Laurent Duvernay-Tardif's Balancing Act

With a newly minted medical degree, the Chiefs' $41M right guard knows fully the danger football poses to his health and future, but he loves the game too much to quit.
photo of David GardnerDavid Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterSeptember 19, 2018

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Seated at a long wooden table in the back corner of a trendy downtown coffee shop, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif looks like an aspiring screenwriter. With a MacBook angled open to his left, he's dressed in a plain black T-shirt and wearing AirPods. He hunches over a stack of papers and marks meaningful passages with an orange Sharpie highlighter. This is a rare day off from his actual job, which requires every bit of the 6'5", 321-pound frame he lifts from his chair to greet me.

For the past four seasons, Duvernay-Tardif has blocked and pancaked his way to become one of the NFL's best—and highest-paid—right guards as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs. And for the past four offseasons, the Quebec native has studied and practiced to become a graduate of Canada's prestigious McGill University medical school. In May, he became the only active NFL player who is also a medical doctor. Dr. Duvernay-Tardif has been profiled by the New York Times and HBO's Real Sports. And the NFL's decision to deny him the letters "M.D." on the back of his jersey made international news.

More than publicity, what Duvernay-Tardif desires is to be understood. Three weeks before this early-September off day, he suffered the second concussion of his NFL career. The injury raises the question of why someone who wants to be a doctor is putting himself, and his brain, in a situation that could make that impossible.

"The bottom line is that right now, I'm more attracted to football than anything else in my life," he tells B/R. "It's a no-brainer for me to keep playing, even with the risks. But that doesn't mean you stop asking yourself the questions. When you question something, people think you don't want it. But if I question football and then decide to keep playing, that means I want it more than anything."

As he flips over his papers to reveal he's been reading a study from The Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation, it's clear he isn't choosing to ignore the dangers, but that he has accepted them. The balance between his two passions, he believes, makes him better at both.

"Ten years down the road, I don't want people to think I was saying concussions weren't an issue," he says. "What I am is a football player who accepts the risks, and a doctor who tries his best to understand them. I have to be comfortable in both worlds."

Five days after he got the concussion, Duvernay-Tardif was texting and watching the Chiefs play a preseason game at Atlanta on TV. He wanted to tell his longtime friend and Canadian agent, Sasha Ghavami, about a list of projects and ideas he had for after the season. For the past four years, he's gone straight from the final Chiefs game to Canada to start medical school rotations—and then straight from rotations to OTAs. But because his schedule made it impossible to apply for his physician's residency before the deadline, next year could be his first free summer since college.

Ghavami asked him: "Are you worried you'll be bored?"

He was. Duvernay-Tardif has been working since he was 12. Back then, his family owned a vineyard outside Montreal and sold wine at trade shows and farmers markets. Laurent convinced his parents to make a little space for him at the table. Then he planted some basil, bought big drums of olive oil and cloves of garlic and jarred his own pesto. "And this pesto needed to be seriously good," he jokes. "I wasn't cute enough to get any sympathy purchases." He made more than $2,000 that summer.

The next summer, he built a chicken coop and bought 100 chicks to raise and sell as organic, farm-fresh poultry. "That was a bad business," he says. "I only made like $500 in three months." Later ventures included crafting wooden reindeer around Christmas, selling soup to fund a trip to Peru and slinging a caramel spread to finance an adventure in Italy.

Football wasn't a big part of his childhood. There wasn't time. When he was 10, and then again at age 15, his family—he has two younger sisters—embarked on yearlong sailing trips. On each, they cruised down the eastern coast of Canada and the United States and ended up in the Caribbean. His parents hoped to show their children that making money wasn't life's end goal, and that they didn't need a lot of it to live adventurously. So they would pack the boat with rice and canned vegetables and catch fish each day to eat. At night, a teenage Laurent would listen to his Walkman and guide the vessel as he stared at the stars. "It's a feeling of freedom," he says, "that you can't find anywhere else."

At CEGEP, a pre-university academic program in Quebec, Duvernay-Tardif became a football star on the defensive line—and decided he wanted to be a doctor. There he also met Sasha, who dreamed of being a sports agent one day and joked with Laurent that he would represent him in the NFL. Duvernay-Tardif had fallen in love with football at CEGEP, but he quit when he was accepted into McGill's medical school. At the time, he only spoke French—and McGill's classes were only in English. He needed to learn a language, not a playbook.

For the first few weeks of school, he struggled and his grades slipped. He thought it might have been the language barrier, but he was making an extra effort to double-check his lectures against a French-English dictionary. He realized not playing football had left him in a funk. He needed that mind-body balance. The coaches had given Laurent an open invitation to walk on, and after his first day, they were so impressed that they told him he could show up whenever it fit in his schedule—as long as he pledged to play in the games.

That winter, head coach Clint Uttley wanted to emphasize offense and asked co-offensive line coach Matthieu Quiviger to help Laurent transition to the other side of the ball. After one practice, Quiviger told the other coaches Laurent was bound for the NFL. And he told Uttley—who was also the team's defensive coordinator—that he'd kill him if he tried to take Duvernay-Tardif back. "People say all the time now, 'It's amazing you saw something in him,'" Quiviger says. "'It's not amazing. I'm sure Wayne Gretzky's midget coach saw something in him, too. It was that obvious from the start."

Duvernay-Tardif was not technically skilled, but he was powerful and quick. He also had an uncommon aggression that, combined with his habit of sleeping in the locker room in medical scrubs so he didn't miss early-morning practices, earned him the nickname "Dr. Kill" from teammates. "Everybody hated him in practice," Quiviger says. "He had two speeds: the perfect humble gentleman off the field or the perfect asshole on it. Whistle to whistle he would just crush people without apology."

When it became clear there was interest from the NFL, Laurent called Sasha, who sacrificed the final week of a semester abroad in Australia to help his old friend turn pro. They signed their first contract on a bar napkin between swigs of beer.

But there was a problem. At the time, strangers and advisers alike told Laurent he couldn't play football and pursue medicine. That's not a choice he wanted to make. Soon after that napkin was signed, Duvernay-Tardif and Ghavami took a road trip to Philadelphia to watch the Eagles play the Redskins in November 2013. As Laurent watched the players sprint out of the tunnel, he knew he needed to experience that rush. So he made it clear to the NFL teams who came calling that he wouldn't play unless he could continue medical school.

"Coaches before the draft all asked me, 'How do we know you'll commit to football?'" Laurent says. "But [Kansas City] coach [Andy] Reid was the opposite. He said, 'If you're here, even though you have medicine, you must really love football.' He was the first person who really got it."

Duvernay-Tardif thought he might be selected on the second day of the 2014 draft. When he was called in to assist on an emergency cesarean section that afternoon, he handed his phone to a nurse and told her to say yes to any team that wanted to draft him. She had no idea what he was talking about, but the phone didn't ring. When the Chiefs selected him the next day, in the sixth round, he asked his parents if they were sure he should play football. They told him that if he didn't try, he'd regret it forever.

With his McGill advisers, he worked out a plan to finish medical school in four four-month blocks, but they also gave him a hard deadline: May 2018. If he hadn't graduated by then, he'd have to start over. He met the deadline, but after graduating and grinding through another training camp this summer, Laurent finds himself with another choice to make.

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif spent the last four offseasons at McGill working to complete his medical degree, which he did this summer.
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif spent the last four offseasons at McGill working to complete his medical degree, which he did this summer.Vincent Ethier for LDT Foundation

"All of my focus of the past eight years has been finishing my degree while playing football," he says. "Now that I've graduated, I'm thinking, What's the next challenge?"

He told Ghavami he had an idea: He wanted to get an MBA.

Duvernay-Tardif is distracted. In an Uber on the way to a restaurant near Brush Creek, he's sucked into his phone screen. He looks up, apologizes and explains: It's cutdown day, and his Canadian friend and offensive lineman Ryan Hunter didn't make the final roster. Hunter, an undrafted free agent from Bowling Green, had been crashing in Duvernay-Tardif's spare bedroom as he battled for his place on the team.

The uncertainty reminded Duvernay-Tardif of his first offseason. When he introduced himself to teammates at camp, he axed off the branches of his breathily pronounced name, salvaging only the misshapen stump of "Larry." He was still struggling with English, but the rookie linemen were each expected to tell a joke to the rest of the group every Friday. So Duvernay-Tardif would Google a joke the night before, deliver it without understanding the punchline and then pretend to laugh along with the group.

There was nothing comical about his play, though. He took pleasure in pancaking opponents—even though they were all his future teammates. Knowing how aggressive he'd be, he tried to take out an insurance plan on his hands to protect their medical future, but it was too expensive.

In addition to learning the playbook, he also had to learn how to pay taxes, how to apply for a work visa and how to get a driver's license. He found a 1981 Jeep on the side of the road for sale and bought it on sight, hoping it might also buy him the respect of some teammates. Instead, he discovered too late that he didn't fit in the car when the hard top was on. So during his first Kansas City winter, he rode home from the facility with two jackets and a beanie on, shivering underneath the soft top.

"I'm preoccupied by the perception that I'm not committed to football," he says. "People who think that don't know my story. I have a nice contract now. But back then, it was a stretch to think I would be drafted and an even bigger stretch to think I'd make a team. And I put medicine on hold for a year just for the chance to probably be cut in training camp. That was a huge risk."

Duvernay-Tardif has emerged as one of the anchors of the Chiefs offensive line, starting 40 of the 43 games he has played since he was drafted in 2014.
Duvernay-Tardif has emerged as one of the anchors of the Chiefs offensive line, starting 40 of the 43 games he has played since he was drafted in 2014.Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

He started his first game in September 2015, and but for a few injuries has remained a starter since. In 2017, the Chiefs called him at home in Canada and offered a five-year, $41.25 million extension. When he shared the news with his parents, they told him to return to the hospital the next day or he may never finish his degree. So he told the Chiefs to wait a day, he completed a round in the geriatric unit, and then he flew to Kansas City to become a multimillionaire.

For the most part, he has tried to keep his studies and his sport separate. But occasionally there's been overlap. Once, in 2015, he had to take an orthopedic exam during the bye week, which happened to fall after the team beat the Lions in London. On the 11-hour flight home, as his teammates celebrated, Duvernay-Tardif studied. At home in the offseason, he sometimes scrambles into the gym while wearing a suit top and gym shorts. "He almost never misses a session," says Eric Fafard, his personal trainer, "but if he does, he always has a good excuse—like assisting in a heart surgery."

To avoid distractions as he studied for his boards this spring, Duvernay-Tardif sequestered himself with his girlfriend, Florence, at a friend's shack in the woods. Sometimes, to further isolate himself, he studies in the tub. Florence laughs when she walks in to find the papers he inevitably drops in the water drying. When he has to go on long drives, he prepares by recording himself explaining difficult material so he can listen to it on the road.

Given what he's learned about both of his fields, it's impossible for him to escape the questions about how safe football is to play. But here again, Duvernay-Tardif finds himself torn between the thrill he gets from the sport with the understanding that he and other players have more to learn about the damage football can do to one's brain and body.

Having been through the league's concussion protocol twice, he believes the process is sound but has room for improvement. Players need to be better educated about identifying the symptoms at the time and the long-term risks of trying to play through head trauma. And because many of the symptoms of a concussion can be subjective (or do not appear immediately), it's theoretically possible to fake your way through the evaluation. He felt that temptation for a fleeting moment during his first concussion, in a playoff game against the Texans in 2016. But he knew the risks were too great if he tried to get back onto the field.

Throughout his career, after every injury, Duvernay-Tardif asks himself the same question: Is football still worth it? Over and over again—through every sprained MCL or hurt shoulder or concussion—the answer has been yes. Football makes him feel alive. "When I'm here in Kansas City, I give football everything I've got. There's too much at stake for me just to punch a clock. When you're not locked in, that's when you're at risk for injuries. But when I'm here, I'm all the way here. I get to do what I love, and I get to do it with a great team in front of thousands of fans every weekend. When I'm done, I'll miss it dearly. That's why I keep going, even when it requires sacrifice."

And on days like today, when he watches a friend's dream wither as both of his grow, his sacrifices seem small.

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif can't stop moving. Almost two years ago, he started a foundation to encourage school kids to keep moving, too. This spring, when he wasn't making his medical rounds, he toured Canada in a refurbished school bus packed with all the equipment he and his volunteers needed to put on a jam-packed day of activities in the schools they visited. The event was, quite appropriately, called the "Move With LDT! Tour."

When he speaks to the students, he tells them they don't have to choose between their passions. He hasn't. And he tells them that life is best with a balance among many interests. "That's him," says Ghavami. "That's who he is. Forget that he plays in the NFL. Forget that he studies medicine. He could have been a badminton player and an elementary school teacher, and he would have been the best at both. His story isn't about being a doctor or playing in the NFL, it's about not surrendering when society tells you not to dream."

With all of his interests, Duvernay-Tardif is asked if he has considered retiring—if he can even imagine a life without work. He says he'd like to travel—he wants to spend a month in a foreign country for every year he plays football—but then quickly diverts back to the present. It's clear that one of the ways he succeeds is by never straying too far from the task at hand. On his Google Drive, he keeps a blank document with short-, medium- and long-term goals. Short-term covers the week; medium-term covers the season (like picking the next partners for the foundation); and long-term is where he dreams (like potentially pursuing the MBA).

"My biggest fear is doing nothing," he says. "When you start downsizing your expectations of what you can do with your time, it's hard to go back. If I spend an offseason doing nothing, I don't know if that drive will come back. That scares me more than anything."

On the first day of the Move with LDT! Tour, he drove the bus about five hours up from Montreal to Chicoutimi. On the day of the event, he helped set up the stations of activities with volunteers, and then he played all day with the kids, rotating from spikeball to basketball to the obstacle course. At the end of the day, he returned to the bus exhausted. The seats are too small for him, so he plopped down with a pillow right in the aisle. As he drifted off to sleep, he listened to one of his own audio notes, preparing for whatever test might come next.


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