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When Super Bowl LV kicks off Sunday, at least one hulking human — a 6-foot-5, 320-pound offensive lineman with an especially vested interest in the outcome — will watch it all by himself.
In many ways, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is as excited for it as he is nervous. He started for the Kansas City Chiefs’ 2019 Super Bowl championship team, and he knows the itch to get back to the game will be clawing at him as much as ever since he became the first NFL player to opt out of the 2020 season due to COVID.
“You know, winning at Arrowhead Stadium in front of 80,000 people ... It's a feeling that’s almost like a drug,” said Duvernay-Tardif, who spoke to Yahoo Sports on behalf of Microban 24’s “Most Valuable Protector” program. “There were plenty of times during the season that I was like, ‘I've got to be down there.’
“But I also knew what I signed up for.”
Indeed. But in 2018, when Duvernay-Tardif became the first active NFL player to become a medical doctor, he had no idea it would lay the foundation to one day sacrifice an entire season of his prime to further serve his community.
That’s exactly what happened this season, when the native Canadian continued his offseason work as an orderly in a long-term care facility just outside of Montreal as a way of fighting against the pandemic.
“I feel like it was the right call for me to make, to err on the side of caution,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “Like, there were so many things that were unknown back then and that are still unknown, that I just felt like I had to make that call in order to live well with that decision 10 years from now when I'm going to be full-time in the medical world.”
Still, it was a tough decision for Duvernay-Tardif. He was happy to see the league carry on as it inches toward the completion of a full season despite the pandemic.
“Football is probably the only thing that brings people together now these days, and we need that, we need that to help us go through this crisis. That's what sports can do,” Duvernay-Tardif said.
And while the itch to play has arisen a few times this season, the overwhelming support he received from Chiefs coach Andy Reid and his teammates always reinforced his choice.
“It means a lot because to be honest, when I made that decision, I felt like I was letting my team down. And I was to a certain extent, you know?” Duvernay-Tardif said. “So feeling the support from coach Reid, from the guys, not only over the phone but also in the media and press conferences, it really means a lot. It's what the team is all about.”
Duvernay-Tardif also knows Reid’s support comes from a sincere place since he has always been understanding and accommodating of Duvernay-Tardif’s medical dreams, which certainly isn’t a given in a sport filled with coaches intent on finding players who are “only” about football.
“Back in 2014, he was the only coach that, during the pre-draft visit, saw the medical school thing as a cool thing, as a positive thing, and he said he was going to help me and that's really what he did,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “So when I called him and he was like, ‘Yes I support you, I understand what you're what you're trying to accomplish,’ it really meant a lot.”
So after announcing his decision in July, Duvernay-Tardif carried on to a new pattern, a new rhythm without the very sport that has played the pre-eminent role in his life for the past decade.
Since then, he has spent two to three days a week working with patients at a Quebec long-term care facility, doing everything from changing them to feeding them to putting in IVs and doing blood draws. On the side, he’s also advanced his medical curriculum by starting a master's program in public health at Harvard.
Yet it’s Duvernay-Tardif’s experiences in the facility — and the things he has seen — that won’t soon be forgotten.
“When somebody tests positive and you’ve got to rush into their room and basically, like, strip them of their belongings and send them into a red zone, there's some stuff that ... you know the odds that they might not be coming back,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “And it's such a fragile and vulnerable population that you're working with that you also take a big responsibility on making sure that you don't bring the virus in the building. So ... I was never really scared of COVID for myself, but that idea of potentially doing harm to my patient because I exposed myself in the community ... that's something that you've got to live with, too.”
The COVID situation has been evolving in Quebec. Right now it has a curfew, he said, and he has to be home by 8 every night, which means he can't really see anybody.
Gone is the apartment he used to rent as a transitional zone, where he showered and washed his clothes with special soap before going home in order to protect his loved ones from any virus exposure he might have brought from the facility.
Interestingly enough, he could rejoin the NFL sooner rather than later. He haas stayed in shape, lifting regularly while consulting with a team of nutritionists and trainers. Duvernay-Tardif also received the first dose of the COVID vaccine two weeks ago and expects to get the second within the next month
“I feel pretty good,” Duvernay-Tardif said, “and the good thing too is that I don't have all the impact of a full season on my body. I feel like I'm going to hit this offseason pretty fresh and ready to go.”
So much so that Duvernay-Tardif went as far to say that he’s focused on getting back to Kansas City in July, even though no one is sure how COVID will affect the NFL’s schedule for the next several months.
In the meantime, Duvernay-Tardif will enjoy rooting for his friends to finish the journey they started in July on Sunday, when the Chiefs try to beat Tampa Bay to become the first team since the 2004 Patriots to go back-to-back.
“It's one thing to go down there and win the Super Bowl, but to go back for a second year in a row with COVID, with all the uncertainty and I mean, even though we had a good team, you've still got to do it every week for 16 weeks,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “I'm really proud of the guys and I'm going to be rooting for them on Sunday.”
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