In July 2020, Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif became the first NFL player to opt out of the 2020 NFL season. Duvernay-Tardif opted instead to continue his work at a long-term care facility in his hometown of Montreal during the coronavirus pandemic. A medical school graduate from McGill University in Canada, Duvernay-Tardif, 30, started assisting as an orderly shortly after he won Super Bowl LIV with the Chiefs in February 2020. In his opt-out announcement on social media, Duvernay-Tardif called the decision one of the most difficult of his life. Prior to opting out, Duvernay-Tardif had been the Chiefs' starting right guard for the past five seasons, and he played every offensive snap during the team's Super Bowl win over the San Francisco 49ers.
Throughout the pandemic, Duvernay-Tardif continued to train for a return to the football field. In a June minicamp, his starting spot was occupied by a rookie, sixth-round draft pick Trey Smith. In a few weeks, he will have the opportunity at training camp to earn back his job.
Duvernay-Tardif was named the winner of the Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award Saturday at The ESPYS. He will be honored with finalists Layshia Clarendon, Anthony Rizzo and Titus O'Neil during the Sports Humanitarian Awards on July 12.
In his own words, Duvernay-Tardif describes what it meant to opt out of the 2020 season and why he wants to make an impact beyond the football field.
I'VE ALWAYS TRIED to be the best athlete on the field. But I've also always wanted to be the best human being off the field.
I have no regrets when it comes to opting out of the 2020 NFL season and working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in a long-term care facility. I knew that my purpose this last year was to use my medical background to care for others. My role wasn't to play football, but instead to be on the front lines of the global pandemic.
I went from winning the Super Bowl with my Chiefs teammates in Miami to celebrating with them during the parade in Kansas City with over one million people to working on the front lines in a long-term care facility.
I don't think what I did was heroic. And some days, at the long-term care facility, what I was doing definitely couldn't be described as heroic.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I wanted to go back and help in a physician's role. I don't have my license to practice yet, so that was impossible to do. But I wanted to help however I could and that ended up being as a nurse/orderly in the facility. Basically, I would do everything my bosses wanted me to do. My duties ranged from feeding people, changing people, administering medicine, just caring for them however I could. I realized that no matter what I was doing, at the end of the day, taking care of someone is not about just treating them at all costs. It's about caring.
I never knew what I was walking into when I got to work each day. It was pretty hectic. Some days, there would be no issues. Other days, you'd get a patient with a runny nose and next thing you know there would be eight patients who tested positive. We had emergency red zones where positive patients would have to reside. It was hard. We lost a lot of patients.
This past year really changed me.
I always saw medicine as a way to cure people. I wanted to send people back home with good news. Working on the front lines and in red zones in the long-term care facility was a new environment for me as a medical professional. I quickly realized that, because of COVID, people were not going to be returning home. And it gave me a different perspective on life. It gave me a different perspective on football. It gave me a different perspective on everything.
I always viewed medicine as a way to help me cope with some of the pressure of sports. When I decided to pursue a career in medicine while playing professional football, I experienced a new level of pressure beyond the field. What I witnessed in the emergency room could directly help me when it came to playing football and being in a high-stress environment. It helped me optimize my performance on the field. But ultimately, working in the medical field helped me define myself as more than a football player.
This past year, I got a different sense of what really matters in life. I saw so much suffering. I saw so much resilience. The healthcare workers displayed resilience like I've never seen before.
You think that playing a team sport makes you a team player? Maybe, but look at people on the front lines, and you will see what it means to be a team player. Every day, the front-line workers had to work as a team if they wanted to survive the pandemic.
When I first opted out of the 2020 season, I needed some time for myself. I didn't have a chance to really talk about my decision with my teammates beyond what I tweeted in July 2020. As much as I wanted to get into all of it, I actually had to focus on the work in the long-term care facility. But in the middle of the season, I started reaching out to teammates. I still felt like I was part of the team. It felt like that connection to the Chiefs never left, despite being more than 1,000 miles away. Football is in my DNA. That's never leaving, even if I'm on the front lines.
During the winter, as the team was approaching playoffs, that's when I really wanted to play football. I remember really feeling like even though I was far away in another country, I was still part of the Chiefs. And I wanted to continue to be part of the Chiefs.
Due to COVID-19, fitness centers were closed in Montreal. I decided to build a weight room on the balcony of my apartment to stay in shape and be ready for anything. I put all my emphasis and my focus into strictly training. I've actually never trained like that before, but I feel stronger and faster and healthier than ever. I would train multiple times a week, despite how cold it would be or how tired I would be, because I knew that I wanted to stay in football shape, but I also needed something to ground me. I trained to stay grounded and take my mind away from what I was experiencing on the front lines.
Just as training allowed me to stay grounded, watching the Chiefs play every week helped me stay grounded. It provided a release from the pandemic. During one of the toughest times, I was able to watch the Chiefs play on TV. It provided a source of entertainment during a really dark time. And I don't think I'm alone in feeling like sports brought us together during this pandemic. Sports is a connective tissue of our society. When I would watch the Chiefs play on TV, I remember feeling a sense of hope. Hope that society was going to return back to normal at some point.
But it wasn't just watching the Chiefs play on TV. It was going into work on Monday morning, after working a Sunday night shift, and watching the replays with my patients.
Some patients were big football fans, and I knew that when I woke them up in the morning to give them their medication, we would talk about last night's game and watch replays. Even though I would be completely covered up in my scrubs, visor, mask, there would be an intimate connection there because of football. Sharing moments like that reminded me that I was there for a purpose. It also reminded me that I wasn't there to just treat patients, but I was there to care for patients. Taking that time to connect made a difference -- for not only them, but for me, too. Many of my patients weren't going to return home. They weren't going to receive cures for their diseases. I wanted to make sure that I did anything to bring some positivity to their lives. And if some days that meant talking football, then that's a great thing.
About a month after Super Bowl LV, I stopped working in the long-term care facility. I wanted to get back to working out full time and getting ready for Chiefs minicamp practices. I know the odds of me not being able to come back to play on the Chiefs. I know that being away for a year is basically like being injured for a whole season. Nothing is guaranteed. There's always pressure. There's always competition. It's a risk that I took, but I'm comfortable with it. And when I decided that I would stop working in the long-term care facility, I knew that I needed to give myself the best opportunity to come back stronger than ever before.
When I showed up to minicamp in June, I was anxious. I was nervous to see if it was still going to feel like home. But the minute I showed up, I couldn't help but think about how good it felt to be back. More than that, though, I couldn't help but think about how privileged I was to be back. It is a privilege to be able to walk on the football field. And my experience on the front lines allowed me to feel that sense of privilege. It gave me a new perspective on everything related to football.
My teammates and coaches played a huge role in making me feel welcome again. In the first huddle of minicamp practice, coach Andy Reid yelled out, "Hey Doc, welcome back!" That little sentence meant everything to me. The acknowledgment. It felt so special to get back out there.
When I first called Coach Reid to tell him that I was opting out of the 2020 season, he told me he completely understood and supported me. Of course, he was surprised. But I never felt like I didn't have his support. And that support lifted a tremendous amount of weight off my shoulders last year. Returning to the field and hearing him say, "Hey Doc," is part of the reason why I'm returning and why I'm doing everything I can to be a starter.
Before being drafted, in 2014, Coach Reid was the only coach that I encountered that understood the importance of medical school in my life. He knew I needed to pursue medicine to reach a balance on and off the field. A lot of people doubted me. A lot of people couldn't understand how I was going to balance medical school and professional football. But Coach Reid never doubted me. If it was not for him, there's no way I would've been able to go back every offseason and report late every year for the past seven years in order to graduate. He helped me every step of the way. He helped get me to where I am today.
As a professional athlete, my responsibility has been to be the best football player that I can be when I step onto the field. But at the end of the day, for me, what matters most is to be able to use that platform to promote something bigger than just our sport.
When I decided to opt out and return to the front lines, I wanted to show the next generation of student-athletes that it's possible to be bigger than your sport. It's important to showcase the impact that education can have on your career and life. It's important to showcase that balance is necessary. That you are more than your sport and you are capable of making an impact beyond the field or court.
In 2016, I started the LDT Foundation. The purpose was to promote balance between sports, education and arts. The goal is to help students find their passions and pursue those passions at the highest level while still being well-rounded.
IN MY OWN LIFE, I don't know what's next. But I know that I'm going to always pursue medicine, public health and philanthropy. No matter what happens in my professional football career, I will always be using my platform to promote those things.
In a few weeks, I'll fly back to Kansas City for training camp. I wouldn't be able to return to the field if it wasn't for healthcare workers. I don't like to be called a hero because I don't think I was a hero for opting out. But I do think that if I can shed a light on the actual heroes that I worked with every single day on the front lines, then I did part of my job.
It's been almost a year since I decided to opt out, and I am grateful for the recognition and applause that I receive for returning to the front lines. But when I am being elevated, I want to elevate all of the other front-line and healthcare workers who didn't receive public recognition and applause. They are the real heroes. They put everything on the line in order to care for other people and protect our society. I followed their sacrifices. I may get the spotlight, especially as I attempt to return to the field, but they really deserve it.