KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The day before the Kansas City Chiefs made Laurent Duvernay-Tardif their newest member, he was cradling in the biggest hands you’ll ever shake the first of tiny twins born premature.
It sure put the stress of the NFL draft into perspective.
Two years later, the medical student from Canada’s prestigious McGill University is the Chiefs’ starting offensive guard. His task is no longer taking care of infants delivered by C-section in the operating room, but taking care of quarterback Alex Smith inside Arrowhead Stadium.
“He’s a smart guy,” says Chiefs coach Andy Reid, himself a former offensive lineman. “I keep reminding his coaches that someday he might be doing surgery on you, so you better keep it right.”
The sixth-round draft pick is not the first medical student to make it in the NFL, or even the first to make it out of McGill. Jean-Phillipe Darche spent nearly a decade as a long snapper, most of it with the Seattle Seahawks but ultimately ending his career in Kansas City.
The difference with Duvernay-Tardif is that, rather than put medical school on hold until his playing career is over, he keeps plowing along. He spent this past offseason putting in residency hours, and plans to do the same next offseason. This past week, when the rest of the Chiefs enjoyed their bye, Duvernay-Tardif was taking another exam for which he’d been studying for weeks.
This isn’t simple biology, either. This is the kind of stuff that makes those often cumbersome, complicated playbooks of an NFL offense seem like reading “Goodnight Moon.”
“When you have two passions, you don’t count the hours, you just work as hard as you need to,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “I love being in med school. I love being here playing. And the good thing now is when I am here, I can focus 100 percent on football and I don’t care about med school.
“When I was back in college,” he said, “I had to do both at the same time.”
The level of play at Canadian colleges like McGill is roughly equivalent to a junior college in the U.S., so it’s not as if Duvernay-Tardif was playing in the SEC. But that was a good thing. Medical school kept him so busy that he would usually practice just once week, learning the game plan just in time to step onto the field and bulldoze some unsuspecting defensive end.
Those games gave an old high school friend, Sasha Ghavami, enough material for a highlight film that Duvernay-Tardif sent out to NFL teams. Close to a dozen sent scouts to see him work out.
His footwork needed refinement. He needed to put on muscle. But it became evident in a hurry that Duvernay-Tardif was an athlete, and his intelligence was off the charts.
“I saw potential in him within five minutes,” said Matthieu Quiviger, an assistant coach for McGill at the time. “He was the one who asks the most questions. He always wants to know. With intelligent people, you can’t tell them to do something. You have to tell them why. You have to be pretty quick on your feet and justify what you want him to do.”
Not surprisingly, Duvernay-Tardif has a particular interest in sports science. He is fascinated by the way the body works. It’s one of the main reasons he got into medicine in the first place.
So when the topic of concussions is broached, he approaches it in an analytical way.
Yes, he has read the literature — not the stuff in the media about CTE, but the kind of stuff that is found in research papers and peer-reviewed journals. He knows that playing on the offensive line in the NFL is dangerous, and puts him at a great risk for his own concussion. But he also is wise enough to know that if he ever sustains enough of them that he’ll recognize when to quit.
“I think everybody thinks about it,” Duvernay-Tardif said, “but it’s more a question of knowing the risk. Knowing the potential consequences. And asking yourself the question, ‘Is it worth it?’ I think I’m in the position where it’s worth it.”
He’s also in a unique position to help his teammates deal with the issue.
“When they look at the metabolism of the glucose inside the brain, it’s all material I can understand,” he said, “and share that knowledge with guys who want to know more about it.”
There’s a difference between book smarts and football smarts, though. They don’t always equate. But in the case of Larry, as he’s known to teammates and friends, there is a correlation.
“He’s so book smart yet he understands every rule,” Chiefs center Mitch Morse said, “so book smarts almost turn into football smarts. He can understand what’s happening in a second.”
When you combine that intelligence with impressive size (6-foot-5, 320 pounds) and speed, you get the rare combination that makes for an imposing NFL offensive lineman.
Just as he has work left in medical school, Duvernay-Tardif is still learning the ins-and-outs of professional football. He still struggles to grasp some of the more complex protections and deal with some of the exotic blitzes that are quickly becoming in vogue in the NFL.
But considering he was cradling a premature baby in his giant paws two years ago, the fact that he’s capably wrestling 300-pound defensive tackles is nothing short of extraordinary.
“I would tell you he’s still learning,” Reid said, “but he’s making improvement every week. Sometimes he can take that step back and take a little bit of a bigger step forward. I think he’s done that to this point.”