Laurent Duvernay-Tardif refused to choose between earning his MD and playing in the NFL. Today, he’s the first active player who’s also a doctor.
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif has never shied away from a challenge.
The Kansas City Chiefs’ starting offensive lineman realized a lifelong dream when he was drafted by the team in 2014. Last year, he signed a five-year contract extension worth $41.25 million, but he also celebrated a success of a different kind in May: graduating from medical school.
And he did it while playing in the NFL.
Many people would find either of Duvernay-Tardif’s career choices challenging enough on their own, but the McGill University graduate said he never felt he needed to choose one over the other. He said he always believed he could succeed at football and medicine simultaneously.
However, overcoming self-doubt and that of others was his biggest obstacle.
“Sometimes you need two separate things to realize your full potential,” Duvernay-Tardif told Healthline.
It was near the end of high school when Duvernay-Tardif said he realized he was determined to go to medical school. He also excelled at football and hoped to continue playing in college.
“At first I wanted to be an engineer, but after talking with some engineers, I realized there is a lot of computer work, and while I’m a man of science, at the same time I need that human interaction with people,” said Duvernay-Tardif. “Medicine is one of the only professions where you get to master the science of things — anatomy, pharmacology, kinesiology — but you also have to interact and communicate with patients from many different cultural and economic backgrounds, and you really have to take into account the social context of each patient in order to come up with the best treatment options.”
Growing up in Quebec, Duvernay-Tardif aimed to get into McGill University, which he refers to as having the most prestigious medical program in the area.
“But they also possibly had one of the worst football programs in the area at the time,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “Still, I was really excited to get into McGill. Since French is my first language, my English was really bad at the time and going in I thought medicine will be really hard and learning English was going to be a challenge so I quit football for about five weeks.”
However, he quickly realized how much he missed playing and asked if he could rejoin the team.
“I don’t function well without having that part in my life. My grades weren’t as high when I didn’t play,” said Duvernay-Tardif. “The coach let me back on the team, and after that, I realized that pursuing both made me better at both.”
This meant disregarding something he’d been hearing from others: That he’d have to choose.
“When I was in high school, people told me I’d have to give up football if wanted to be in medical school because studying was too demanding. Then, when I got drafted to the NFL four years later, people were telling me I had to drop medicine because being a professional athlete is too demanding,” said Duvernay-Tardif. “Now, people ask why I would want to still pursue becoming a doctor since I’m making a lot of money. What people need to understand is that I need both in my life.”
So how did he manage to graduate from medical school while playing football?
Duvernay-Tardif acknowledges that both faculty at McGill and the Chiefs’ coach, Andy Reid, offered him flexibility.
“Coach Reid was probably the only one out of nine coaches who I visited in predraft who saw the medical background as a positive thing. I think that for him it was pretty clear that I was there because I loved football. He understood what I was trying to accomplish and said he was going to help me reach my goals both on the field and off the field,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “If it weren’t for Coach Reid and McGill’s faculty in medicine, I couldn’t have done it. It required flexibility from both sides.”
Still, his personal determination ultimately earned him his MD. During the off season, from last February to May, he isolated himself and focused on studying every day, all day.
“I had elastic bands and kettlebells to stay in shape while I was studying. I knew after my last exam on May 8, I was on to Kansas City on May 10 to make practices. I like that challenge of being the best student I could be and switching to being the best athlete I can be,” he said.
Before he can practice medicine, Duvernay-Tardif has to complete a two- to five-year residency. Since he has four more years in his contract with the Chiefs, he says he’s focusing on football full force.
But his drive to work toward his career in medicine is still at the forefront of his mind.
Before he left for training camp this season, he met with the McGill faculty of medicine to see what his options are for completing his residency.
“I don’t know exactly what will happen, but I’m looking into part-time options for the next three or four years with the [possibility] of a few more years of intense training when I’m done. This way I can keep up with my knowledge of medicine, and at the same time, continue football,” he said.
Duvernay-Tardif also said that studying medicine while he’s playing brings big perspective.
“When you’re in Kansas City as a pro athlete, you for sure experience a lot of stress before and during games. Playing in front of 80,000 people and feeling that pressure to perform can make you anxious. But at the end of the day, we are playing a game, and I think that experiencing some real-life struggle and actually seeing people who really suffer, gives you another perspective and helps me better cope with the stress,” he explained.
Duvernay-Tardif said he plans to work in emergency medicine, an area he feels has several similarities to football which includes making rational and measurable decisions in a stressful environment.
“In the ER, you don’t really know what’s going to step into the door. Sometimes it’s a critical situation and you have to be able to look objectively at the situation. What are the patient’s vitals? What is their main concern? What do I have to do now in order to improve their outcome?” said Duvernay-Tardif. “To some extent, there are some similarities with playing football at a professional level, where you have people yelling, the crowd is going nuts, it’s 3rd and 11 and you have to convert for a chance to win the game, so I have to ask myself [as an offensive guard] What is going to happen? What is the defense showing right now? What should I anticipate?”
Duvernay-Tardif also pointed out how adrenaline and utilizing stress to achieve a desired outcome can be applied in similar ways to both emergency medicine and football.
“In the ER, you have to be an expert of keeping someone alive, and it’s not always a controlled environment. Sometimes things happen and you have to be able to react. That’s when adrenaline can kick in and you have to use that stress and energy as a positive thing to make a decision, but you can’t let emotion get the best of you. You still have to be rational. The challenge is to use that stress to get you more focused and more alert, whether it’s football or medicine,” he said.
The intellect of the sport is another reason Duvernay-Tardif loves football.
“It’s one of the only sports where you have to understand the playbook and the algorithm of protection and gameplay in order to be good at it. But you also have to be in shape and love the physicality of the game,” he said. “Understanding what a team’s going [to present] is based on a lot of studying and preparing. Then [reacting accordingly] is a challenge when you’re under pressure.”
Duvernay-Tardif said studying medicine also helps him optimize his performance as a professional athlete.
“When it comes to training your body and mind, you spend so much time to train physically, and sometimes we forget that we need to spend time hydrating, eating well, and sleeping well. Being able to enter a game with the right mindset and confidence and focus is a challenge. So, each week, I try to keep the same routine, get the right amount of sleep. After each game I look at my mindset and routine and try to alter it for the following week to optimize my performance. I think this way of thinking about it comes from medical school,” he said.
He said he’s so in tune with his body that last season, during a Monday night football game against the Washington Redskins, he injured himself in the second play of the game and immediately knew what happened.
“That was the first time I was ever injured playing football. I knew right away what was wrong. When the doctor ran on the field, I told him I tore my MCL. He checked it out and turns out, I was right on,” said Duvernay-Tardif. “That was my first actual clinical diagnosis — the only one I could make as a medical student.”
To many, Duvernay-Tardif’s career choices may present an oxymoron. The idea that someone in medicine plays professional football may seem contradictory given the controversy around concussions players often sustain. However, he doesn’t see it that way.
“As a doctor of medicine and NFL football player, I think I can bring a unique perspective to help make the sport I love as safe as possible,” he said. “I try to stay up-to-date with the medical literature in order to make my own opinions regarding concussion. There are still many things we don’t know about traumatic brain injury, and the data is a little grayer than we sometime hear.”
He acknowledges that concussions are a health concern and a major issue in the NFL, and he wants to help as much as possible. He currently works with the NFLPA Health and Safety Committee. He also sits on the board of advisors for Athlete Intelligence, a Seattle-based company that makes sensors to be placed in mouth guards and helmets. The sensors record hits that the player sustains during the course of practices and games.
Additionally, he communicates with a neurosurgeon and founder of VICIS Helmet, which aims to prevent concussion and decrease force and impact to the head.
“I think technology is one of the things that will help us make the sport safer, with better protection and better diagnostic tools,” he said.
He is also hopeful, noting that the NFL has made effective moves such as better protocols, with baseline testing and rule changes to decrease the amount of hits with the crown of the helmet. He believes that players are more cautious and aware of concussions than ever before.
“It’s a contact sport so we’ll never be able to have zero concussions, but getting a concussion is a serious condition and you have to follow the same protocol and rehab in the same way you follow protocol and rehab with a knee injury. It’s really important with an impact to the head. Doing what is needed to make the return of the player as safe as possible is [crucial],” said Duvernay-Tardif.
Duvernay-Tardif has also established The Laurent Duvernay-Tardif Foundation, which aims to encourage young people to get physically active and adopt healthy habits. The foundation’s goal is to promote the “active student” model, highlighting the importance of striking a balance between studies and sports.
Duvernay-Tardif lives out his foundation’s mission. The hours he puts into football and medicine have paid off. He hopes his story inspires others to pursue their dreams, no matter how difficult they may seem.
Since graduating from McGill, he asked the NFL if he could include “MD” on his jersey. Though his request was denied, Duvernay-Tardif said he isn’t giving up.
“Whether it’s with my foundation or my media appearances, I want to show people that it’s possible to combine two passions at the highest level. That they don’t have to choose, and that sometimes, one passion feeds the other and can help you better perform,” said Duvernay-Tardif. “I wanted MD on the back of my jersey because if I can get 1 percent of the kids who watch football to realize this, my mission will be fulfilled.”
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.