The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL has never been more popular—or more chaotic. Millions fill 100,000-seat stadiums every Saturday; tens of millions more watch on television every weekend. The 2013 Discover BCS National ...

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The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL has never been more popular—or more chaotic. Millions fill 100,000-seat stadiums every Saturday; tens of millions more watch on television every weekend. The 2013 Discover BCS National Championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama had a viewership of 26.4 million people, second only to the Super Bowl. Billions of dollars from television deals now flow into the game; the average budget for a top-ten team is $80 million; top coaches make more than $3 million a year; the highest paid, more than $5 million.
     But behind this glittering success are darker truths: “athlete-students” working essentially full-time jobs with no share in the oceans of money; players who often don’t graduate and end their careers with broken bodies; “janitors” who clean up player misconduct; football “hostesses” willing to do whatever it takes to land a top recruit; seven-figure black box recruiting slush funds. And this: Despite the millions of dollars pouring into the game, 90 percent of major athletic departments still lose money. Yet schools remain caught up in an ever-escalating “arms race”—at the expense of academic scholarships, facilities and faculty.
     Celebrated investigative journalists Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian were granted unprecedented access during the 2012 season to programs at the highest levels across the country at a time of convulsive change in college football. Through dogged reporting, they explored every nook and cranny of this high-powered machine, and reveal how it operates from the inside out. The result: the system through the eyes of athletic directors and coaches, high-flying boosters and high-profile TV stars, five-star recruits and tireless NCAA investigators and the kids on whom the whole vast enterprise depends.
     Both a celebration of the power and pageantry of NCAA football and a groundbreaking, thought-provoking critique of its excesses, The System is the definitive book on the college game.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Each year, approximately fifty million fans attend college football games, but ticket receipts are just the icing on the gridiron financial cake: Each weekend, tens of millions watch their favorite team on television, raking in billions of dollars from networks and advertisers. Once the Saturday afternoon pastime of amateur he-men, college football has blossomed into a mega-money industry; complete with its own multi-million-dollar coaches, freewheeling athletic directors, and too-big-to-fail Top Ten teams. Lost in the mullah muddle are expendable student athletes, academic programs, scholarships, and faculty. Investigative journalists Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian spent more than a year probing inside stories of NCAA football, including the good, bad, and the very ugly. Slush funds, paid test-takers, and victory dances.

From the Publisher
"The best book on the sport written in years (and that's coming from someone who has written a couple). The System will shock fans as the saturation reporting peels back the veneer on everything from coaching politics, to sexual tension in tutoring labs, to the role of recruiting hostesses, to back-stabbing conference realignment, to super boosters, and so on. Even the hardcore fans, though, will be surprised — everyone knows this is a wild business, just not in such detail...There's just no way a college football fan won't devour this book."
—Dan Wetzel, Yahoo!Sports

"The System is hands-down the best college football book I've ever read. It is that rare non-fiction book that reads like a great crime novel in that you just can't put it down. The System covers the good, the bad and the ugly in the world of college football, including an inside look at a walk-on being picked in the first round of the NFL draft, big-time college football scandals and an epidemic of criminal behavior by players on campus. It's a completely unvarnished look at the second-most popular sport in the country that will leave you aghast at the underworld that exists beneath college stadiums."
—Jim Weber,

"There is a major storm brewing on college football's horizon. At the eye of the storm is a book that is a must-read for hardcore college football fans who want to know the truth about 'The System.'"
—Frank Cooney, The Sports Exchange

"[A] harrowing and occasionally uplifting journey — or literary trip — through recent history and across the country's most football-obsessed campuses."
—Harvey Araton, The New York Times

"One of the most sweeping yet meticulously researched books ever written on big-time college football...."The System" isn't just a good read. For anyone who cares about major college athletics, it is a vital read. "The System" isn't about one aspect of college football. It's about every the end, the beauty is not in the shock value, but in the detail, shocking and mundane, that is so carefully presented."
—The Hartford Courant

"The System is a broad survey of the machinery of college football: the money and marketing, the recruiting and classroom pampering, the off-the-books privileges. The authors trace the efforts of various programs and coaches who try to avoid the excess and trickery and do right by their student-athletes. But clearly the system is hard to beat, and it has a corrupting effect on nearly everyone involved."
—The Wall Street Journal

"I just read and can't stop extolling The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian (reviewed below). I expected scandal, I expected feel-good stories; what I didn't expect was a book so riveting that I missed my bus stop...Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian have given us a thrilling read."
Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers

The Barnes & Noble Review

The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football is a bit like college football itself: complex and compelling, epic in ambition but with a reach that exceeds its grasp. Authors Jeff Benedict (Sports Illustrated) and Armen Keteyian (CBS News) have created a fast-moving but detailed true story that will be devoured by any college football fan, but the bigger the fan, the sicker they are likely to feel after reading all that the authors have uncovered.

The book takes a wide-angle approach, looking at numerous football powerhouses from BYU to Tennessee to Michigan to Alabama, going back at least a decade but emphasizing the 2012 season. Along the way, the authors examine the roles of the players, coaches, college presidents, athletic directors, boosters who pump money in legally and otherwise, and even the grls who are hired to flirt (at least) with recruits.

Its early chapters jump around the nation, revealing the unreal amounts of money at stake and the pressure that it puts on everyone from those "hostesses" — who may be pressured to go beyond flirting — to the college presidents who believe that for the few schools that win big, overpaying coaches and shelling out millions for football facilities while making cuts on the education side will have long-run benefits for their institutions.

The money is everywhere — as is a monstrous sense of anything- goes entitlement. As one "hostess" reports, "One recruit was coming into town, and one of the coaches actually asked me if I knew any girls that would 'show him a good time.' " Two chapters later, an undergrad is being raped: the connections are not hard to draw.

While The System's early chapters can feel too dizzyingly kaleidoscopic, gradually the authors flesh out a few key participants to hang their story on, including coaches like Washington State University's inspiring, infuriating Mike Leach, who veers between a being a brilliant motivator and a bully whose actions border on the criminal. Leach seems incapable of admitting he's wrong: after delivering obscenity-laced punishments to a concussed player, he ended up losing his job at Texas Tech because he would not apologize. By contrast, Bronco Mendenhall of Brigham Young University comes across as more genuinely caring — yet in a telling note, the authors point out that he faces criticism for focusing on the character and moral development of his players more than winning.

The System doesn't fail to paint its dysfunctional portrait in the necessary shades of gray, and the authors are superb at humanizing figures like the college presidents struggling to maintain a balance and even longtime Ohio State booster Bobby DiGeronimo, who became a fall guy for the scandal-beset school. Along the way, the book underscores the fact that most scandals occur because the system is so badly broken, with players often penalized for minor infractions against the letter of the law while far greater wrongs go uninvestigated.

Unfortunately, the authors trap themselves by trying to create what the publicity material calls "a celebration of the power and pageantry of NCAA football" and a "groundbreaking critique of its excess." Once you've read about the corrupting and corrosive effect of the exploding popularity of the sport — the bullying, the drug use, rape and assault and under-the-table payments proliferate — it is impossible to feel like there is anything left worth celebrating. (And that's with only glancing attention to the brain trauma injuries and the Penn State sex scandals — each a topic that could fill its own book.)

The attempt to remain evenhanded means there are no prescriptions for change — the system may be catastrophically broken, but the authors don't go beyond pointing that out. Instead, the book ends with chapters gushing over ESPN's hype-oriented GameDay coverage and Nick Saban's title-filled reign at Alabama. These huzzahs ring especially hollow because television money is central to the problem (and not part of the chapter) and Saban comes across as cold-hearted in several early chapters as he refuses to meet with a student brutally assaulted by four of Saban's players. The stories of crimes like these and, in many cases, the cover-ups, are the ones that linger long after the authors' color commentary has wrapped up.

Reviewer: Stuart Miller

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385536615
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/17/2013
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 343,654
  • Lexile: 980L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.33 (d)

Meet the Author

JEFF BENEDICT is one of the country’s top investigative reporters. He is a special features contributor for Sports Illustrated and the author of ten critically acclaimed books, including Pros and Cons and Out of Bounds. His essays and articles have appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.
ARMEN KETEYIAN is a CBS News correspondent based in New York and the lead correspondent for 60 Minutes Sports on Showtime. An eleven-time Emmy Award winner, he is widely regarded as one of the finest investigative journalists in the country. He is also the author or coauthor of nine previous books, including Money Players and Raw Recruits.

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Read an Excerpt


Part I, Mike Leach after midnight

On Saturday afternoons in the fall of 1981 the roar of the crowd would echo across campus every time BYU scored a touchdown. It happened a lot that year. BYU led the nation in offense, scoring more than five hundred points, thanks to the arm of two-­time all-­American quarterback Jim McMahon. On his way to setting seventy NCAA passing records, McMahon had put Provo, Utah, on the college football map.

Twenty-­year-­old Sharon Smith hardly noticed. But one evening that fall she was outside her apartment when a rugged-­looking guy with wavy, shoulder-­length hair approached. He introduced himself as Mike Leach, a twenty-­year-­old junior from Cody, Wyoming. He lived in the apartment complex next door. They even used the same laundry room. Turned out they had been neighbors for months.

Smith was surprised they had never crossed paths. But Leach traveled a fair amount. He was a member of BYU’s rugby team.

She was intrigued. Leach didn’t look like a BYU student. For one thing, his hair was too long. It should have been above his collar, according to BYU’s honor code. But Leach ignored the rule. That got him repeatedly summoned to the dean’s office. Still, Leach didn’t cut his hair. He didn’t talk like a BYU student either. His vocabulary was a little more colorful. So was his upbringing. He grew up in Wyoming with boys who spent Friday nights popping beers and getting in fistfights. Ranchers wearing sidearms would come into town for lunch at the local diner. Gunsmoke reruns were all the rage. Marshal Dillon was Leach’s boyhood hero.

Smith had met lots of guys at BYU. None was as authentic—­or as funny—­as Leach. They ended up talking until after midnight, and she accepted his invitation to go out the following night.

Their first date was a meal at an A&W restaurant in Provo. That’s when college football entered the picture. Over hot dogs and a couple cold root beers, Leach started talking about coaching. His idol was BYU’s head coach, LaVell Edwards. During Leach’s freshman year he had entered his name in a drawing and won season tickets on the forty-­yard line. From that perch he began studying BYU’s offensive scheme: a controlled passing game with somebody always in motion before the snap; lots of receivers running a combination of vertical routes and crossing patterns; throwing to the backs in the flat. Edwards’s innovative system was a forerunner of the West Coast Offense ultimately popularized by Bill Walsh in the NFL. But at the college level in the early 1980s, no defensive coordinator in the country had figured out how to stop it.

To the casual fan BYU’s system looked pretty complicated. And to a certain extent, it was. But Leach had figured out that the genius of Edwards was the way he packaged his plays. He used an endless number of formations to disguise about fifty basic plays. That made it easy for the offense to memorize and difficult for defenses to recognize.

Smith had no idea what Leach was talking about. But one thing was obvious to her: the guy sitting across from her sipping root beer through a straw was no casual fan of the game. He wasn’t some armchair quarterback either. In high school Leach had started a “coaching” file, filling it with newspaper clippings from the sports pages and schematic ideas he scribbled on loose sheets of paper. By the time he got to Provo and could watch LaVell Edwards up close, he was mapping out his future. “BYU had a state-­of-­the-­art offense,” Leach said. “The best in the country. I started studying it very closely. LaVell Edwards had a major impact on me.”

After one date with Leach, Smith never saw anyone else. “Of all the people I dated at BYU, he was the only guy who knew exactly what he wanted to do,” Smith said. “He told me right away that he knew he was going to be a lawyer or a college football coach. I found it very attractive that he had a plan and was very confident about achieving it.”

Never mind that Leach had never played college football and his only coaching experience was as a Little League baseball coach back in Wyoming. Smith wasn’t worried. “He could analyze the game and the way coaches were coaching, and he had it in his mind that he could do it better at a young age,” she said. “Confidence is a very attractive feature.”

In June 1982, Mike and Sharon were married in St. George, Utah. After BYU, they moved to Southern California, and Mike attended law school at Pepperdine. But just before he got his law degree, he posed a practical question to Sharon: “Do you want me to come home miserable and making a lot of money or come home happy and not earning as much money?”

She told him that being happy was more important than making a lot of money.

Leach didn’t bother taking the bar exam. Instead, he and Sharon headed to Alabama so Mike could attend the U.S. Sports Academy. After he obtained his master’s, they returned to California, and Mike talked his way into a part-­time assistant’s position with the football team at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, then a Division II school. The fact that Leach had a law degree intrigued the head coach enough to offer him a job helping out for $3,000. Sharon figured that was a monthly salary. But it was $3,000 for the season.

With a one-­year-­old baby, the Leaches moved into campus housing. Their bed was a floor mattress. They didn’t own a television. Their motto was “Opportunity trumps money.”

After one season, the head coach at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo predicted that Leach would develop into a big-­time college football coach. Over the next decade Mike and Sharon crisscrossed the country, taking coaching jobs at College of the Desert in California, Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State. Leach even spent a year coaching football in Finland. He held every position from offensive line coach to linebacker coach to quarterback coach. He even served as sports information director and equipment manager at one school. And when all the other coaches left at the end of the day, Leach stayed behind to watch film—­always alone, sometimes until dawn—­night after night.

For the first fifteen years of marriage, Sharon made more money doing clerical work and miscellaneous jobs than Mike made coaching. They were happy but broke. Plus, they were up to three kids with a fourth on the way. Then things changed in 1997. Kentucky’s head coach, Hal Mumme, hired Leach as his offensive coordinator. Suddenly Leach jumped from small schools in the middle of nowhere to the SEC, the best conference in college football. His offensive scheme—­referred to as “the spread”—­would be tested against Florida, Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Tennessee and Auburn.

Working under Mumme and drawing from the BYU offense he’d studied in the early 1980s, Leach added new wrinkles that opened up the field even more, making it easier for his quarterback to throw into open passing lanes. “I spend more time trying to make my offense easy for the quarterback to memorize than anything,” Leach said. “I want to make it as simple as possible because I want guys to trigger as quick as possible. The key isn’t finding good plays. The key is packaging.”

One of the most revolutionary aspects of Leach’s system was spacing the offensive linemen three feet apart. At first glance, it appears to give pass rushers a clear shot at the quarterback. But the result was fewer sacks and cleaner passing lanes for the quarterback. The SEC had never seen anything like it. In Leach’s first season as offensive coordinator, Kentucky upset Alabama and finished the year with the No. 1 offense in the country, led by quarterback Tim Couch. The following year Kentucky knocked off LSU; Couch threw for more than four thousand yards and went on to become the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Meanwhile, Leach’s offense set six NCAA records and forty-­one SEC records. The Wildcats had a winning record in the toughest conference in the country.

Coaches in the SEC weren’t the only ones who noticed. Coaches from around the country—­including Urban Meyer at Notre Dame, Tommy Bowden at Tulane and Mark Mangino at Kansas State—­traveled to Kentucky to learn more about Leach’s system. Even a number of NFL coaches made the trek to Lexington. The interest level was so high that Leach made an instructional video on the finer points of throwing and receiving techniques. It sold thousands of copies.

After two seasons at Kentucky, Leach accepted the position as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma. He was there less than one year before he got offered the head job at Texas Tech. The opportunity had some downside. It was 1999 and Tech was on academic probation for recruiting violations, academic fraud and unethical conduct. Eighteen scholarships were stripped from the football program between 1999 and 2001. Not only would Leach be competing against Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M, but he’d be doing it with eighteen fewer scholarships for his first three seasons.

There were other problems. Tech’s graduation rates were among the lowest in the nation. Leach held two advanced degrees and had no interest in a football culture that ignored the importance of academics.

Plus, there was the unenviable task of replacing Tech’s Spike Dykes, who had won more games—­eighty-­two—­than any football coach in the history of the school. In Lubbock, where football is right beside God in importance, Dykes was beloved.

Despite all this, Leach said yes. At thirty-­eight, a guy who never played college football was off to Lubbock to coach the Red Raiders in the Big 12.

Six years later, a cup of coffee in one hand and a remote control in the other, Mike Leach was alone in his office going over game film. Play. Pause. Rewind. Play. Pause. Rewind. Next sequence.

It was after midnight when he stood up to stretch his legs. He parted the blinds on his office window that overlooked the Texas Tech practice facility. That’s when he spotted a shadow moving across the field. It was a human shadow. “Who in the hell is that?” he mumbled.

The facilities were locked, the lights off. The place was deserted. Leach wondered if it was a prowler. He headed downstairs to have a look.

Approaching the field, Leach spotted tiny orange cones. They were arranged in rows. Someone was darting in and out of them. Suddenly the figure came into focus.


“Oh, hey, Coach.”

It was Tech receiver Michael Crabtree, considered the top wideout in the country.

“Michael, what are you doing?”

“I got to thinking about the corner route,” he said in between deep breaths. “If I come out of my cut like this”—­Crabtree pointed his toes and jigged hard to the right—­“I’ll be open every time.”

Impressed, Leach folded his arms and nodded.

“So,” Crabtree continued, “I set up some cones, and I’m out here working on it.”

Leach’s eyes went from Crabtree to the cones and back to Crabtree. The most talented wide receiver in college football was alone in the dark. There was no ball. No quarterback. No position coach to tell him what to do. It was just Crabtree in his stance, doing starts and stops, running in and out of cones.

The truth was that Crabtree worked out alone at night a lot. He lived across the street from the practice complex and would sneak in after dark. “I always worked on my game,” Crabtree said. “Coach Leach just happened to catch me that night.”

Determined not to disrupt hard work, Leach turned and headed back inside without saying another word.

Leach and Crabtree had the kind of relationship that didn’t require much talk. When Leach arrived in Lubbock six years earlier, Tech didn’t land blue-­chip recruits like Crabtree. A star quarterback at David W. Carter High School in Dallas, Crabtree was also one of the top high school basketball players in the state. Bobby Knight offered him a basketball scholarship. And Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and LSU were all over him with scholarship offers to play football. Tech’s facilities couldn’t compete with those schools’. And Leach’s budget was a fraction of his rivals’.

Still, Leach was winning with guys who had been passed over by the Longhorns and the Sooners and the Aggies. In Leach’s first six seasons, Tech had gone 49-­28, appeared in six straight bowl games and finished in the top twenty in both 2004 and 2005. But the thing that really got Crabtree’s attention was Leach’s Air Raid offense. “They threw the ball every play,” Crabtree said. “Leach had the whole program going. I said to myself, ‘Man, if I go to Tech, it’s gonna be on.’ ”

Tech indeed had the most explosive offense in the country when Leach started recruiting Crabtree in 2004. That year, Tech’s football scores often looked like basketball scores. The Red Raiders put up seventy points against TCU. Then they put up seventy against Nebraska, marking the most points scored against the Cornhuskers in the program’s 114-­year history. Virtually every Tech game was an offensive exhibition, and Leach’s quarterbacks were leading the nation in passing year in and year out.

But Leach told Crabtree up front that he planned to play him at receiver, not quarterback. Crabtree had been the best athlete on his high school team, and—­as is often the case for superior high school athletes—­he got asked to play quarterback. But Leach saw in him all the raw materials to make a great receiver—­breakaway speed, great leaping ability, big hands and fearlessness. He went as far as to tell Crabtree that he could see him playing wideout in the NFL.

Crabtree had never played receiver. But it didn’t take much to convince him to switch. “I didn’t want to stay in college that long,” Crabtree said. “I wanted to get on to the NFL. If I played quarterback, I’d be at Tech for five years. I figured if I played receiver at Tech, I would tear it up.”

The chance to play receiver at Tech also made it easier not to choose Texas or Oklahoma. “I didn’t want to go to Texas or OU and just be another guy,” Crabtree said. “I wanted to go somewhere to make a name for myself. With Leach at Tech, I had a chance to take it to another level.”

All he told Leach, however, was one thing: “I want to score touchdowns.”

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 18 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 18 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2014

    not that interesting

    I guess I'm in the minority but I didn't find this book that interesting. It was in spots and I managed to finish it but at times it was more of a chore. I just didn't think any of the storylines were that earthshaking. Nothing in this book surprised me, nothing I couldn't have read in the newpaper on any given Sunday.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2014

    Really good book

    If you are a sports fan or a college football fan this book is something you should read. Its talks about the good and the bad parts of collrge football. Even though most of the topics are things many sports fans may already know tye depth and insight into those topics is great. Its a small inside look into a world most outsiders never see. I enjoyed it a lot.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 30, 2013

    Sports fans this is a good read.

    While there is no earth shattering news about college sports that you didn't already know or suspect, the insights are interesting and easy to read. made a great gift to myself.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 30, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Very interesting

    I am a big college football fan and this book gave a great inside look into the world of college football. Especially interesting were the chapters on Mike Leach, Nick Saban and BYU.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 5, 2013

    Jeff and Armen have teamed up together to create one of the very

    Jeff and Armen have teamed up together to create one of the very best behind the scenes look at big-time college football.. It is amazing the hours and interviews they were able to glean to make this book a 21 century reality. There is a nice flow to the chapters. Not all the stories are about the glory of the game today. There are a number of troubling issues that continue to go unresolved. If you are a fan of college football, this is a book you’ll enjoy reading.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 24, 2013

    a compelling read for the avid college football fan.

    a well-written compelling read for even the average college fan. A little west coast heavy, but that may be my southern football bias.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 20, 2013

    Pretty Decent Read

    A great book for someone who doesn't follow college football all that much. Fascinating stories.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2013



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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2013

    The System

    Great Read!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2013


    I love jiney wezley

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2013

    amazing book

    amazing book

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2013


    Name:Solarstar Gender:Female Age:25 moons Rank:Leader: Looks:Shorthaired ink black pelt and bright yellow eyes. (From which she got her name) Personality:A determined Leader. Kind, Caring, and Loyal Facts:Prefers listening to her clans ideas then to her own. Goes by the warrior code. Other:Has a long history that she doesn't feel like explaning. Family:Speckledwing(Deceased Mother) and Mudfur(Decased Father) Mate/Crush:None.

    0 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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