Since its founding as a mission colony 380 years ago, this city has had many prominent figures. But perhaps Montreal’s greatest contemporary hero is known for what he didn’t do. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif did not play football in 2020.
As we approach football’s Super Bowl, consider a story of heroism and sacrifice. Duvernay-Tardif would be the first to say that the doctors and nurses who were his colleagues—replacements for the offensive linemen who might otherwise have stood by him in that pandemic-scarred year—were the real heroes. Let’s take his point of view, but also take a look at what selflessness and teamwork mean to 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 at a long-term care facility in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, 45 minutes from Montreal.
“I felt a disconnect between what was happening to me, celebrating the Super Bowl, and what was happening in the world,” 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 vanish into the crowd at his new workplace: The new kid walking across the second floor of CHSLD Gertrude-Lafrance was 6-foot-5. He weighed 321 pounds. Plus: He has a medical degree, only the fourth player 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 swapped his white coat for a New York Jets uniform, but his experience with long-term patients has changed, or perhaps reaffirmed, his perspective. “The more time I spent in the long-term care home,” she wrote in her new book, “Red Zone: From the Offensive Line to the Front Lines of the Pandemic,” “the more I realized how much, during my medical school, I had drifted away from the main reason I wanted to be a doctor: to help people.
Though Chiefs and Jets fans imagine him in the locker room, he began his medical residency this past July in the examination rooms of the Herzl Family Practice Center at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital. “He’s done it all: clinic, long-term care, urgent care,” said Mark Karanofsky, director of the center. “I wouldn’t want to take sides against him on a soccer field, but in a room with a patient he’s nice and listens and knows his stuff.”
The journey from his family’s bakery in Mont-Saint-Hilaire in southeastern Quebec to McGill Medical School and the NFL was tortuous and complicated.
Matthieu Quiviger, a Canadian Football League first-round draftee who was McGill’s offensive line coach, recalls their first meeting. “For about five minutes, I thought I was stuck with him,” said Quiviger, one of only four Canadians in the 1995 East-West Shrine Bowl. “After one practice, it was clear that he was better than me after five years of playing. I told him the CFL wasn’t a goal for him, the NFL was.
Not so fast. The young man who cruised around the McGill campus on a skateboard had a medical career in mind.
“It’s not every day you find someone at McGill who is a medical student and is this accomplished,” Sonny Wolfe, McGill’s head coach at the time, told me. “He was a little concerned because his academic advisers had told him that playing football would not improve his medical career.” For a while he was mainly a student, practicing only once a week. Finally, he told his coach and his professors that he could do both medical education and football.
Later, he informed Robert Primavesi, then associate dean of undergraduate medical education at McGill, that both the CFL and the NFL were interested in him. He asked for a few weeks off from school to attend a pre-draft training camp and be evaluated by scouts.
“The question was how to fit NFL football into the medical school curriculum,” Primavesi recalled. “We figured out a way to have him take football season out of school and come back in January. We wondered if he could excel at both. But he returned to med school with a new Abitur.
A similar question arose in Kansas City when he became just the tenth Canadian to be drafted to the NFL by a Canadian university. But Chiefs coach Andy Reid was unmoved; his mother was one of the first female graduates of McGill’s medical school. Reid was all in, as was his opening guard.
And then the pandemic hit and Duvernay-Tardif retired from football, although he did join the Chiefs’ virtual squad meetings four days a week. But what he saw and experienced upset his perspective of him.
“I’ve seen sacrifices, teamwork, a remarkable balance of passion and privilege,” he said in the interview. “Professional athletes are so privileged. At some point, you have to realize that there is more to life than just sports. Through your football career you build a platform and it’s 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.”
Duvernay-Tardif wondered whether his NFL contract that required him to avoid physical hazards in the offseason — a restriction aimed at alpine skiing and riding a motorcycle without a helmet — would limit his activities. “I didn’t know if what I set out to do, working in a COVID emergency, was a risky business,” he said, before adding, “Of course it was.”
His off-court efforts led Sports Illustrated to name him — along with Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James, tennis champion Naomi Osaka, WNBA’s Breanna Stewart and Duvernay-Tardif Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes — as their 2020 Sportspersons of the magazine of the year.
“When you raise the hopes of your community off the field,” said former Cincinnati Bengal linebacker Reggie Williams, winner of that award in 1987, “that compassion fuels your power on the field.” He did it for Williams, cited for his work with high school students. He certainly did it for Duvernay-Tardif, who traded the risky business of football for the risky task of raising the hopes of the sick.