Chiefs' Laurent Duvernay-Tardif on Skipping Season to Work on Frontlines & Watching His Team in Super Bowl
The 29-year-old, who completed his doctor of medicine degree in 2018 at Canada's McGill University, opted out of the season to work at a care facility in Montreal
On Sunday, as his Kansas City Chiefs teammates take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif will be watching the game alone at his home in Montreal, Canada.
"It's going to be tough, but at the same time, I know that I'm really privileged," the 29-year-old offensive lineman, who is the only medical school graduate in the NFL, tells PEOPLE ahead of the game.
Duvernay-Tardif was the first NFL player to opt-out of the 2020-2021 NFL season due to concerns over the ongoing coronavirus pandemic back in July. At the time, he had already spent several months working at a long-term healthcare facility near Montreal. And he knew he couldn't walk away from his patients.
"It was by far the hardest decision I've ever had to make," Duvernay-Tardif tells PEOPLE while talking about his partnership with antibacterial cleaning product Microban 24. "You're coming off a Super Bowl, the team's looking really good, you're in a good shape, you want to go back, you want to win. That's that simple. But at the same time, I felt like I was saying — after witnessing everything on the frontline — I was like, 'Maybe this year, my job is here, my role is here in Montreal.' "
Duvernay-Tardif first became interested in football as a teen, admittedly a little "late," he says. Initially, he wasn't envisioning a pro career for himself as he focused on medicine — instead, it "was my way to channel my excess of energy." But his skills on the field changed things.
The 6-foot-5 Duvernay-Tardif, who speaks French and English, was drafted by the Chiefs in 2014 during his third year of medical school. He completed his doctor of medicine degree in 2018 at Canada's McGill University — studying in the offseason as he shined in the NFL the rest of the year.
Last year, after his team secured Kansas City's first Super Bowl appearance in 50 years and were victorious, Duvernay-Tardif stepped up as the world faced the start of "a time of crisis" with the pandemic.
"The government here [in Canada] asked people with medical training to go back and help in those long-term care facilities to work with our elderly people and I wanted to be part of that movement," he explains. "I was able to see firsthand the impact of COVID, not only on the patient but maybe even more so on the medical workers or families, all the sacrifices."
Duvernay-Tardif continues, "I feel like after seeing that, it was hard for me to think that I would cross the border, go into States to play the sport that I love."
The NFL announced in late July that the league and player's association agreed on an amendment for players at high risk of COVID-19 complications to sit out the year, receive $350,000 and accrue a season toward free agency.
A player could opt-out later if his family member died, was hospitalized, or otherwise moved to a medical facility because of COVID-19 or a related condition, according to the league. The guidelines also stated that players not deemed high risk could obtain a $150,000 stipend toward their 2021 salary (with no accrued season) and their contracts would be applicable to the following season.
Luckily, the team and Chiefs head coach Andy Reid were on Duvernay-Tardif's side when he chose to take the opt-out. He says Reid "respected my decision and that meant a lot because, at the end of the day, I still felt like I was letting my team down a little bit."
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Between his shifts in Montreal, Duvernay-Tardif is also now a student at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "Every day you get to adapt and you really don't know what you'll be doing," he admits of life the past six months.
The entire experience, he tells PEOPLE, has really "just put things in perspective."
"I think now more than ever I value human interaction," he explains. "I value people. Even when I practiced at the long-term care facility, I used to only focus on ... medication and optimizing treatment and I feel like at some point you realize that this is important, but taking the time to interact with your patient when you know that they're not going to go back home. ... It makes you reflect on the difference between treating somebody and caring for somebody."
He also wants to highlight the less-often acknowledged workers on the frontline and is doing so through Microban 24's "Most Valuable Protector" (MVP) program.
"I've been working on the frontline for the past eight months now on and off and I've met so many people that dedicate themselves to making sure everything is clean and that's really what the program is all about, that 'most valuable protector,' " Duvernay-Tardif tells PEOPLE. "It's to shine a light on all those people that work a little bit in the dark."
The program kicked off this week with Duvernay-Tardif honoring a member of the sanitation staff who worked at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City this past season. Microban 24 is used for cleaning at stadiums around the country.
"We're going to start with people that are in Arrowhead Stadium. People who make sure that everything stays clean are not necessarily only in hospitals," he notes. "So we're going to start with Arrowhead Stadium and we're going to treat them with a pretty cool VIP experience in the NFL world. So I'm pretty excited about it."
Next season, Duvernay-Tardif hopes to be back on the field. "Right now, sports is the only thing that brings people together," he tells PEOPLE.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Chiefs are facing off at Super Bowl LV on Sunday in Tampa, Florida. The game will air on CBS at 6:30 p.m. ET.
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