This NFL Star Walked Away From Football to Join the Frontline Against COVID

Sean Gordon
·16 mins read

From Men's Health

ON A BLAZING MORNING this past summer, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif arrives at a soccer field in the suburbs of Montreal, hoping to find some open space for a workout. Hordes of face-mask-clad kids have already claimed most of the turf—a bad sign for social distancing—so the six-foot-five, 321-pound offensive guard of the Super Bowl–winning Kansas City Chiefs packs an armload of cones and hurdles back into his SUV. He sets off for an artificial-turf field near his home in Montreal’s hipster-friendly Plateau Mont-Royal district, only to discover that the gates are locked. Wearing a burgundy hoodie and silver shorts, Duvernay-Tardif stares up at the sky for a quick moment. “Montreal,” he says in a deep voice that still has a hint of his native Quebecois accent, “is not always an easy place to be an athlete.”

But people in possession of a Super Bowl ring do not give up so easily. He walks over to a rutted, cracked bike path next to the field and begins pacing off a distance of 53 yards—the width of a football field—along the chunk of asphalt. He starts a timer on his phone and finally begins to simulate a training-camp fitness test, sprinting across his makeshift field in 19 seconds or less, once per minute, 15 times. “If you don’t make it, you’re not allowed to practice,” he says between reps, breathing heavily but not breathless.

Such was the drill for most of 2020, with the 29-year-old Duvernay-Tardif eager to return to his team and defend its championship. He’d lift weights twice a day, setting up a portable gym on the rooftop of his condo once the coronavirus hit, and do speed and cardio drills wherever he could find those 53 yards, all in order to maintain the power, drive, and agility that has fueled his career. The point is: He was ready to play. Exactly none of which would be all that remarkable on its own—even Gronk trains in the off-season—except Duvernay-Tardif is also a medical doctor who had to squeeze in these workouts between caring for patients suffering and dying from COVID-19. When he earned his medical degree in 2018, he became the only licensed medical doctor playing in the National Football League and thus a walking professional contradiction: an expert in alleviating pain and inflicting it; optimizing health and destroying it; helping his patients protect their bodies and minds while subjecting his opponents on the defensive line to 321 pounds of pulverizing, concussive force.

Not that he sees any of this as a contradiction. Duvernay-Tardif views each high-stakes, high-stress discipline as an emotional and mental offset to the other. “That’s how you’re able to take your mind off something,” he explains. “By focusing 100 percent on something else. For me, that’s my form of balance.” A broken leg and a busted ankle? Part of the game and weeks on the sideline. Concussions? Dangers to manage and monitor. (He’s had two that he knows of.) But there are some risks to playing football (and generally being alive) in 2020 that he can’t just rationalize away, so despite all the long days sprinting back and forth across real and imaginary fields, on July 24, he was the first NFL player to announce that he’d be opting out of playing this season. “I cannot allow myself to potentially transmit the virus in our communities simply to play the sport that I love,” he wrote in a tweet. “If I am to take risks, I will do it caring for patients.”

During a phone interview a few weeks after the announcement, he elaborated on his initial statement, switching from blunt, deliberate English to his native French to make his meaning clear. “I realize I’m extremely, extremely privileged. I’ve been in the NFL for six years, and I’ve attained a certain level of financial stability that allows me to follow my deepest convictions. From the position I’m in, medicine is going to be part of my ecosystem for the next 40 years. I just didn’t think it was the right decision for me to go play,” he says, his voice pitching higher as he goes on. “My situation is unique in many ways.”

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

DUVERNAY-TARDIF'S personal theory of balance was developed early and intensely by his parents. His mother, Guylaine Duvernay, helped found an alternative grade school a short drive from the family’s home in the Montreal suburb of Mont-Saint-Hilaire that focused on art, physicality, and intellectual creativity. His father, François Tardif, was a teacher at an agricultural college. (Their current venture? Three artisanal bakeries.) The family, including two younger sisters who grew up to be sports stars in their own right, twice took yearlong sabbaticals by sailing to different countries on a 30-foot sailboat. “My parents always told me being passionate about something is being free,” he says.

That all changed when Duvernay-Tardif attended a traditional high school in the mid-aughts, and he turned to sports to burn off some of his pent-up energy: badminton before class, intramurals at lunch, soccer after school, football at night. By his mid-teens, the highlight of his day was playing football, for the sheer physicality of it as well as its band-of-brothers ethos, and as he grew into his massive body, he displayed an obvious gift for the sport.

Photo credit: David Eulitt - Getty Images
Photo credit: David Eulitt - Getty Images

He also discovered that he loved science and initially considered becoming an engineer before deciding he wanted to spend his day interacting with people, not screens. In 2008, Duvernay-Tardif enrolled in a CEGEP, a pre-university academic program unique to Quebec. From there, he went to medical school at McGill University, a Canadian college with an Ivy League–like reputation, where all of the classes are taught in English. (In Quebec, would-be doctors start med school as undergrads and can play collegiate sports.)

Attending school in a different language required a major adjustment. “My English at the time was really bad,” he says. “I was able to say yes, no, and toaster, and that was about it.” (His English now is perfectly good.)

His first year, he worried about balancing football and classes, but without it, he was miserable. “I realized I needed something to channel my excess energy, and football was helping me focus better in the classroom,” he says. A few weeks into the season, he joined the team with a promise to himself: “No matter what happens, I’ll do both at the same time.”

McGill was a perennial loser—the team went 6 and 30 during his time there—but Duvernay-Tardif went on to win the J. P. Metras Trophy as Canada’s most outstanding down lineman, and he shined in the 2014 East-West Shrine Game for top college seniors. His coaches thought he had the raw talent to go pro, so in early 2014, with his anticipated med-school graduation still a year and a half away, he opted to take a couple months off and prepare for the NFL draft. Duvernay-Tardif booked a trip to Knoxville, Tennessee, to work out with trainer Charles Petrone, who is known for conditioning NFL-caliber talent. He didn’t go to the combine but held a pro scouting day back home instead.

His gamble paid off. In May of that year, the Chiefs took Duvernay-Tardif in the sixth round, and from 2015 on, he started at right guard in front of 80,000 screaming fans on Sundays only to fly home and become just another med student in a lab coat at 6:45 a.m. on the following Thursdays. His ability to take a full course load decreased, but by spring of 2018, seven years after starting med school, he earned his M.D. and sat for the national board exam, running to catch a plane after the test so he could make his next practice with the Chiefs. When it was time to graduate, he flew back to Montreal for commencement, accepted his diploma around 11:00 a.m., and flew back to KC at 1:30 that same day.

Photo credit: Peter G. Aiken
Photo credit: Peter G. Aiken

Duvernay-Tardif considers graduating from med school to be the moment of his life he’s most proud of, even more than winning the Super Bowl, but he didn’t slow down to savor it. “I love that feeling of, okay, back to reality,” he says. “It’s just important to have different anchors in different spheres that allow you to move on, to clear your mind. You can’t think about football all day, every day.”

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

AFTER WINNING the Super Bowl and taking some time to rest and recover, Duvernay-Tardif used the moment to unplug and sail around the Caribbean with his longtime girlfriend, the Montreal art curator Florence Dubé-Moreau. At the time, the coronavirus was still concentrated in Asia and Europe, and people were still getting on airplanes and traveling to the Caribbean. The couple had spotty WiFi on the water, but when they finally picked up a signal, they learned that COVID-19 was spreading more rapidly than anyone had thought and that Canada would soon be entering lockdown. They flew home as soon as they could, and Duvernay-Tardif started to look for ways that he could help.

Because he hasn’t yet completed his medical residency, which involves gaining hands-on experience through shifts at hospitals and clinics, he couldn’t formally practice medicine. But after a few days of just sitting around the house, he realized he was not built for staying on the sidelines. “It was catastrophic. I was not able to stay home,” he says. So he applied to work at one of Canada’s publicly funded seniors’ homes, a collection of more than 400 facilities that accounted for roughly 80 percent of the country’s 9,000 COVID-19-related deaths this past spring and summer. Duvernay-Tardif took the only job he could get: as an orderly, cleaning bedpans, feeding and bathing the elderly and infirm at a long-term-care home with 180 beds spread over six floors.

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

A couple weeks after he started, he called his agent, Sasha Ghavami. The two first met in CEGEP and are longtime friends. Now Duvernay-Tardif was driving home and needed to talk. He’d been working long hours, surrounded by incapacitated, desperately sick and dying people, and as the days wore on, his overworked colleagues began to get infected. “He didn’t really go into detail about what he’d seen, but it obviously hit him pretty hard,” Ghavami says. “It may have been the first time I’ve ever seen him rattled.”

Duvernay-Tardif says the entire experience shook him. “When you’re on the front lines, you see not only the people who are suffering through the disease, but all the collateral damage,” he says. “All the people who work in hospital environments who have been isolated from family for months, all the systems and personnel who were totally overwhelmed.” After spending nine weeks caring for patients, he still planned to leave for training camp in Missouri; he’d rented an apartment there and was involved in the NFL Players Association COVID task force to ensure there were league-wide measures that could lower the risk of virus transmission.

Photo credit: Charles Laberge
Photo credit: Charles Laberge

But he gradually came to grasp that low risk isn’t no risk. “The fact I could even theoretically be involved with furthering the spread of the virus is something I had a lot of trouble with,” he says. “When it came time to return to Kansas City, it finally became real what that meant in terms of travel, crossing the border, and participating in a contact sport where there are inevitably going to be cases despite everything that’s being done to reduce the spread.” Three days before the NFL announced it was resuming its activities, Duvernay-Tardif shot Ghavami a text, confirming he’d made up his mind.

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

IN SOME WAYS, Duvernay-Tardif has spent years facing and accepting far greater risks than COVID-19. After all, the league is in the midst of a concussion crisis, with its long history of head trauma now clearly linked to increasing diagnoses of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the progressive, degenerative, and debilitating brain disease that can cause long-term issues with memory retention, impulse control, anxiety, and mood. Duvernay-Tardif himself has suffered at least two concussions: one in January 2016, during a playoff game (he took himself out of the game), the other in training camp in 2018 (he sat out just over two weeks). But that risk, to him at least, has always felt somewhat manageable. He’s a member of the NFLPA’s health-and-safety committee and considers the NFL to be safer today than it was when he first started—he cites greater education about how to hit, beefed-up return-to-play protocols, and the closer tracking of player health. It’s not perfect, but to him, it’s progress.

When asked how he reconciles playing a sport that could very well threaten his long-term cognitive ability as a doctor—show of hands: who wants a doctor who might suffer from issues with memory retention, impulse control, anxiety, and mood?—he deflects the question by reframing it. “Instead of seeing injury risk in the NFL and medicine as a paradox, I try to see those two things as a unique opportunity,” he says. In his view, being both a doctor and a player means he both understands and has experienced the risks. “I want to be part of the solution and to help make sure football endures, that we’re still playing it in 50 years,” he says.

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

He sees the risks of COVID-19 as fundamentally different, because as a player he could both contract it and transmit it to others. “The question then becomes: Does my passion for football and my desire to play weigh more heavily in the balance than the risk to which I would be exposing myself and the community?” he says. That he can “transmit” brain trauma by smashing into other linemen doesn’t fit into this equation because it’s not like those other linemen can then give brain trauma to their friends and family. No such luck with COVID-19, and even though Duvernay-Tardif sees his situation as unique in many ways, his ability to contract and spread the coronavirus isn’t one of them. He’s just like the rest of us.

For Duvernay-Tardif, the toughest part of deciding not to play was breaking the news to Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, position coach Andy Heck, and his teammates, never mind the estimated $2.6 million he left sitting on the table. “Even though I feel like I made the right decision, I had the sense I was letting the team down.”

But Reid, whose mother graduated from the same medical school as Duvernay-Tardif, praised the decision in a Zoom call with reporters on the opening day of training camp. “They’re givers, they’re not takers,” he said about people who practice medicine. “Larry has that quality, and you’re seeing it to the utmost here.” Patrick Mahomes, the team’s star player and quarterback, was also publicly supportive. “Everybody respects his decision 100 percent,” he said during a news conference shortly after the announcement.

Duvernay-Tardif has made it clear that he is only planning on sitting out this season—he’s aiming to return next season, but he knows the stats as well as anyone. The average NFL career lasts three years, and he’s played double that already. He’s not ready to walk away from the game, but he’s aware the game might walk away from him, and he’s planning accordingly. This fall, he’s taking graduate classes at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, and he intends to continue working as a frontline responder as the need arises. He’ll be staying in game shape between shifts, too, just like he’s always done.

Photo credit: LM CHABOT
Photo credit: LM CHABOT

But his experience working with patients in the summer has reinforced that the football mentality of playing (and winning) at all costs doesn’t make for a great football player any more than the medical mentality of treating diseases rather than people makes for a great doctor. “I went there with my medical-student background thinking, Let’s try to optimize everything,” he says of his time in the senior-care facility. “What I realized is if you just do that, you’re only seeing the negative. The good orderly, the good nurse’s assistant, they’re the ones who spend the most time with the patient. If you’re just coming, dropping off medication, and leaving, what are you really doing? What are you really doing to make your patient more comfortable and happier?”

As he tells it, there is a profoundly humanizing and important connection that happens if you can just take time to give an elderly man a much-needed haircut. At one point, with all the patients in lockdown, he was able to hold a phone up for a quadriplegic patient so that his daughters, who hadn’t been able to visit for 12 weeks, could finally see him. “So what do you do? You burst into tears because there’s nothing else to do,” he says. “When you start to do those little things, that’s when you start seeing the positive. That’s when you’re contributing and not just suffering like everybody else. That was a big lesson for me, for sure.”

To stay organized as his life continues to shift and evolve, he keeps a list of his appointments and commitments in the Notes app of his iPhone. “Every night, I check everything I did off it, and I put new stuff on,” he says. “I have three open files. One is for stuff that I think I could do next day. There’s a medium-range list, and a long-term-planning one. Whenever I’m able to tick off all the items for the next-day list, that’s a really good feeling.” Does that happen often? He laughs. “No.” But that’s a good thing, too.

This story appears in the November 2020 issue of Men's Health.

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