By studying at Harvard University, Canadian OL Laurent Duvernay-Tardif wants to improve global health

While the Kansas City Chiefs defend their Super Bowl championship, Canadian offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif will watch from afar as he fights COVID-19 on the front lines while taking online classes at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

In July, Duvernay-Tardif became the first NFL player to opt out of the 2020 season due to the coronavirus. He wanted to stay working as an orderly at a long-term care facility just outside of Montreal. It’s a role the 29-year-old will continue as he targets Harvard classes in health, social behaviour, nutrition, biostatistics and epidemiology.

“It was a really hard decision I had to make. I realized that COVID doesn’t just infect people and kill them, it also affects people outside of the hospital community, outside of the long term care facility. It puts a stress on the healthcare workers, on everybody. That really changed my perspective of the virus,” Duvernay-Tardif said.

“I want to do a masters in public health — because of the timing of my out clause, it was possible to get into the program. It was important to me to get into a program that is going to help me advance my medical curriculum and at the same time allow me to contribute on the front-line at the long-term care facility.”

The first Chiefs representative Duvernay-Tardif notified was head coach Andy Reid. The 62-year-old bench boss has been supporting the lineman’s pro football and medical aspirations since Kansas City selected him in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL draft. Superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes, tight end Travis Kelce and receiver Tyreek Hill were vocal in backing their teammate’s decision.

“It’s one thing to support one-on-one on the phone, but for coach Reid and Pat, and Trav and Tyreek, and a bunch of other guys to go in the media and be like, ‘Hey, we support what Larry is doing,’ it meant a lot to me and removed so much pressure. I’m really grateful that my teammates are behind me,” Duvernay-Tardif said.

The United States has by far the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths than any other country in the world. Duvernay-Tardif was well aware of the data and it factored into his thinking as he felt a personal risk playing in the current pandemic environment. He did stress the NFL protocols are “really, really, really strict,” but there’s still a safety concern.

“Every time you see positive news about how there is not a lot of cases in the NFL, you’re like, ‘Hey, did I make the right decision?’ I’m sure I did, I did what was right for me personally. It’s a sport that I love and that I want to play. On the other hand I want to show that five, ten years from now I am comfortable with the call that I made and I follow my convictions,” Duvernay-Tardif said.

The NBA and NHL restarted and are finishing their seasons in bubble or hub city environments. However, the NFL is taking a different approach. Players, coaches and executives are coming and going to team facilities from home. The approaches are different but both are currently working. Onlookers are curious to see if anything changes when the NFL starts travelling for games.

“You have a bubble on one side, and on the other side it is based on risk mitigation with a lot of testing, and making sure that we don’t let the virus come in the building, even though players are going back home at night. It puts more pressure on the players to behave the way they should, but so far it’s been outstanding how low the amount of cases has been,” Duvernay-Tardif said.

Even though Duvernay-Tardif hasn’t been preparing for the season in Kansas City, he’s been in touch with teammates and can feel the hype. The Chiefs kick-off the entire NFL schedule against the Houston Texans on Thursday night. During the last meeting in the AFC Divisional round, Mahomes led KC back from 24 points down in a thrilling 51-31 victory.

“I’m looking forward to it, but it’s weird that I won’t be there playing. I don’t know how I’m going to feel watching the game,” Duvernay-Tardif said.

In his mind, the Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Que. native plans to be back with Kansas City for the 2021 campaign. He made that clear to Reid when the two discussed his choice to watch from Canada instead of play this year. Duvernay-Tardif will fit a pro athlete training regimen in his busy schedule to be in peak physical condition for returning to the field after serving Canadian citizens and advancing as a doctor.

“As NFL players, we are privileged to have notoriety in the media, being able to promote a message that not only resonates at a youth level, but everybody can get behind,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “You’re going to end up improving global health and I want to be able to do that.”

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.