He traded his NFL jersey for a lab coat: What Laurent Duvernay-Tardif learned in a long-term care facility

MONTREAL—Maurice Richard. Saul Bellow. Mordecai Richler. William Shatner. Oscar Peterson. Colleen Dewhurst. Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Leonard Cohen. Mario Lemieux. Celine Dion.

Since its founding as a missionary colony 380 years ago, this city has had many standout figures. But perhaps the greatest contemporary hero in Montreal is known for what he didn’t do. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif didn’t play football in 2020.

As we approach football’s Super Bowl finale, let’s consider a story of heroics and sacrifice, though Dr. Duvernay-Tardif would be the first to say that the doctors and nurses who substituted for the offensive linemen who otherwise would have been his colleagues in that pandemic-scarred year were the real heroes. Let’s take his point but also have a look at what selflessness and teamwork mean for a man who once had a five-year $41.26 million contract and won a Super Bowl ring with the Kansas City Chiefs but who decided to volunteer during a pandemic in a long-term care facility in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, 45 minutes from Montreal.

New York Jets offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif speaks to reporters at the team's facility in Florham Park, N.J., late last year. Duvernay-Tardif was coming off having won a Super Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs in his sixth year in the NFL when he began working as an orderly at a long-term care facility. He's back playing football now and starting for the Jets.

“I felt a disconnect between what was happening to me, celebrating the Super Bowl, and what was happening in the world,” Dr. Duvernay-Tardif said in an interview. “I felt I had to do something. I felt I had to help. Like thousands, I raised my hand.”

He didn’t exactly fade into the crowd at his new workplace: The new guy striding through the second floor of the Centre d'hébergement et de soins de longue durée Gertrude-Lafrance stood 6’5”. He weighed 321 pounds. Plus: He has a medical degree, only the fourth in NFL history to have one and the only contemporary player for whom the word “practice” has special meaning.

He was back on the football field last fall, having traded his white coat for New York Jets uniform number 66, but his experience with long-term patients changed, or perhaps reaffirmed, his outlook. “The more time I spent at the long-term care home,” he wrote in his new book, Red Zone: From the Offensive Line to the Front Lines of the Pandemic (HarperCollins Canada),  “the more I realized how much, during my years of medical school, I’d drifted away from the main reason I wanted to be a doctor in the first place: to help people.”

Though Chiefs and Jets fans envision him in the locker room, he started his medical residency last July in the examination rooms of the Herzl Family Practice Centre in Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital. “He did everything—clinic, long-term care, urgent care,” said Mark Karnofsky, director of the center. “I wouldn’t want to line up against him on a football field, but in a room with a patient, he is kind, he listens and he knows his stuff.”

The journey from his family’s bakery in Mont-Saint-Hilaire in southeastern Quebec to McGill Medical School to the NFL was circuitous—and complicated.

Matthieu Quiviger, a first-round Canadian Football League draftee who was McGill’s offensive line coach, remembers their first meeting. “For about five minutes, I thought I got stuck with him,” said Mr. Quiviger, one of only two Canadians in the 1995 East-West Shrine game. “After one practice it was clear he was better than I was after five years of play. I told him the CFL wasn’t a goal for him, the NFL was.”

Not so fast. The young man who scooted around McGill’s campus on a skateboard had a medical career in mind.

“You don't every day get someone at McGill who’s a medical student and is that skilled,” Sonny Wolfe, McGill’s head coach at the time, told me. “He was a little bit apprehensive because his academic advisors told him that playing football wouldn’t enhance his medical career.” For a while he was primarily a student, practicing only once a week. Finally he told his coach, and his professors, he could handle both medical education and football.

Later he informed Robert Primavesi, at the time the associate dean of undergraduate medical education at McGill, that both the CFL and NFL were interested in him. He asked for a few weeks off from his studies to attend a pre-draft boot camp and to be evaluated by scouts.

“The question was how to fit NFL football into the med-school schedule,” Dr. Primavesi recalled. “We figured out a way for him to take the football season off from school and return in January. We wondered whether he could excel at both. But he came back to med school with new maturity.”

A similar question presented itself in Kansas City when he became only the 10th Canadian to be drafted into the NFL from a Canadian university. But Chiefs coach Andy Reid was unfazed; his mother was one of the first female graduates of McGill’s medical school. He was all in, and so was his starting guard.

And then came the pandemic, and Dr. Duvernay-Tardif took himself out of football, though four days a week he joined virtual Chiefs team meetings. But what he saw, and experienced, jolted his perspective.

“I saw sacrifices, teamwork, remarkable balance between passion and privilege,” he said in the interview. “Professional athletes are so privileged. At some point you have to realize there is more than to life than just sports. Through your football career you build a platform — and it is important to use that platform to promote something bigger than your sport. For me it was promoting the idea of helping during one of the worst health crises.”

Dr. Duvernay-Tardif wondered whether his NFL contract requiring him to avoid physical risk in the offseason—a restriction aimed at downhill skiing and riding a motorcycle without a helmet—would constrict his activities. “I didn’t know whether what I was proposing to do, working in a Covid emergency, was a risky activity,” he said, before adding,  “Of course it was.”

His commitment off the field led Sports Illustrated to name him—along with LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers and Megan Rapinoe of the National Women’s Soccer league—as the magazine’s Sports Persons of the Year in 2020.

“When you lift the hopes of your community off the field,” said former Cincinnati Bengal linebacker Reggie Williams, a 1987 winner of that award, “that compassion fuels your power on the field.” It did so for Mr. Williams, cited for his work with high school students. It surely did so for Dr. Duverney-Tardif, who traded the risky activity of football for the risky duty of lifting the hopes of the sick.

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Email dshribman@post-gazette.com. Twitter: @ShribmanPG

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Walking away from football for year reaffirmed Super Bowl winner's humanity.