the injury, it permanently impacted his release.

Clarkson, who attended several of Sills' high school games, was there.

"He had taken a pretty good beating that day. His mom was like, 'Shut him down.' It was a football version of 'Rocky,' and she was ready to throw in the towel," Clarkson said. "All this in a stadium with a [Chuck] Bednarik statue, with the Rocky statue around the corner. It was pretty poetic."

Weeks later, Clarkson noticed Sills had changed the way he gripped the ball, and his release had developed a hitch because of the injury. He never again threw a football with the same fluidity, and the issue was noticeable to Holgorsen during the recruiting process at West Virginia. Holgorsen wanted Sills anyway, for his athleticism and obvious leadership skills, but didn't see a quarterback.

"To me, you just look at it and it's a yes or no," Holgorsen said. "If you have the release, and it's quick, and it looks how it's supposed to, then you look at accuracy, velocity, intelligence, footwork, all that other stuff. You know it when it's a no. And unfortunately for David, it was a no."

Sills, however, was still determined to be the Mountaineers' signal-caller.

"He would say, 'I'm a quarterback,' " said Landon Furry, one of Sills' best friends and his current roommate at WVU. "And that's not the same thing as saying, 'I want to play quarterback.' His mindset wasn't, 'This is the position I want to play.' It was more, 'This position is who I am.' "

* * * * *

HOW BEST TO HAVE THE CONVERSATION? And how soon?

Here Sills was, a quarterback to the bone and core, playing scout-team wide receiver as a freshman at West Virginia and feeling as though it wasn't at all what he signed up for. Naturally, he felt no need to mention it to his father, because he didn't consider it to be predictive of his future. He was still working on the scout team as a quarterback at times -- Holgorsen preferred him in that role if WVU's upcoming opponent featured a mobile quarterback-- and believed his turn as a starting quarterback would eventually come.

But then came the whispers.

The team's defensive backs -- including future NFL players Karl Joseph and Daryl Worley -- were having trouble covering him in practice. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson told Holgorsen that Sills was more than capable of cracking the Mountaineers' playing rotation at receiver. Holgorsen, in turn, began broaching the subject with his freshman.

Sills confided first in his mother, Denise, that playing time at receiver was within immediate reach. He was offered a chance to play against Oklahoma State, but declined because he didn't want to burn his redshirt and disrupt his plan to spend the season developing as a passer.

A week later, the coaching staff -- in need of receiving help for a road game at Baylor -- went back to him, and Sills finally obliged. But how would he tell his father? Denise felt it was best to let her son spill the news to her husband, but she knew it wouldn't be easy.

It was dad who had coached the youth team on which young David first began playing quarterback. It was dad who had facilitated cross-country travel for his son to put in years of effort with a renowned private instructor. It was dad who had built the Red Lion Christian football program and modeled it after powerhouse Oaks Christian in California, which in turn surrounded his son with elite talent. It was dad who had founded Eastern Christian Academy with the same model when new church leadership at Red Lion opted to de-emphasize football.

In all, the father had made a stunningly large investment -- one that drew him heavy criticism for being an overbearing and overly involved parent -- in an attempt to help his son become a successful quarterback.

All of that weighed on Sills as he made the phone call.

"I was thinking he would be disappointed because of all the effort that had gone into me being a quarterback," Sills said. "It wasn't something I was looking forward to telling him, so I talked to my mom about how to tell him, when to tell him. I'd never played receiver before, so it was going to be a shock to him. I don't think he was disappointed, but I didn't feel like shocking him."

For his part, the elder Sills wasn't as bothered as his son expected. Both believed the move to be a temporary one, anyway, and he and Denise flew to Texas for their son's college debut at a position he had never intended to play. He caught a 35-yard touchdown pass against Baylor, and his position switch, if not formally underway, began to take immediate root.

Sills saw reps at both positions during spring practice the following year -- in the WVU spring game, he threw one TD pass and caught another -- but he found the dual track wholly unappealing. A few weeks after spring practice, he walked into Holgorsen's office and informed his coach of his intention to transfer.

"He sat across from my desk and said, 'Coach, I can't let quarterback go.' And I wasn't going to try to talk him out of it -- I love him like a son," Holgorsen said. "He wasn't mad, and I made sure he knew I wasn't mad, but I didn't think we would see him ever again."

Sills' next destination was El Camino College in Los Angeles. There, he'd be close to Clarkson, who would continue to work with him on smoothing out his delivery. The junior college had a new coaching staff, and the offensive coordinator was none other than Kaub, whom Sills knew from his youth training with Clarkson. He packed a few things and went to California, hoping for rebirth at the position he so badly wanted to play.

Instead, California is where that ambition died.

* * * * *

SOME NIGHTS, THE SOUND OF SIRENS going by would keep Sills awake a little longer. Other nights, it would be random gunfire, or flashing blue lights rhythmically piercing the vertical blinds that hung just above the old couch.

Khaliel Rodgers' tiny studio, in the Anatole Apartments in South Central L.A., was surrounded by activity that typically fell between suspicious and criminal. Iron bars protected first-floor windows, including Rodgers' Unit 106, and were painted an odd-looking green to match iron fencing around the parking lot. Pull up the Anatole on Yelp and three one-star reviews paint a picture of drug dealing, oft-burglarized vehicles and rampant prostitution. Sills recalls being approached by drug-impaired strangers -- "and I don't mean on marijuana," he said -- and Rodgers noted the frequency with which cars would roll by at disturbingly slow speeds.

Its proximity to USC was convenient for Rodgers, but it was no place for the faint-hearted. Sills didn't care. There was work to be done.

As late as 10 p.m. on some nights, he would coax Rodgers into the parking lot with a football so the two could work on snap exchanges. (Rodgers was primarily a guard but played some center for the Trojans.) The exercise left some pigskin on the pavement, and a coat of scuff marks on the balls. Already exhausted from a Trojans practice earlier in the day, Rodgers didn't always feel like firing dozens of snaps late at night in a parking lot reputed for vehicle break-ins.

He did it anyway, out of loyalty. He's not sure he would have gotten his scholarship offer from USC had it not been for the publicity of Sills' commitment to the Trojans in the seventh grade. He remembers college coaches recruiting Red Lion players and admitting they'd never before set foot in Delaware.

"David's my guy," he said. "His commitment to USC put a recruiting light on all of us who played with him."

Sills had just barely won the starting job at El Camino. According to Kaub, it came down to a final preseason scrimmage in which Sills threw four TD passes and his primary competition, Conor Miller, threw three. The hard truth was that he was much closer to sitting on a JUCO bench than he ever was to being the starting quarterback at a big-time college program. Yet here he was, taking snaps in a South Central L.A. parking lot, ignoring police helicopters whirring overhead, then retiring for the night on a couch that had a history all its own.

It's no wonder it sagged. The couch had once been owned by perhaps the biggest player in college football, former USC OT Zach Banner, who occupied the studio before Rodgers did. Now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Banner weighed north of 350 pounds and had the couch for about a year before leaving it behind for Rodgers. Prior to that, it had endured what Banner described to Rodgers as "hell" for an indeterminant number of years in Banner's fraternity house at USC, Zeta Beta Tau.

Baltimore Ravens RB Buck Allen, formerly of USC, has crashed on it. So has Philadelphia Eagles RB Wendell Smallwood, who played at Eastern Christian Academy with Sills and Rodgers. It's been on and off Craigslist, and as far as Rodgers knows, it remains in the studio today with a history lost on the new tenants of Unit 106.

It had the kind of backstory few could appreciate like Sills could.

He couldn't have picked a more ironic setting to resurrect his football career. He was supposed to be playing at USC, in front of a packed L.A. Coliseum. Instead, he was playing just 12 miles south of USC, but in front of crowds of hundreds, not thousands, at El Camino College. He would often drive his Dodge Charger to USC to pick up Rodgers after practice.

"Pulling up to a USC practice, where I thought I was going to be the quarterback at one time," he said, "that could be a weird feeling, yeah."

Rodgers calls that summer with his close friend the most fun he ever had in college.

On Sills' first weekend in town, Rodgers managed to get the two into a swanky Fourth of July weekend party in the Hollywood Hills, where random NFL and NBA players milled about. They would dine frequently at an Ono's Hawaiian BBQ location just a couple blocks from the Anatole. When they cooked, Rodgers would specialize in Hamburger Helper, while Sills knew his way around a George Foreman grill. Wednesday night was taco night, and Sills' huge appetite for watching film got satisfied, as well. Rodgers would pass along USC practice film, and Sills would pore over video of a young Sam Darnold occupying the position the El Camino Warriors quarterback had once expected to be his.

* * * * *

AN UNEASY FEELING WOULD COME OVER James and Jessica Huether whenever they heard the screech.

Sills was home, or at least at his temporary home. The brakes were so bad on his Charger, they would squeal as he pulled into a parking spot of the Huethers' El Segundo condo and the two would look at each other and wonder what they would say when he walked in.

Should they ask if any college coaches had called?

Should they not ask?

Should they keep the subject off football altogether?

El Camino's 2016 season was winding down fast, and Sills' plan for a one-year pitstop in junior college on his way to quarterbacking at a high-profile school hit a snag he'd never even considered: no college was showing interest.

The El Camino offense struggled at times. Sills completed just 53 percent of his passes, but Kaub is quick to point out that there was very little help around him.

"We had no receivers who could get open against man coverage," Kaub said. "So all David had to throw to was a pretty good tight end, and every week we'd see a loaded box and Cover Zero from the defense. There wasn't much he could do."

Sills didn't wear his despondence on his sleeve, but the Huethers could sense his concern for whether he would ever make it back to the FBS level as a quarterback.

"We wanted to keep his spirits up, but we knew he was running out of time," James said.

Sills had bid Rodgers and the couch farewell in mid-September and moved in with the Huethers as a matter of convenience -- it was significantly closer to El Camino than the Anatole. Jessica Huether, who worked for Clarkson, had known Sills since he was a kid and was glad to take him in for the remainder of the semester. He'd endeared himself to the newlywed couple as a flawlessly well-mannered house guest, and they attended every Warriors game -- home and away. At one game, James counted a total of 13 people in attendance.

Months earlier, Kaub asked Sills if he wanted to be recruited only as a quarterback. The answer was an emphatic yes, but the feedback from colleges was an emphatic no.

"I don't want to say which schools, but they wanted him as a receiver and they'd say, 'If we have to offer him as a quarterback to get him, we'll do it, then we'll move him,' " Kaub said. "I shut all that down. I said, 'Don't lie to my kid. Don't be duplicitous recruiting my players. They don't want me to oversell them on a kid who can't play at their school, and I expect in return that they're square with my guys about their intentions."

The Warriors' season was a rough one. A nasty ankle injury put Sills on crutches for a couple of weeks, but more distressingly was that the flaw in his delivery never corrected, despite continued work with Clarkson.

"When he started his motion, he had this little weird twist with his wrist that added at least a quarter-second to getting the ball out," Kaub said. "I couldn't get mad at him because I knew he was on the same page with me as far as reading the defense. He saw where to go with the ball as fast as you could ask. The mind was willing; the body couldn't do it."

El Camino coaches had warned Sills that at the junior college level, serious recruiting didn't even begin until late in the season, so he wasn't initially worried. However, when the top programs to visit El Camino finally made their way to the school, Sills realized he wasn't the player they were there to see. Their interest was in defensive tackle Ray Lima, who signed with Iowa State, and Sills had not one scholarship offer as a quarterback.

When he had chosen to transfer to a junior college in the summer, the plan had been to sign with his new FBS school in December and be enrolled as a quarterback for the spring semester in January. But now he found himself three days away from the NCAA dead period for recruiting -- after which schools would not be allowed to contact him -- and had nowhere to continue his football career.

He wondered if it was finished. He wondered if all the training, all the effort, all the vast potential would end with popcorn applause from a few parents still in the stands after El Camino's final game.

"It sucked," Sills said. "It sucked."

* * * * *

AS THE WINDOW BEGAN TO CLOSE on Sills' career, Clarkson bottom-lined it for him.

"I asked him if it was more important to play quarterback or to play on Sundays," Clarkson said. "I think that helped him change his mindset."

Rodgers had made the same point, and Sills finally began to warm to the idea. This time, he wasn't worried about what his dad would think of a career at wide receiver. Both had come to terms that playing quarterback was no longer an option. Trouble was, playing receiver might not be an option, either. When Sills told Kaub months earlier to inform recruiters he wasn't interested in playing wide receiver, he eliminated possibilities that he now wished were still available. He reached out to another of his high school and college teammates, WVU receiver Daikiel Shorts, and let him know he was willing to return to Morgantown as a receiver.

Holgorsen didn't maintain any direct contact with Sills during his time at El Camino, but he had one of his staffers keep tabs on his performance. Sills had no way of knowing if an offer would come at the 11th hour, or if WVU even had an extra scholarship to give. Turns out, his willingness to play a bit of wide receiver as a WVU freshman was the only reason Holgorsen still had interest.

"If I hadn't seen what he was capable of at that spot, I doubt I would've brought him back," Holgorsen said. "If he'd not played and I hadn't seen the potential, why would I?"

Sills took the call from Holgorsen at the top of the stairs in the Huethers' condo. He could be a Mountaineer once again. He hung up, laid down on his back and fought off a few tears. Holgorsen emailed a letter of intent, Jessica Huether scanned her house guest's signature with her phone, and the paperwork cleared just ahead of the deadline.

Sills looks back on his six months at El Camino now as a necessary vehicle for quarterback closure. It was nothing he hoped it would be, but in hindsight, exactly what he needed.

"The last thing I wanted to do was be 35, look back, and say, 'I didn't see it through,' "

Sills said. "Now I don't have to live with that regret."

Sills' mental shift from a quarterback's identity to a receiver's was, by all accounts, as quick and sharp as a heel turn. He spent another week with the Huethers before returning home for the holiday break and began testing himself in receiver drills with a trainer in his final days in Los Angeles. Holgorsen knew Sills would make a clean mental break. Carrier wasn't so sure.

"I did wonder if we'd be getting a receiver still wanting to play quarterback," Carrier said. "But he didn't pout at all. It was the opposite. He was a sponge."

Sills and Grier -- the Mountaineers' star quarterback and one of the top draft prospects at his position -- have become the closest of friends since Sills returned from his JUCO exile. Grier also left no doubt as to Sills' initial mindset.

"The first day he came back, he called me asking if I would throw to him," Grier said.

Added Kaub: "The junior college grind -- it's a make-or-break thing. You either crash your ship on the rocks, or you make it to shore. David made it to shore."

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