Big man on campus

by Gary Francoeur

The New York Jets have shown interest.

So have the Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans and Green Bay Packers.

And on September 28, the Chicago Bears apparently sent a professional scout to Montreal to have a look.

One by one, each team has watched, scrutinized and scribbled in their notebooks as McGill Redmen captain Laurent Duvernay-Tardif pulverized the competition, maximizing each opportunity to prove himself worthy of playing in the National Football League.

The 6-foot-5, 305-pound offensive lineman has made himself a hot commodity. Just last month, he was named the top-rated prospect for the 2014 Canadian Football League Draft, according to rankings compiled by the league’s scouting bureau. Though his life is now full of surreal sports possibilities, the football phenom is taking it all in stride.

“It’s been absolutely incredible, but I try not to think about it too much. I want to stay focused on the game and on my studies,” he says.

A third-year medical student, Duvernay-Tardif might just represent the perfect blend of brains and brawn, as comfortable in hospital scrubs as he is in football gear. He has helped lead the Redmen to a 3-2 record so far this season – the team’s best record since 2009. Calm, soft-spoken and reserved, Duvernay-Tardif has always preferred to do his talking on the field.

“I try to lead by example,” he says. “I’m quiet in the locker room, but that stops the moment we step on the field. That is when a switch goes on and I become a lion.”

Since joining the team, Duvernay-Tardif has earned all-conference and all-Canadian honours, and was selected to play in the CIS East-West Bowl. At the 29th annual Friends of McGill Football awards gala in April, he took home the Students’ Society Trophy as most valuable player and the Dan Pronyk memorial trophy as the team’s top offensive player.

But maintaining such success isn’t without sacrifice. Most weeks, he spends roughly 25 hours on the football field and in the gym, another 30 hours in class and countless more studying. “It is a lot of work and a lot of sacrifice, but it is well worth it,” he says. “At the end of the day, you have to love what you do because you spend a lot of time doing it.”

One of Duvernay-Tardif’s biggest fans is Redmen head coach Clint Uttley, who describes his young pupil as a football juggernaut.

“He’s the kind of guy other players hate,” says Uttley. “He’s mean out there. He looks to break their spirit and touch their soul.”

Duvernay-Tardif was born and raised in St. Hilaire, Quebec, where he often spent afternoons and weekends working in the bakery his parents own. During his teens, he was home-schooled for two years on a sailboat while his family set off for an adventure down the east coast and around the Caribbean.

When he returned to Quebec at age 15, Duvernay-Tardif decided to join a team sport and quickly opted for football. He was already a sturdy 6-foot-2 by that time, but his interest in the sport concerned his parents.

“They didn’t want me to play football at first,” he says. “But that has changed as they’ve come to understand and appreciate the sport. They now come to all of the games. They are my biggest fans, without a doubt.”

Duvernay-Tardif played for the Richelieu Pirates and the Collège André-Grasset Phoenix, where his football prowess quickly garnered the attention of McGill and other universities. He almost hung up his cleats to focus on medical school, but the lure of the gridiron was simply too strong. Football has a strange way of pulling you in, he explains.

It’s a good thing, too. If everything goes according to plan, Duvernay-Tardif will become the first McGill medical student to be drafted by a CFL team since 1999, when linebacker Jean-Philippe Darche, BSc'97, was selected by the Toronto Argonauts. Darche played one season with the Argos before embarking on a nine-year career in the National Football League with Seattle and Kansas City.

Peppered with questions about his future, Duvernay-Tardif shrugs off the notion that he needs to pick between his two great loves.

“I’ve dedicated so much time and energy into football and medicine that I would like to explore both passions,” he says. “Why can’t I have both?”

Why not indeed.