Miami Dolphins’ special teams are now Walt Aikens’ show

Dolphins DB Walt Aikens celebrates after scoring a defensive two-point conversion on a blocked extra-point attempt by Arizona kicker Chandler Catanzaro in 2016. (Bill Ingram / The Palm Beach Post)

(Note: This continues a series in Daily Dolphin spotlighting members of the team individually. In addition to reliving highlights and lowlights of the past season for each, we’ll provide analysis and criticism, plus take a look at how each player fits — or doesn’t fit — into the team’s plans for 2018.)

[RELATED: Don’t miss our exclusive photos from Dolphins OTAs in Davie]

DB Walt Aikens

Height, weight: 6-1, 212

College: Liberty

Age: 27 when season starts

Experience: Entering fifth season, all with the Dolphins

Acquired: Fourth-round draft pick in 2014

Contract: Re-signed to a two-year contract worth $2.7 million

Pro Football Focus rank: None

In 2017

Stats: Made seven tackles on special teams; downed five punts inside the 20-yard line

Notable moments: Had two special teams tackles and forced a fumble on a punt return at New England. The fumble was by Danny Amendola, who’s now a Dolphin, but the Patriots recovered.

Straight talk: The Dolphins say when they sliced up their salary cap, they quickly determined they could retain Walt Aikens or Michael Thomas but not both players who contributed heavily to their success on special teams the past few years.

By choosing Aikens, they went with a player a year younger and $1.3 million cheaper over the next two years.

By not choosing Thomas, they let go to the Giants the Pro Football Focus special teams player of the year, who twice contended for the AFC special teams Pro Bowl slot.

So now it’s Aikens’ show, with every indication that he’ll be named successor to Thomas as special teams captain.

“I think Walt is a guy that we’re going to see really step up in a leadership role this year,” coach Adam Gase said. “I don’t know if anybody can really replace Mike as far as his leadership goes and his ability to make plays was outstanding. He’s a tackling machine.”

There shouldn’t be much doubt what the athletic Aikens can do as well. He caught fire late in the 2016 season, blocking a punt and returning it for a touchdown and scoring a defensive two-point conversion on a blocked extra point.

Prospects for 2018

Aikens will need to be a leader on Darren Rizzi’s revamped special teams units. He seldom gets on the field on defense, which may continue to be the case in 2018.

Aikens has often worked at safety but admitted last year he was happy to be told he was moving to cornerback, his college position.

The Dolphins currently list him at both positions, but where his focus will be is murky because of all the changes in the secondary. In addition to the first-round pick being spent on S Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Dolphins get CB Tony Lippett back from an Achilles injury and will tinker with S T.J. McDonald at LB or as a hybrid player.

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WSJ: Dolphins owner Stephen Ross’ anthem policy influenced by Donald Trump

Ross testified that Trump influenced his position on player protests. (Getty Images)

DAVIE — Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has moved around on his position regarding players protesting during the national anthem, and a Wall Street Journal article revealed that Donald Trump had a substantial influence on his decision to require players to stand or remain in the locker room last season.

Ross, in a sworn deposition for Colin Kaepernick’s collusion grievance against the NFL, said Trump’s comments to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones were relayed to the rest of the ownership and changed the way he viewed players kneeling.

“I was totally supportive of (protesting players) until Trump made his statement,” Ross said in his deposition, according to the WSJ. “I thought he changed the dialogue.”

[RELATED: Don’t miss our exclusive photos from Dolphins OTAs]

Ross also said he believed the protests were hurting the Dolphins financially.

His testimony was not a huge surprise considering Ross has occasionally mentioned Trump over the past two years and made a similar statement when the Dolphins enacted a stand-or-stay-in-the-locker-room rule last October. That came two weeks after Trump said players who kneel should be kicked out of the league and referred anyone who protests during the anthem as “a son of an (expletive).”

“It’s a different dialogue today,” Ross said before the Titans game Oct. 8. “Whenever you’re dealing with the flag, you’re dealing with something different. (Trump) has changed that whole paradigm of what protest is. I think it’s incumbent upon the players today, because of how the public is looking at it, is to stand and salute the flag.”

He added, “I really applaud those guys, but I think it’s different today from the standpoint of Trump has made it all about patriotism with the flag. I think it’s so important today, because that’s what the country’s looking at, that we look at it differently and there will be different ways of protesting or getting your cause out there by the athletes.”

That rule lasted less than a month before Kenny Stills, Michael Thomas and Julius Thomas convinced coach Adam Gase to rescind it, and the players continued kneeling the rest of the season. In his deposition, Ross indicated the decision to bar players from kneeling was his decision, not Gase’s as was conveyed at the time.

The NFL handed down a policy last week that essentially mirrored what the Dolphins attempted. Players are required to stand and “show respect” for the American flag during the anthem, remain out of sight. The league will fine organizations that have violations of the rule and allows teams to establish their own conduct guidelines as long as they’re consistent with the league’s.

When players began kneeling at the start of the 2016 season, Ross was arguably their most vocal supporter among the owners. He waited in the locker room in Seattle after the season opener to address the media and express that he stood by them.

“I don’t think it was any lack of respect,” he said. “I think everybody here on our team and this whole organization respects the flag and what it stands for and the soldiers and everything. These guys are making a conversation of something that’s a very important topic in this country, and I’m 100 percent supportive of them.

“It’s a country where you’re allowed to indicate what your preferences are and how your feelings are. That’s what makes it so great. I think it’s great and I applaud them for what they’re doing.”

Ross has supported the players’ cause in other ways through programs and scholarships locally, as well as through the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality. His team also gave Stills the community service award each of the last two seasons.

On the anthem, though, he’s struggled to navigate the issue. He recently said he would insist that players stand, then followed that by saying his comments were misrepresented. He has not commented publicly about the new policy, which commissioner Roger Goodell claimed was unanimously supported by NFL owners.

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It’s Walt Aikens’ turn to serve as leader of Miami Dolphins’ special teams

The Dolphins’ Walt Aikens downs a punt inside the Arizona Cardinals’ 5-yard line in 2016. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Although he saw limited duty in the secondary, Michael Thomas was a mainstay on the Dolphins’ special teams the past four seasons, even earning Pro Football Focus’ special teams player of the year honors in 2017.

Now that he has joined the New York Giants as a free agent, Thomas leaves a void, especially on kick coverage, that special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi will have to fill in training camp.

The first person he’ll be turning to? Walt Aikens, a fourth-round pick in 2014 who recently was re-signed to a two-year deal.

“We lost a good player,” coach Adam Gase said. “I think when we started this thing, we knew between Mike and Walt both being up (for contract renewals), it wasn’t going to be an easy thing for us to get both of those guys back.”

Thomas once again led the Dolphins in special teams tackles last season with 11. Aikens wasn’t far behind with seven in addition to forcing a fumble.

If there were any questions about what Aikens brings to special teams, they ceased late in the 2016 season when he made a slew of impact plays — blocking a punt and returning it for a touchdown against the Jets, scoring a defensive two-point conversion on a blocked extra point and downing a punt on the 1-yard line.

Aikens had seven special teams tackles in 2016 and 10 in 2015.

Assuming he takes over for Thomas as special teams captain, Aikens has a major role to fill.

“I think Walt is a guy that we’re going to see really step up in a leadership role this year,” Gase said. “I don’t know if anybody can really replace Mike as far as his leadership goes and his ability to make plays was outstanding. He’s a tackling machine, but we also have a lot of guys that were impact players that we still have on the roster between Mike Hull and Walt and the rest of that group. We’ve got a good crew of guys and we’ve added some guys that are actually going to be able to help on special teams.”

Thomas tied for the NFL lead with 19 special teams tackles in 2016 and probably would have made the Pro Bowl had it not been for perennial pick Matthew Slater of the Patriots. Thomas also had 14 special teams tackles in 2015 and 10 in 2014.

“I didn’t think he’d last this long on the open market,” Gase said of Thomas, who joined the Giants last week. “We wanted to make sure we got Walt done and we were able to do that. There were a couple of things we weren’t able to get done to help our special teams.”

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NFL national anthem protest: Dolphins owner Stephen Ross says no kneeling

Stephen Ross is against the players kneeling in 2018. (Getty Images)

[Update, March 6, 11:25 a.m.: Ross said this morning he does not intend to require players to stand for the national anthem.]

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has gone back and forth on the issue of NFL players protesting racial inequality over the past two years by kneeling during the national anthem. He was once one of the most outspoken owners in support of those players, but now is firmly against those demonstrations.

Ross told the New York Daily News on Monday that “all of our players will be standing” when Miami begins the 2018 season.

Several Dolphins players have kneed during the anthem during the last two seasons. Wide receiver Kenny Stills, who won the team’s award for community service each year, has been kneeling since the 2016 opener. Julius Thomas, Michael Thomas, Arian Foster, Laremy Tunsil, Jay Ajayi, Maurice Smith, Jelani Jenkins and Jordan Phillips have also protested during the anthem, and a few of those players are expected to still be on the team this year.

The organization did not immediately return a request to clarify or elaborate on Ross’ comments.

Stills has not directly responded to Ross’ comments, but tweeted out a video this morning of comedian Dave Chappelle talking about white people’s outrage over the protests.

As he did last fall, when the team briefly banned kneeling, Ross is siding with Donald Trump’s position. Trump has ripped anthem protests repeatedly, and Ross believes he turned the issue into one of patriotism and supporting the military.

“When that message changed, and everybody was interpreting it as that was the reason, then I was against kneeling,” Ross said. “I like Donald. I don’t support everything he says. Overall, I think he was trying to make a point, and his message became what kneeling was all about. From that standpoint, that is the way the public is interpreting it. So I think that’s really incumbent upon us to adopt that. That’s how, I think, the country now is interpreting the kneeling issue.”

Ross added that he remains in communication with Trump. He made those comments after being honored in New York by the Jackie Robinson Foundation for championing equality.

Last week, in an appearance on CNBC with defensive end Cameron Wake at his side, Ross praised Trump for the thriving stock market. When asked to give him a grade as president, he said it was too early to tell.

“Things are going well,” Ross said. “You can’t agree with some of the things, but Donald is really getting people to think differently.”

In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s comments last September, Ross answered with a statement calling for “unifying leadership… not more divisiveness.” He defended kneeling players as “smart, young men of character who want to make our world a better place for everyone.”

Just two weeks later, Ross called for players to stop kneeling, and coach Adam Gase implemented a policy requiring that them to either stand for the anthem or remain in the tunnel.

“Whenever you’re dealing with the flag, you’re dealing with something different,” Ross said then. “(Trump) has changed that whole paradigm of what protest is. I think it’s incumbent upon the players today, because of how the public is looking at it, is to stand and salute the flag.”

Publicly and privately, players around the NFL have argued that Trump doesn’t get to determine the purpose of their protest or dictate the conversation around it.

Gase, had mostly avoided the topic since it surfaced in the summer of 2016 and said it wasn’t his place to limit players’ freedom of expression. When he banned kneeling, he refused to explain why he was doing so.

“I don’t need a reason,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to do.”

Within a month, he reversed course. When Stills, Thomas and Thomas confronted Gase about the rule and said it was interfering with their pre-game routine, he rescinded it. He gave minimal explanation for that, too.

Gase said last week he would not be averse to drafting any players who want to protest during the national anthem.

“My biggest thing I’m looking for is–everything’s football related to me,” he said. “We support our guys when they do anything outside our building to try to help our community. In Kenny’s case, he’s really branched out to not only South Florida, outside of there. We’re very supportive of trying to help as many people as our players can try to reach. I feel like our guys do a really good job of that.”

Separately, Ross said he’s been in touch with former Yankees star Derek Jeter, who recently took over the Marlins and discussed some of the obstacles for a team succeeding in South Florida.

“Miami is a great city. It’s not a great sports town,” Ross told the Daily News. “They haven’t been winning. He has to start all over again. I think you have to be patient and give him the time it’s going to take to build a winner. He’s a very smart, capable guy. He was a great baseball player. Hopefully he’ll be a great executive. The best way to get a fan base is to win.”

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2018 NFL Draft: Are Miami Dolphins averse to players who protest?

The Dolphins have had multiple players protest during the national anthem the last two years. (Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS—It’s been a tense couple of years for the NFL when it comes to players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality in the United States, and the Dolphins have been right in the middle of it.

Owner Stephen Ross went back and forth on whether the players should kneel, and coach Adam Gase did the same. Gase instituted a policy requiring those players to remain in the locker room during the anthem, then rescinded it after a meeting initiated by Kenny Stills, Michael Thomas and Julius Thomas.

Gase reiterated throughout the last two seasons that anthem protests weren’t much of a concern to him overall and said today at the NFL Combine that it won’t factor into draft evaluations.

“My biggest thing I’m looking for is—everything’s football related to me,” he said. “We support our guys when they do anything outside our building to try to help our community. In Kenny’s case, he’s really branched out to not only South Florida, outside of there. We’re very supportive of trying to help as many people as our players can try to reach. I feel like our guys do a really good job of that.”

The Dolphins had several players kneel before last season’s game at the Jets, which came shortly after Donald Trump made derogatory comments about Colin Kaepernick and others who protest. One of those players was undrafted rookie Maurice Smith, and his choice did not jeopardize his standing on the roster in any way.

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2018 NFL free agents: Top safeties available for Miami Dolphins

Tyvon Branch could be an affordable, veteran option for the Dolphins. (Getty Images)

The Dolphins believe they’re set for years at safety with Pro Bowler Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald signed long term, and those two form a solid, hard-hitting duo at the back end of their defense.

Miami’s interest in free agent safeties will likely be to find a contingency in case one of its starters gets injured. The team picked up Nate Allen for that role last year, and it didn’t work out well. He struggled early in the season and was done for the year with an injury by Week 8.

As the Dolphins sift through their options, here’s who they had last year and who’s on the market this spring:

2017 Starting safeties

Reshad Jones (16 starts)

Pro Football Focus ranking: #29

Age: 29

2018 Contract: $11.6 million salary cap hit; signed through 2022

T.J. McDonald (eight starts)

Pro Football Focus ranking: #59

Age: 27

2018 Contract: $2.5 million salary cap hit; signed through 2021

Nate Allen (seven starts)

Pro Football Focus ranking: #83

Age: 30

2018 Contract: $3.4 million salary cap hit; unrestricted free agent

Michael Thomas (one start)

Pro Football Focus ranking: Not rated

Age: 27

2018 Contract: $1.8 million salary cap hit; unrestricted free agent

Top 2018 free agent safeties (and some more affordable options)

LaMarcus Joyner, Los Angeles Rams

Pro Football Focus ranking: #3

Age: 27

Contract Expectation: $10.6 million per year market value (Spotrac)

Eric Reid, San Francisco

Pro Football Focus ranking: #30 (tied)

Age: 26

Contract Expectation: $8.6 million per year market value (Spotrac)

Morgan Burnett, Green Bay

Pro Football Focus ranking: #47

Age: 29

Contract expectation: $9.8 million per year market value (Spotrac)

Tre Boston, Los Angeles Chargers

Pro Football Focus ranking: #22

Age: 25

Contract Expectation: $8.2 million per year market value (Spotrac)

Kenny Vaccaro, New Orleans

Pro Football Focus ranking: #30 (tied)

Age: 28

Contract Expectation: Earned $5.7 million last season

Tyvon Branch, Arizona

Pro Football Focus ranking: #6

Age: 31

Contract Expectation: $5 million per year market value (Spotrac)

Reggie Nelson, Oakland

Pro Football Focus ranking: #56

Age: 34

Contract Expectation: Earned $6 million last season

Bradley McDougald, Seattle

Pro Football Focus ranking: #47

Age: 27

Contract Expectation: Earned $2 million last season

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Condoleezza Rice planted political seed landing Miami Dolphins’ Michael Thomas on Capitol Hill

Michael Thomas tries out the office of Rep. Alcee Hastings in Washington after receiving an award for his community service in 2016.

As Michael Thomas was graduating from Stanford, a former provost of the university made a bold prediction about his future.

No, Condoleezza Rice did not say Thomas would someday be special teams captain of the Miami Dolphins.

“She said I would get into politics one day,” Thomas recalled of Rice, who had served as Secretary of State under President George W. Bush.

Far-fetched statement? That’s what Thomas figured, since he hadn’t taken a single political science class at Stanford.

“No way,” he thought.

Today?

Way.

Condoleezza Rice is a former U.S. Secretary of State and provost at Stanford University. (Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)

Thomas is in Washington this week, beginning a three-week stint on Capitol Hill working in the office of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) as one of 41 players in the NFLPA’s five-year-old Externship Program.

Thomas is only 28, was just named Pro Football Focus’ special teams player of the year and could score a multiyear NFL contract as a free agent. So no, he’s not about to give up football anytime soon.

But an eventual career in politics?

“It’s definitely a thought,” Thomas texted to The Post as a House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting was about to commence.

The Dolphins have long recognized Thomas’ leadership qualities. It’s not every day a guy goes from undrafted free agent and practice squad player on the 49ers to Dolphins captain. Package that with his activism in the community and it shouldn’t be surprising that public office could be in his future.

Dolphins players Kenny Stills (left) and Michael Thomas discuss social issues with students at a town hall meeting at Nova Southeastern University. (Hal Habib / The Palm Beach Post)

“With my my recent involvement with player activism fighting to end systemic oppression, I have naturally been gravitating to more political work in my off time because I believe it’s important to make those connections if we want to make real change,” Thomas wrote.

Effecting change often is uncomfortable. Thomas has taken his share of criticism for following the lead of his former 49ers teammate, Colin Kaepernick, and kneeling during the national anthem as a statement against social injustice. Far less controversial is his tireless community work, often accomplished during the players’ lone day off during the season, Tuesdays, work that has earned him both the Dolphins’ community service award and the President’s Volunteer Service Award, which also required a visit to Capitol Hill.

Thomas credits Rice, an unabashed Stanford supporter, with planting a political seed even though he majored in sociology. His connection to Lee is a natural because he’s from Houston. Lee is serving her 11th term in the House of Representatives and sits on three Congressional committees: Judiciary, Homeland Security and Budget.

Thomas didn’t have this opportunity handed to him. The NFLPA received 110 applications from players before whittling down the candidates and placing them within 20 organizations. Thomas is the only Dolphin in the program but not the only player in the political spectrum. The Chargers’ Cole Toner is working for Sen. Todd Young and the Chiefs’ Bryan Witzmann is in the office of Rep. Robin Kelly.

Dana Hammonds Shuler, senior director of the NFLPA’s player affairs department, said the program “allows our members to gain hands-on experience in hopes that they discover post-football career interests.”

Thomas has long been positioning himself for whenever football no longer is an option. Two years ago, he received his MBA from the University of Miami, at the time saying he was considering a career in sports administration.

Thomas would not be the first Dolphin to enter politics. In fact, he wouldn’t even be the first Dolphins safety to do so, since former All-Pro Dick Anderson served as a state senator starting in 1978.

“I am going to take this opportunity to learn as much as I can while representing those who may feel voiceless in our communities,” Thomas told MiamiDolphins.com.

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NFL national anthem protest: Doug Baldwin praises Dolphins’ reversal

Baldwin admires what Thomas has been doing in South Florida. (Andres Leiva/The Post)

ORLANDO—The national anthem protests have been a polarizing issue in the NFL over the last two seasons, and the Dolphins have been right in the middle of it.

Miami has been among the most vocal teams, led primarily by safety Michael Thomas and wide receiver Kenny Stills, when it comes to taking a stance against social and racial injustice. Stills, Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas all kneeled during the national anthem this season, and a few other players joined them in the Week 3 game against the Jets after inflammatory remarks by Donald Trump.

Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin, who has also been active in the players’ movement, praised Thomas for making an impact.

“It’s fantastic when you have a guy who takes the time to be empathetic about other people’s plights and put himself in other people’s shoes and try to listen and learn as much as he can and try to effect change,” said Baldwin, who played with Thomas at Stanford.

The Dolphins’ story took a surprising turn, however, when the order came down for players to remain in the locker room if they intended to protest. Owner Stephen Ross said publicly it was time for them to stand in unity, and coach Adam Gase instituted it as a new team policy.

Shortly after that, though, the players met with Gase to express their displeasure with the rule. He reconsidered and allowed them to resume kneeling.

“It’s a step of empathy,” Baldwin said. “You have a lot of guys who are owners or coaches who are willing to hear the conversation and willing to listen, but the next step is toward them being empathetic. When they do that, it’s very easy for them to relate to guys and connect with guys in a passionate way like you’ve seen. It’s a hard step to take because it’s an unknown step at times.”

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Miami Dolphins’ Michael Thomas named PFF special teams player of year

Michael Thomas, special teams captain for the Dolphins. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

Dolphins special teams captain Michael Thomas isn’t going to the Pro Bowl, but he is being recognized for his efforts.

Pro Football Focus has named Thomas its special teams player of the year, which might take some of the sting off of not making the AFC Pro Bowl roster.

New England’s Matthew Slater, who has a vice grip on the AFC special teams slot in the Pro Bowl, cannot play in Sunday’s game in Orlando because the Patriots are headed for the Super Bowl. But the NFL replaced Slater with Tennessee’s Brynden Trawick.

Trawick had 17 tackles on special teams for the Titans. Thomas led Miami with 11.

Still, PFF wrote that Thomas “was a class above his peers in 2017.”

PFF noted Thomas’ versatility on kick and punt coverage as well as on the return units. Coincidentally, PFF singled out Thomas and Bobby McCain for their work on the Dolphins’ punt return unit against the Titans.

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Miami Dolphins’ Michael Thomas is a Pro Bowl pick (alas, only on Twitter, in landslide)

Tweets up: At least Michael Thomas won the Twitter battle in the race for Pro Bowl votes. (Andres Leiva/The Post)

DAVIE — One thing’s for sure about the Dolphins landing only one player on the AFC Pro Bowl roster: It’s not the fans’ fault.

The NFL and Twitter provided The Post a list of the 10 most-retweeted ballots for crunch time in the public’s Pro Bowl voting, from Dec. 7-14, and it turns out that Dolphins special teams captain Michael Thomas received the most votes of any NFL player — in a landslide.

Thomas’ Twitter candidacy had 22,368 retweets, compared to 16,670 of the runner-up, Raiders tight end Jared Cook.

But despite leading the Dolphins with 11 special-teams tackles, Thomas was bypassed in favor of perennial pick Matthew Slater of the Patriots once votes from those inside the league were mixed in. The only Dolphin chosen was safety Reshad Jones, although Dolphins could be added as replacements for injured players and Super Bowl participants.

“It just goes to show you that the system is flawed and everybody knows it,” Thomas said. “That’s why there is such a thing as snubs. But it’s not like somebody’s about to take down the system. You can challenge it all you want but what’s done is done, right? They’re not going to say, ‘Well, actually, this person should be in.’ They’re not going to do a recount.”

The Raiders clearly were the overall best at stuffing the Twitter ballot box, placing four players in the top seven. In addition to Cook, there was QB Derek Carr (third, 16,405), running back Marshawn Lynch (fourth, 15,352) and defensive end Khalil Mack (seventh, 12,708).

One sobering fact for fans: Out of their top 10 favorites on Twitter, the only players to actually make the Pro Bowl were Mack and two of the five players the Titans lumped together in a tweet (offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and defensive tackle Jurrell Casey).

At least Thomas can take one positive from the Twitter numbers.

“The fact that people actually are out there voting for me, that people actually want to see me play and stuff like that,” Thomas said. “So either there’s somebody who doesn’t want to see me or wants to see someone else. So the positive is that everybody sees the work I’m putting in. The stats are there. The film is there and that’s something no one can take away.”

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