Laurent Duvernay-Tardif – 2023 Testimonial Dinner Award Honouree
Date: Wednesday March 1, 2023
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif: “My goal is to do good and to help people be healthy”
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is an NFL football player, a graduate of medicine and an exemplar of community spirit
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif may not be the best player in the National Football League, but he has been dubbed “the most interesting man in the NFL” — and he’s almost certainly the busiest.
He’s the first to graduate as a medical doctor while playing in the league. He famously opted out of the 2020 season, after winning the Super Bowl, to work as an orderly in a long-term care home during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic — racing home after shifts to do virtual workouts to stay in shape for football. He’s formed a foundation to help kids stay active in sports and develop a love of the arts. He’s written a book and he’s partway through a master’s program in public health at Harvard. It could be that he sleeps, but it’s hard to know when. “I try to stay busy,” he laughs, when asked about his impossible schedule.
Also see: Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, NFL player, doctor, advocate: The road to public health policy
In truth, Duvernay-Tardif has always done everything all at once. Growing up in Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Que., outside Montreal, he cross-country skied, played badminton and soccer, as well as the violin and piano, and went on two year-long sailing trips with his family. He claims he was not, in fact, simultaneously the smartest kid and best athlete at his high school. “I wasn’t winning all the awards when it comes to sports,” he says. “I just really enjoyed team sports. Learning to win, to lose, to perform alongside someone who thinks differently than you and you might not agree with. These are the skills that are going to serve you well in life. As a kid, there is only so much you can learn in the classroom.”
He grew up thinking he would be an engineer, but that didn’t provide the human interaction he craved. “In medicine, you have anatomy and pharmacology and so on, but you also have a human in front of you. You have to adapt your treatment plan accordingly. Human behaviour is not a precise and exact science, and that nuance makes it a kind of art, and that was really fascinating for me.”
When he first got to McGill University, he dropped football to focus on his studies. He calls it the worst mistake he ever made. Where most people might think of elite athletics and medical school as two crushing workloads piled on top of each other, Duvernay-Tardif found one could allow him the break he needed from the other. “You cannot get distracted — that’s the beauty of those two worlds. They both need 100 percent of your attention and focus, and that was my way to disconnect one from the other. I feel like I was more balanced because of that.”
His performance in a college all-star game drew the attention of NFL scouts. The Kansas City Chiefs drafted him in 2014, making him just the 10th Canadian in history to be drafted out of a Canadian university. By his second year, he was the Chiefs’ starting offensive guard, still juggling medical school in the off-season and, after graduating in 2018, the demands of his residency in family medicine and emergency care.
He says his decision to step away from football for the 2020 season came down to a gut feeling. He’d been helping in a long-term care home during the pandemic’s worst days, he recalls, and when it came time to pack his bags to leave for training camp in Kansas City, “I thought, ‘This just doesn’t make sense.’ With my unique situation of having medical knowledge and being able to contribute, leaving was just not the right thing to do.”
He spent the next year doing the difficult, unglamourous work of an orderly at a facility in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, south of Montreal. Watching patients suffer from both COVID-19 and confinement to their rooms for months on end with no visitors was the toughest part of the job, he says. That and watching doctors, and especially nurses, work to the point of exhaustion, and then take on another overtime shift, only to turn on the TV and watch media reports saying all was chaos and catastrophe.
“I mean, things were bad, but people were so well-intentioned and doing their best. There was a lot of positives, a lot of love and solidarity.” It drove home for Duvernay-Tardif the importance of that human connection that pushed him into medicine. “It gave me a vision of my future role as a doctor. There are just so many things to know in medicine — guidelines and procedures, drugs, dosages, but (also) listening to people, showing empathy. Sometimes it’s the most important thing.”
His year on the COVID front lines gave him a level of fame your average offensive lineman could never hope to achieve. He won the Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award and was co-winner of the 2020 Northern Star Award (formerly Lou Marsh Trophy) as top Canadian athlete for 2020. Sports Illustrated named him one of its Sportspeople of the Year.
He returned to football the next season with the New York Jets, after the Chiefs traded him. He still loves the game, and it was a point of pride for him to prove he could step away for a year and come back to play at the highest level. He was still juggling the demands of his residency, and of something more: During the pandemic he started a master’s in public health at Harvard. He’s got a keen interest in promoting healthy lifestyles and preventative medicine and he felt the extra degree would give him the knowledge and credibility to do that as well. “I didn’t think public health was really sexy when I started but, with all the notoriety I have built, it would be a shame not to use it to promote something that I believe in.”
The same impulse drives the Laurent Duvernay-Tardif Foundation, which he started in 2017 with his long-time girlfriend, Florence Dubé-Moreau, an art curator in Montreal. The foundation sends mentors — retired teachers, student-athletes from universities, art curators — into under-resourced schools in Quebec, where they run an extracurricular program for fifth and sixth graders. The kids work on an art project one week and do sports the next. They have to do both; they can’t pick one or the other. It’s interesting — inspiring, actually — to hear a six-foot, five-inch, 320-lb. football player whose job is pushing other people around to talk about art.
“It’s always been part of my life. It’s one world where you are judged by your ideas. It’s refreshing and we need that. I know these kids are not all going to be artists, that’s not the goal, but if we can help them to think differently and to create, we need to develop that at a young age.”
It’s a lot to do. And what direction his life and career will take now may be the only problem facing a man who seems able to do anything and wants to do everything. When the Public Policy Forum talked to him in late February, he was without an NFL contract for the 2023 season, but he was in the same situation last year before signing with the Jets and he said he’s keeping all options open.
He insists politics is not in his future, despite his intelligence, his energy, his charisma, his bilingualism and his clear passion for public service (and the fact his grandfather was a cabinet minister in René Lévesque’s Quebec government in the mid-1970s). He’s convincing on the point, though we can always hope.
“My goal is to do good and to help people be healthy. Is that going to be through a practice in traditional medicine or is it going to be more through public health work, or a combination of both? That is honestly what I am trying to figure out right now.”
The safe bet is on the combination.
Profile by Mark Stevenson
Harold Calla | John Risley | Lisa Raitt | Stephanie Nolen | Janice Stein | Laurent Duvernay-Tardif