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Football: What new Sun Belt COVID-19 policy means to Louisiana Ragin’ Cajun football players

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, July 24, 2021

NEW ORLEANS – UL offensive lineman Max Mitchell said he is vaccinated against COVID-19.

Defensive lineman Zi’Yon Hill isn’t, but he plans to be before the Ragin’ Cajuns open the season Sept. 4 at Texas.

Hill made his decision prior to arriving in New Orleans for Thursday’s Sun Belt Conference football media day.

But when Hill heard commissioner Keith Gill say conference games this season that cannot be played because of COVID-19 won’t be rescheduled and that the team causing the cancellation must forfeit, it solidified Hill’s decision.

“That’s a huge difference from last year, (when) we rescheduled games (and) declared games that weren’t played ‘no contest,’” Gill said.

Hill said his biggest concern is “the risk of missing games.”

“That (Gill’s forfeit proclamation) will probably make people consider thinking about the vaccine a lot more,” he said.

“That’s big,” Mitchell added. “I think that motivates guys even more, that you’re not gonna get this ‘makeup game’ in a month.”

Mitchell knows how important it is

But Mitchell, from Neville High in Monroe, didn’t need any extra encouragement.

He was quarantined for 14 days and missed the Georgia Southern game after routine blood work suggested he had contracted the virus.

“It hurt me to watch that game,” he said.

So Mitchell jumped at the chance to get vaccinated.

But he’s not about to pounce on teammates who won’t. Rather, he prefers to quietly encourage them.

“I think it’s ‘how important it is to you?’” Mitchell said.

“I know that’s a big decision for somebody who isn’t (getting the vaccination), or is skeptical on it. Which I understand. And I’ve been respectful for those guys, and haven’t really pushed anything on them. But I have mentioned ‘missing games’ and ‘anybody can be contact traced’ because you didn’t do it.

“So, you can’t force anything on anybody,” Mitchell added. “But you can definitely recommend it.”

Much like UL coach Billy Napier, Mitchell also wonders about what the future holds.

“I don’t know what this variant is going to do – if it’s going to explode, if it’s gonna go viral. … I’m curious to see,” he said.

Vaccination not mandated

Gill said he’s encouraging all players to get vaccinated “in the strongest terms possible,” and that “teams that are fully vaccinated will have a competitive advantage.”

Yet the Sun Belt isn’t mandating it.

Much like other conference coaches Thursday, Napier wouldn’t disclose what percentage of his players are vaccinated.

But he said team members will be incentivized to get the vaccine, as they won’t have to wear masks at UL’s football facility or undergo regular testing and other protocols in place last year.

Still, neither UL nor Napier is mandating vaccination either.   

“It’s a personal decision,” Napier said.

Last season the Cajuns often were without key players because of positive tests and contract tracing and lost their chance to play in the Sun Belt championship because of COVID-19 issues within the Coastal Carolina program.

“My view of COVID is I never thought a virus would put the world on pause, that a virus would make the world react different,” Hill said.

But it did.

So Hill understands why many of his teammates already have gotten the vaccine.

“But I also respect the people that don’t want to get vaccinated,” he said. “They don’t know a lot of info about it. They don’t trust it. So I respect everybody’s viewpoint on it.”