FLORHAM PARK, NJ
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif was far from a football pitch around the same time last year, when shoulder pads and playbooks gave way to scrubs and medical records.
The great New York Jets offensive lineman with a MD was on the front lines to help fight a global pandemic – and put his playing career on the back burner.
“I was part of a movement of thousands of people who returned to help, whether they were retired nurses or doctors,” said Duvernay-Tardif. “I think it gave me a different perspective on the medical system. Like, everything is so hierarchical normally, but in times of crisis, feeling that everyone is coming together and working as a team, that was pretty amazing.
Duvernay-Tardif, 30, a native of Montreal, graduated from McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine in May 2018, earning his doctorate and master’s degree in surgery while balancing his thriving football career. He was the first NFL player to step down last season due to the coronavirus pandemic, a move that did not come easily.
Duvernay-Tardif had just won a Super Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs in his sixth season in the NFL when world events pulled him down. For years his life had consisted of blocking defenders, protecting quarterbacks and plowing lanes for running backs.
But he wanted to do more.
He needed to do more.
Duvernay-Tardif was not yet licensed, so he instead worked as a care attendant in a long-term care facility in his hometown. He helped feed the patients, changed them, gave them medication, and offered a friendly face to some who were living their last days.
“Big impact, for sure,” he said of how the experience affected him. “I think it changed my perspective, both as a future doctor, but also as a football player.… I know I’m going to be involved in the medical community for the next 40 years, but I think that last year there were some special circumstances.
“And I felt like the best thing for me was to go to the front lines and help in any way I could.”
During the long days and emotionally charged nights, football remained in Duvernay-Tardif’s mind. He knew he would return to the field – only after completing his duties during the pandemic.
“I kind of promised myself when I figured out I was going to go back,” he said. “For me, it wasn’t a question of money, inheritance or whatever. It was really about playing. And it is a kind of personal challenge that I launched myself.
Montreal’s gyms were closed for several months, so he kept himself in shape by building a makeshift training station on his balcony during the winter – while the Chiefs had another Super Bowl without him.
In March, he quit working at the long-term care facility and set his sights on a return to the NFL.
He returned to the Chiefs in the spring and was greeted warmly by his teammates – and the fact that Kansas City drafted Trey Smith in the sixth round. Duvernay-Tardif broke a bone in his hand at training camp and was sidelined for several weeks, and Smith took over as the incumbent at the right guard.
Duvernay-Tardif was inactive for the Chiefs’ first seven games, then was active but did not play in Week 8. Seeking an opportunity elsewhere, he waived his no-trade clause and went transferred to the Jets for tight end Daniel Brown on Nov. 2.
He made his New York debut 12 days later, playing three special-team snaps against Buffalo. And last Sunday against Miami, Duvernay-Tardif started in right guard instead of Greg Van Roten.
“I was really happy to go back,” said Duvernay-Tardif. “That’s why I came to New York, it was to play and walk on this ground. It’s incredible. It is a blessing.
For a guy who hadn’t played since the Super Bowl in February 2020, it didn’t take long to get rid of the rust.
“I thought he did a good job,” said coach Robert Saleh. “Obviously, there will always be pieces that he wants to take back. But two years without playing football, at least in one game, so excited for him to have another opportunity and another crack. I expect it to be better this week.
Duvernay-Tardif took a crash course in Jets patterns and terminology while quickly becoming loved by his new teammates.
“Dude is a doctor, man, how crazy bro,” right tackle Morgan Moses said with a laugh. “I asked him like, ‘Hey, can you give me an IV?’ It’s like, where were you at training camp when we were all dying here?
“No, but it’s great to have him here, man.” I think he’s a great guy. Obviously you know what he did off the pitch was amazing.
Joking aside, Duvernay-Tardif admitted that some teammates asked him about his thoughts on the COVID-19 vaccine – a hot topic in the NFL and in society. It came to the fore this week when Jets quarterbacks Mike White and unvaccinated Joe Flacco were placed on the COVID-19 list.
“I think that as a healthcare professional we have a responsibility to try to give the best information possible,” said Duvernay-Tardif. “It’s a personal decision, but of course if you ask me, everyone should get the shot, so I try to state the facts and stay objective.
He has left a memorable mark on the football field already – and is only beginning to do so outside.
“Football is an incredible adventure, but it is also, for me, a way of building a platform to promote a bigger message, something that you believe in,” said Duvernay-Tardif. “And for me, it’s public health. It’s about trying to do primary prevention with children, and so on.
“So I hope what I have done will also follow me and be part of my legacy because I want to use it to try to have a bigger impact.”