He has sailed the East Coast in a boat crafted by his family and spent a day during the NFL Draft caring for prematurely born twins as a third-year medical student.
Appearing in his first NFL game on Sunday may be the least interesting thing Laurent Duvernay-Tardif has done in recent years. But it will shine a spotlight on one of professional football’s most fascinating players.
“Larry,” as he’s commonly known, is set to start at right guard for the Chiefs in Sunday’s season-opener against the Texans in Houston — two years after finishing his college career at McGill University in Montreal.
Athletes from the best of the major college football programs don’t often advance as quickly as Duvernay-Tardif, but here he is, a 24-year-old native of Quebec about to take his place for what many believe is a playoff contending team.
“It means I need to work more on my English,” said the French-speaking Duvernay-Tardif.
He really doesn’t. Duvernay-Tardif’s accented English is superb, and so is his football skill set, say his Chiefs coaches, who believe Duvernay-Tardif, drafted in the sixth round in 2014, needed only a year of seasoning to reach this level.
“We saw it last year,” coach Andy Reid said. “It’s the strength and quickness. He’s very intelligent. It was the experience part of it. We tried to put him on a hurry-up course there by giving him reps, that’s the one thing we thought he was short on. So we gave him as many as we could and he improved with that.
“If he would’ve just stayed and we hadn’t seen any signs of improvement, then we couldn’t do this.”
Duvernay-Tardif did not start the Chiefs’ preseason opener at Arizona but got half of the team’s snap counts.
When guard Jeff Allen suffered a knee injury against the Cardinals, Duvernay-Tardif started the second preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks.
He was in the lineup for good and part of Reid’s offensive line plan announced earlier this week. Duvernay-Tardif was aligned with third-year tackle Eric Fisher on the right side, with two-time Pro Bowler Ben Grubbs at left guard with left tackle Donald Stephenson and rookie Mitch Morse at center.
Reid called the group, “the best five in the best positions,” and Duvernay-Tardif’s inclusion in the group surprises nobody who has ever seen him play.
Matthieu Quiviger was McGill’s offensive line coach in 2011, the year Duvernay-Tardif moved from the defensive line to offensive tackle. Quiviger had set a high standard for the position as a two-time all-conference and All-Canadian performer at McGill.
After the first time they worked together in practice, Quiviger told Duvernay-Tardif about his career, including becoming one of the first Canadian college players to play in the East-West Shrine Game at Stanford. Quiviger wasn’t doing this to impress his new pupil but to let Duvernay-Tardif know there were no limits to his potential.
“You’re going places I never dreamed of,” Quiviger told him.
Then he asked Duvernay-Tardif to wear No. 66, his old number.
“That way I could see myself on the field, only a better version,” Quiviger said.
Over the next three years, Duvernay-Tardif became the most dominant offensive lineman in Canadian colleges. He became a two-time All-Canadian selection and in 2013 was chosen as the nation’s top offensive lineman.
But honors didn’t make Duvernay-Tardif the rare NFL prospect from a Canadian college. Duvernay-Tardif’s intelligence, flexibility and strength trended at an NFL prospect level during his McGill years.
This from a player who practiced once a week. His studies at McGill were given equal and sometimes greater priority. Duvernay-Tardif didn’t choose between football and medicine. He opted for both. That meant working full time at a hospital during his senior season while competing in games. That was his deal at McGill.
An interest in social science and love of science, anatomy and physiology guided his decision to enter medicine, and Duvernay-Tardif’s family and upbringing is a source of his intellectual curiosity.
Duvernay-Tardif’s parents are entrepreneurs who once owned a vineyard and now own bakeries in Montreal. Twice the family embarked on a year-long sailing trip down the U.S. East Coast and to the Caribbean Islands. Duvernay-Tardif and his two younger sisters were home-schooled on board by their parents.
“It was a great way to see and experience different cultures,” Duvernay-Tardif said.
This, not the year-round football training regimen of many American football prospects, shaped Duvernay-Tardif’s background. But no matter how often he missed practice or training, he Duvernay-Tardif never seemed to lack football awareness.
“I don’t know what his IQ is, but he’s extremely clever,” Quiviger said. “You visually have to recognize the situation, act on your observations and understand the situation before the snap. He does that.”
The rare Canadian college to NFL path needed a guide, and Duvernay-Tardif knew whom to contact.
Sasha Ghavami was a high school friend who attended law school at the University of Montreal and hoped to become a sports agent.
After Duvernay-Tardif had surpassed NFL averages for offensive line prospects while attending an All-Star game for Canadian colleges before his senior year, the attention started to grow. He contacted Ghavami, who cut short studying in Australia on an exchange program to help his friend.
“I knew he only had my interest in mind,” Duvernay-Tardif said.
Ghavami put together a plan to get his friend’s name out. He sent films to teams, and he identified a U.S.-based agent who had previously worked with Canadian players, Knoxville, Tenn.,-based Chad Speck. Turned out, Speck’s Allegiant Athletic Agency also represents Chiefs safety Eric Berry.
It was Ghavami who organized Duvernay-Tardif’s Pro Day at McGill.
“I took great pride in that on the same day as Johnny Manziel’s Pro Day, nine teams came to Canada to watch Laurent,” Ghavami said.
The Chiefs were among the teams that watched Duvernay-Tardif run a 40-yard-dash time of 4.94 seconds and post 34 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, among other impressive numbers that would have put Duvernay-Tardif among the top performers at the NFL Scouting Combine if he had been invited.
After the season, he played in the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla. As the draft approached, Duvernay-Tardif was one of the NFL’s most intriguing prospects. Teams loved his physical skills, but the level of his college competition — Reid has compared it to American junior college — helps explain why Duvernay-Tardif was not taken on the second day as expected.
Just as well.
He was delayed from watching the draft that day because, while on rounds at the hospital, he was summoned to the operating room for an emergency C-section of premature twins. His job was to immediately care for the first newborn.
The next day, during the sixth round, Duvernay-Tardif was watching the draft with friends and family. Ghavami saw the Chiefs were on the clock when the phone rang and the area code said Missouri.
“I knew he was about to become a Chief,” Ghavami said.
With the call from Reid and general manager John Dorsey, Duvernay-Tardif became the 10th player drafted from a Canadian college.
Duvernay-Tardif spent his rookie season on the 53-man active roster, although he never appeared in a game. The Chiefs could have put him on the practice squad, which would have freed a roster spot for another player to help on game day, but they would have risked losing Duvernay-Tardif to another team under practice-squad rules.
The Chiefs did not want to take that chance. They believed Duvernay-Tardif could become a starter, and soon.
“He’s learned to process the information that we’re giving him,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said. “He’s learned to slow his game down and really kind of solidify that spot, that right guard spot for us.”
In his first pro task, Duvernay-Tardif confronts one of the NFL’s most formidable front lines, a group that includes end J.J. Watt and tackle Vince Wilfork.
“If you want to be the best you have to play against the best, and that’s what I’m going to do this weekend,” Duvernay-Tardif said.
He expects the season to end in the Super Bowl, or at least that’s how his schedule is set. Duvernay-Tardiff will return to McGill after the season to continue his education and should earn his degree in 2017.
“The cool thing now is I focus 100 percent on football during the season and 100 percent on medical school during the off-season,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “That is a big difference for me. Back in college I was doing both at the same time.”
This path is rare but not untraveled. Unusual as Duvernay-Tardif’s story is, he’s not the first French-Canadian from Quebec to play for the Chiefs. Or have attended McGill. And study medicine.
JP Darche has shown the way.
The former long snapper for the Seahawks and Chiefs graduated from the University of Kansas Medical Center and is in his second year of residency at KU Hospital.
Darche, who played for the Chiefs in 2007 and 2008, and Duvernay-Tardif met three years ago in Montreal and compared notes about their backgrounds.
“Wouldn’t you know, he gets drafted by the Chiefs, and that’s worked out great,” Darche said.
Duvernay-Tardif has been to the Darche home in Overland Park for home-cooked meals, and he’s pitched in, helping Darche coach youth football.
“What he’s done is pretty darn impressive,” Darche said. “Coming from Canada, getting drafted, winning the starting position in his second year. That’s really, really impressive. I’m so happy for him, and proud of him.
“Now, all he has to do is go out and block J.J. Watt and Vince Wilfork.”