Months earlier, Duvernay-Tardif had stood on the grass field at Hard Rock Stadium, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy amid red and yellow confetti. As an offensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs, Duvernay-Tardif blocked for Patrick Mahomes in Super Bowl LIV and celebrated in front of more than 62,000 fans. Now, surrounded by nervous and exhausted colleagues at an 8:30 a.m. staff meeting, he listened to a somber update.
The coronavirus outbreak in the hospital had worsened. No staff members could take vacation for several months. Many of them would be forced to work overtime. Duvernay-Tardif saw some of his colleagues cry. Ten minutes later, they were back at the bedside of patients, most of whom were sick and dying, offering comfort as best they could with smiles on their faces.
“The definition of what it means to be a hero changed because of those people,” Duvernay-Tardif said.
Duvernay-Tardif did not play a down this season, but he was a towering figure of this surreal NFL year. In July, shortly before training camps opened, Duvernay-Tardif opted out of the season so he could work at the covid-19-stricken long-term-care facility near his native Montreal, putting to use the medical degree he earned from McGill University, which he finished during the first four years of his pro career. He traded his helmet for a mask and face shield.
On Jan. 22, two days before the Chiefs won the AFC championship game, Duvernay-Tardif reflected on the past year in a lengthy interview. He said he is proud of the league he temporarily has left, and he believes in its power to connect people at a moment when connecting is difficult. He still loves winning football games, and he wants to do it again. He has watched the Chiefs return to the Super Bowl from afar, viewing games with the sound low because he finds the announcers distracting.
The fall and winter have given Duvernay-Tardif, who turns 30 this month, new admiration for orderlies and nurses who have cared for vulnerable patients and witnessed tragedy while risking their health for low pay. The past seven months have redefined his notion of heroism but reinforced how much he values sports. He believes he made the right decision, but at times he questioned it, and he wonders how he will feel about it a decade from now.
“It was never black or white,” he said. “As the season progressed and the stakes are higher, I do miss football even more, especially now with the playoffs. There’s more than one way to look at it, and it’s not always simple.”
Calling an audible
Weeks after last year’s Super Bowl, seeking a respite between football season and medical classes, Duvernay-Tardif sailed a 40-foot boat around the Caribbean with his girlfriend. It was going to be a long trip, but he started reading updates about a virus that had escaped Wuhan, China, and spread around the globe. Duvernay-Tardif changed their return date to March to avoid getting stranded.
Duvernay-Tardif had a medical degree but not a license to practice. Shortly after returning from his trip, with the virus spreading across North America, he called Canadian health authorities, wanting to help a system facing an emergency. He was sent to Gertrude-Lafrance.
The hardest part of Duvernay-Tardif’s dual life had always been the transition, and while the gulf between the Super Bowl — the ultimate expression of camaraderie and spectacle — and his work on the front lines was large, it was far from the first time he had had to balance his passions for football and medicine.
When he arrived at McGill, Duvernay-Tardif listened to those who told him not to play football — the people who said he could never study pre-med in English, his second language, while on a team. But after earning poor grades, he realized he needed an outlet to balance his coursework. He switched from defensive line to offense, and suddenly football turned from hobby to possible vocation.
As NFL teams led him through workouts, Duvernay-Tardif could tell most coaches saw his desire to go into medicine as a sign he didn’t love football enough. Only Chiefs Coach Andy Reid saw it differently: That Duvernay-Tardif cared so deeply about becoming a doctor but still wanted to play in the NFL revealed how profoundly football mattered to him. In May 2014, the day after Duvernay-Tardif assisted with an emergency Caesarean section in the operating room, Kansas City drafted him in the sixth round.
It took Duvernay-Tardif a year to adjust to the American game, to learn foreign terms and schemes. The Chiefs saw potential in his work ethic and his 6-foot-5, 321-pound frame, and by 2016 he became a force as a guard on their offensive line. The franchise morphed into a burgeoning dynasty last year, and during the championship parade in Kansas City, Duvernay-Tardif leaped off the team bus to high-five fans along a fence, chugging a Budweiser on one knee before spiking the aluminum bottle.
Months later, Duvernay-Tardif entered a facility in crisis. He would arrive at work and learn he had to get to his floor through a different staircase because the usual one was reserved for people who had been in a red zone. A daily briefing informed Duvernay-Tardif and his colleagues of new protocols: the order in which personal protective equipment had to be applied, areas of the hospital that were off limits, regulations for how patients had to be treated.
“Everything was changing so fast, it was like organized chaos,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “Or maybe even unorganized.”
As he helped at the facility, Duvernay-Tardif trained for football, assuming the pandemic would abate by the fall. But by early July, as training camp approached, he told his agent, Sasha Ghavami, that he had started to contemplate opting out of the season.
Duvernay-Tardif wrestled with the choice. He wondered what his future in the NFL would be if he sat out. He feared letting down his teammates. Cases had started to subside by late summer; what if he opted out for no reason?
“I saw him very conflicted for those two weeks,” said Ghavami, a childhood friend. “It was difficult for him to know what to do. He loves football. He loves his teammates. He loves to win.”
He also thought about his future as part of the medical community, and he wanted to look back and know he did the right thing. He did not want the professionals in his field questioning him for the rest of his career. He believed in the NFL’s plan to keep players safe, but the idea of getting infected and spreading the virus in the community mortified him.
In late July, he called Ghavami and told him, “I’m not going to play this year.” He called Reid, who offered support. “It’s tremendous dedication to his profession … and mainly to the people that he gets to help,” Reid said later. On July 24, with a lengthy public statement, Duvernay-Tardif became the first NFL player to opt out of the season.
“If I am to take risks,” he wrote, “I will do it caring for patients.”
‘It’s hard to be human in those situations’
Duvernay-Tardif created a plan that provided the balance he had always sought. He worked two or three days per week at Gertrude-Lafrance. He took remote epidemiology and biostatistics classes at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, working toward a doctorate in public health. He kept up with football workouts and participated in virtual events for his foundation.
His job changed based on the needs of the facility and how the virus coursed through patients. In calm times, he performed nursing work — administering medication and IVs, drawing blood. When cases mounted and sanitation made every task take longer, he fed and bathed patients.
Every night on his way home, where he lived with his girlfriend, he would stop at an apartment he owned in Montreal to ditch his clothes and shower, trying to protect her from the virus. They visited no other family or friends.
Duvernay-Tardif entered the job with what he described as a “medical student mentality,” focused on the treatment of patients. But he came to think differently about the nature of healing vs. care. He realized the majority of his patients would not be going home, that they would die in the facility of covid or something else. At that point, all that mattered was the comfort and dignity they felt in their final days. He started to focus less on blood glucose and more on making sure his patients could eat their soup before it cooled.
“I was working there two to three days a week, and I don’t see how I could have done more,” he said. “Not necessarily from a scheduling standpoint but from an emotional standpoint. Those people that are there for the past 20 years, it’s crazy. I have so much respect for them. … The amount of sacrifice is unbelievable. I feel like I’m going to be a better physician down the road because of that experience. I understood what it was all about.”
Duvernay-Tardif worked in the yellow zone. When patients on the floor tested positive, they and all patients in their vicinity needed to be moved to the red zone. Many of the patients had dementia and had little outside contact for months. Duvernay-Tardif could sense their fear and lack of comprehension for what was happening when he, a large man in a mask and visor, rushed in to wheel them out. But even though he wanted to comfort them, he knew he could only expose himself so much with personal touch.
“It’s hard to be human in those situations,” he said.
One woman occupied herself most of the day by staring at a small mirror and combing her hair. When she tested positive and had to be taken to the red zone, the mirror had to stay behind. She did not understand why, and she broke down. Another patient grabbed the door frame, screaming, as Duvernay-Tardif wheeled him out. September was bad. He took a lot of patients from the yellow zone to the red zone.
“And then you cross your fingers they come back up,” he said. “And some don’t.”
Amid the suffering, Duvernay-Tardif experienced moments that buoyed him. He treated a young man who had been in a terrible accident and had not had contact with anyone outside the hospital in weeks. Duvernay-Tardif sensed despair in him. “Come on,” Duvernay-Tardif told him one day. “Let’s find your wife’s number.” He used his own phone to make a FaceTime call. When they saw each other’s faces for the first time in two months, the man and his wife cried.
“You cry, too,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “What else is there to do?”
‘We’ve got to stay together’
There were times Duvernay-Tardif wondered whether he had made the right choice to opt out. Training camp passed with almost no positive tests in the NFL. During late summer in the United States, cases trended down. “Was I too crazy?” Duvernay-Tardif said he thought to himself. “Was I overconcerned by all this?”
The demanding nature of the NFL season had become part of his DNA. Duvernay-Tardif would sometimes wake up and wonder whether his teammates would practice in full pads or coaches wanted to give them rest.
He especially loved the season’s final four weeks, when the weather turned cold, darkness descended late in games and the stakes rose. He had detached early in the season, but in the second half he watched every game. He focused on formations, patterns, audibles and signals. He often knew what play the Chiefs would run before the ball was snapped.
As the Chiefs made it closer to the Super Bowl, not playing became harder. He wonders whether next season he will be able to win his job back or whether the state of the virus will have improved enough for him to return with a clear conscience. Duvernay-Tardif still self-identifies as a football player, as a Kansas City Chief. When the Chiefs won the AFC title last week, Duvernay-Tardif watched and felt as if he was part of the victory yet distant from it.
“I am excited for us,” he wrote in a text message the morning after the game. “It’s just a strange feeling to see your team get closer and closer to repeat the achievement.”
Duvernay-Tardif has convinced himself he made the right choice. The virus again exploded in the United States and invaded several locker rooms, including that of the Chiefs. His football career will last a few more years, at most, and the rest of his life he will be with doctors and medical workers. They will know the most consequential choice of his professional career erred on the side of medicine.
“But who knows?” he said. “Who knows how I’m going to feel 10 years from now?”
The experience, he said, has made him a better doctor. Caring for the elderly, he saw how their state of mind can fluctuate in subtle ways. Only the nurses and orderlies know them well enough to understand what those changes mean, and as a doctor, he must lean on their feedback. Teamwork translates from one profession to the other.
Duvernay-Tardif’s experience also has enhanced, not diminished, his belief in the importance of sports to society. He admires teammates who used their platforms to promote voting rights and racial justice, and he wants to use his to promote health. Fighting a virus can be done in different ways, he believes, in both of his chosen fields.
“Division in a time of crisis is so detrimental,” he said. “We’ve got to trust the science. We’ve got to stay together. That’s how we’re going to get through this. That’s why we need sport, too. You forget about politics, you forget about everything, and you focus on something that brings people together. We need more of that. … And we’ve got to acknowledge that some people are making a tremendous amount of sacrifices to keep us safe.”
In December, Duvernay-Tardif took about a month off. As the Chiefs were preparing for the AFC championship game, he received a vaccine dose and returned to work. He is back at Gertrude-Lafrance, administering IVs to the sick and dying, making sure they can eat their soup while it’s still hot.