By Maria Caspani
FORDYCE, Ark. (Reuters) - The dull thud of bodies colliding and the sharp sound of whistles filled the air on a scorching afternoon of high school football practice in Fordyce, Arkansas.
Players wore helmets but no pads to try to escape the heat, running through drills ahead of the opener at the end of the month. The date marks a highlight on the calendar for this American football-loving town of about 4,000 people in southern Arkansas, where banners celebrating the Fordyce High School Redbugs hang along its main street.
Residents will readily tell you the Redbugs are vying for a third straight state championship.
They will also tell you that Fordyce schools - their students, staff and, of course, the football teams - helped lead many in this deeply conservative area to reconsider their positions on coronavirus vaccines.
"Football is the bedrock of the school culture, it's the bedrock of this community," said Dr Judy Hubbell, superintendent of Fordyce School District. "And I think that a lot of kids are getting vaccinated because they don't want to have to miss a ball game."
U.S. state governors have offered everything from cash prizes https://www.reuters.com/world/us/ohio-governor-offers-chance-1-million-prize-get-vaccinated-2021-05-13 to vacation giveaways and baseball tickets https://www.reuters.com/world/us/new-york-governor-says-yankees-mets-give-tickets-fans-who-get-vaccinated-their-2021-05-05 to persuade people to get vaccinated. The pope, former presidents and celebrities have taken part in public campaigns.
But the experience of Fordyce offers a reminder that some of the most powerful motives can surface from within a community. In Dallas County, where the town is located, the number of 12 to 18 year olds receiving a coronavirus vaccine rose nearly 400% in the last 30 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Across Arkansas, vaccine hesitancy and the Delta variant have pushed cases to alarming heights. In the past two weeks, Arkansas reported more than 31,000 new cases, placing it among the worst hit states, health data shows.
Less than 40% of the state's residents are fully inoculated, one of the nation's lowest rates. In the past 30 days, the number of vaccine doses in Arkansas administered to all ages rose 13%.
In Dallas County, shots administered for all ages have risen 21% in the past 30 days, according to the CDC.
Asked in interviews about the increase, Fordyce residents said fears children would fall ill once classes resumed marked a turning point for many. They spoke about concerns for their kids' education and wellbeing. And they talked about the pivotal role sports play in many lives.
A SHOT STIGMA
Carson Williams, the fresh-faced star of the Redbugs, harbored doubts about the vaccine.
"I did not trust it, I didn't feel comfortable about getting it," said the 6-foot-3-inch offensive lineman. So he spoke to his mother Scarlett - who helped dispel his doubts - and he thought about football.
Under federal and local guidelines, student athletes exposed to the coronavirus may practice and play if fully vaccinated and without symptoms. Otherwise, they must quarantine for 10 days, meaning they could miss at least one game. A widespread exposure on a team with unvaccinated players could wreck a season.
"Playing sports played a massive role in me getting it," said Williams, who has committed to play football for the Air Force Academy once he graduates. He said he hoped his decision to get the vaccine - and his openness about it - might have encouraged others to do the same.
After seeing teams forced out of last year's championship due to COVID-19, middle linebacker Treyvon Merritt said he was determined to play and enjoy every game. He found encouragement from his father, who previously contracted the virus and advised the 17-year-old to get vaccinated.
"You only get this once," Merritt said of his senior season.
Anthony Socia, who coaches football and other teams at Fordyce schools, said he was afraid many of the players would not get vaccinated.
"There is a stigma to the shot in this area," he said. "But most of them... were looking for any way to have a regular season."
He estimates that at least half of the senior high football players, who are mostly aged 17 or 18, have been vaccinated. The district has not released official figures.
MEET THE BUGS
A 'Go Bugs' signs greets customers as they enter Fordyce's Watson Pharmacy. Daniel Bryant, one of the pharmacists, recalls worrying about how the Delta variant would impact teenagers as it spread earlier this summer.
But there was little demand for vaccinations at the time - besides, the town had scant supplies of the Pfizer /BionTech vaccine, the only one approved in the United States for use in children as young as 12.
Then, with schools due to begin in a matter of weeks, Bryant secured a steady supply of Pfizer shots from nearby Little Rock.
He put out the word on the pharmacy's social media channels, and the phone started ringing.
Many parents had begun to overcome vaccine hesitancy by then, fearful their children might fall ill, Bryant said. The chance of an undisrupted sports season provided a precious incentive for some.
"I think for some people that was really big," said Bryant during an interview in the pharmacy's back office, lined with football memorabilia. "It was, first of all 'Is it going to harm my kid?'... but second was, 'I don't want their sports to be messed up'."
Among them was Meghan Allen, a technician who works with Bryant. Her 15-year-old son Ad'Lee did not want to get vaccinated, she said.
Allen showed him research she had done to assuage his fears. When she mentioned the vaccine might be the only way he could play football, that "definitely triggered something," she said.
As dusk offered some reprieve from the heat, Bryant - a distant relative of legendary University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant - joined a crowd at the courthouse.
There, Redbugs players in their uniforms stood before cheering fans for the town's 'Meet the Bugs' celebration - an event canceled last year due to the virus.
(Reporting by Maria Caspani in Fordyce, Arkansas and Anurag Maan in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Shannon Stapleton in Fordyce; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Rosalba O'Brien)