Laurent Duvernay-Tardif eager for return to the Kansas City Chiefs

Chiefs guard back after opting out in 2020

By Sam McDowell
The Kansas City Star (TNS)
Kansas City Chiefs offensive guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (76) is eager to rejoin the team this year after sitting out the 2020 season.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Laurent Duvernay-Tardif has been back in the United States for just a few days now, returning to the NFL career he temporarily left behind to serve on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in his native Canada.

Over the course of a 15-minute interview with Kansas City media Tuesday — on the heels of his first Chiefs practice in 17 months — he emphasized that he hopes the effects of a year-plus away will be minimal.

And then, in one brief reply, which he coupled with a laugh, he reminded how far removed from all of this he's been.

"My English is a little bit rusty because I spoke French for the last year," he responded to one question during his Zoom call. "Can you say that question one more time?"

In a 2020 NFL season unlike any of its predecessors, Duvernay-Tardif became the face of those who chose to opt out, essentially freezing his contract and moving it to 2021. For weeks, he'd read about the spread of the coronavirus, even fully prepared for a question about it during Super Bowl week in Miami long before it dominated news coverage.

"I think it's serious," he replied.

He'd pursued a medical degree during previous Chiefs offseasons because he felt a nudge to help people. That nudge never felt stronger than last spring. He called head coach Andy Reid and then offensive line coach Andy Heck.

"I gotta help," he said.

It wasn't about skipping anything — Duvernay-Tardif is adamant about sports' positive psychological effect and felt their return during the pandemic necessary — but rather about being pulled in a different direction. He wanted to put his medical degree to use, even though he had not completed residency training.

Ultimately, he landed at Centre d'hébergement Gertrude-Lafrance, a long-term care facility for senior citizens outside Montreal, where he served as a utility player, of sorts. On some days, he acted as a nurse. On others, an orderly or a resident.

"I think I was in the right place at the right moment, and I was able to put my medical training to use," he said.

Football didn't stray far from his mind. He built a makeshift gym on the balcony of his apartment, where he trained four times per week — rain, shine or even snow. The heaters came in handy.

Before Tuesday, he had not squeezed his head into the ear pads of a helmet since confetti poured onto it in Miami. There will likely be some rust. The best preparation for football, as he acknowledged, is actual football reps.

"I think we'll see throughout the next couple weeks and as we're heading into training camp how I feel. So far I feel great," he said. "Being away from the game for a year, of course you get rusty a little bit. But at the same time, I've never benched, cleaned or squatted as much as I did throughout the past year. So I feel in great shape, and hopefully it's going to translate on the field this year."

In the most unexpected of ways, Duvernay-Tardif received a first-hand, extended look of the second career he's pursued as his first one progresses. It's only reinforced his belief that public health is his calling, and he recently started a program at Harvard to pursue a master's degree in public health. Because what's one more responsibility?

But it too reinforced his first love.

Football.

Of course he missed it, he said bluntly. On some mornings, particularly during the postseason, he awoke and wondered what kind of practice the Chiefs were having that day — is it a shell practice or a full-speed session?

"That feeling of winning at Arrowhead Stadium in front of 80,000 people is just nuts," he said. "I want to make sure I still feel that."

He kept in touch with his teammates regularly, mostly fellow offensive linemen Andrew Wylie, Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, the latter two of whom were released this offseason. He returned to a much different room Tuesday but praised the way the organization welcomed him back.

Duvernay-Tardif watched the Super Bowl from his apartment. Alone. He'd asked for the day off work, but because of an 8 p.m. curfew, he had no other option than to park himself in front of the big-screen TV in his living room.

"That," he said, "was tough."

The Chiefs games provided something in which to look forward during a pandemic that killed patients in his facility. The games offered him a chance to get away but also recharge.

When he walked in to work on Mondays, several patients would have their TVs on the highlights from the previous day. He'd turned the facility into a mini-Chiefs Kingdom just outside Montreal.

He missed it — even if he had no regrets about the decision to leave that behind.

He has no second thoughts about this decision either — to return.

Truthfully, he has little idea about the Chiefs' immediate plans for him. He knows he wants his starting right guard spot back. But the next several weeks will determine his readiness to jump back in.

That challenge is part of the appeal. But even aside from it, he has an appreciation for Reid that has driven his return. Reid, he pointed out in an interview with The Star columnist Vahe Gregorian in February, trusted he could balance medical school and an NFL career.

The former is once again on hold during the daytime this week.

It returns nightly, with classes at Harvard. The plans for the post-NFL career only grew grander with the experiences of the past 17 months.

"I feel like the more and more I'm getting a platform, especially in Canada, it's getting harder and harder to interact one-on-one with patients because sometimes I feel the patient knows more about (me) than I know about them," he said. "I feel like public health, I can use that platform to promote health at the population level through prevention and other action. I can really have an impact, and that's why I started that program."