Duvernay-Tardif says his rich childhood experience led to successful NFL career

·6 min read

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif might be one of the world's busiest athletes, and the water is where he finds his peace and quiet.

When the Super Bowl champion, doctor, and avid sailor since his childhood, sets sail, his focus shifts to the task at hand and all the outside noise goes silent.

"I love being on the water," Duvernay-Tardif told The Canadian Press. "When you're on a sailboat, there's so many things to think about … whether it's the wind, the weather report, the sail, the ocean, the tide, it makes me disconnect from the rest of the world.

"You can't really look at your phone and when you’re far from the coast, there's not even a cellphone signal (anyways). It's my way to calm myself down, a way for me to get away from all the craziness and the fast pace of the world. When you're a little bit on the hyperactive side, like myself, there's just so many trains of thoughts, things you're thinking about all the time … it's a perfect getaway."

Duvernay-Tardif is in Saint-Tropez, France this weekend for the global SailGP series stop there. The 31-year-old from the Montreal suburb of Mont-Saint-Hilaire is one of 22 minority owners of the new Canada SailGP team.

He'll have the chance to ride on the striking F50 catamaran, with a sail that towers seven storeys above the water, on Saturday before racing begins.

"It's pretty freakin' impressive, the amount of speed and technology involved in those ships," he said Thursday morning before flying to France. "I love racing. I love sailing. And I love everything about competitive sport. So, when I saw that new circuit of sailing, I was like I gotta get involved in some way.

"My biggest thing was to actually find a way to get on that boat myself. So, I'm really excited to get a chance to do that this weekend. Honestly, I cannot wait."

Because the boats fly at up to 100 kilometres an hour, and can also capsize in spectacular fashion, Duvernay-Tardif said there was some safety measures he had to learn before climbing aboard.

The free-agent offensive lineman, who won a Super Bowl with Kansas City in 2020, squeezed the weekend between a hectic schedule of medical residency at a Montreal-area hospital, and working out in hopes of signing with an NFL team for one final season. He was granted a five-month leave of absence from his residency, which began Monday, to pursue football.

Duvernay-Tardif is accustomed to juggling. He's been doing it his whole life, and credits his well-rounded childhood for the person and athlete he's become.

He and his parents and two younger sisters twice went on yearlong sailing trips, most recently when he was 16. They sailed down the U.S. coast and around the Caribbean. The three kids were home-schooled during those trips.

He also played basketball, soccer and the violin while growing up, a marked departure from so many kids who are streamlined into one activity at an early age.

"When you promote only sport for excellence and competition at the highest level when you're like 13 years old, or even 10 years old, if you don't know anything else, it's hard to know whether you really love the sport, or you're just good at it," Duvernay-Tardif said. "And it's hard to maintain that level of high performance and focus from 10 years old to 30 years old."

Duvernay-Tardif believes that playing several sports, plus having an array of life experiences, pays off particularly in team sports.

"Because when you show up to a training camp in the NFL, all 100 guys can actually play football. The question is who has the most focus, mental toughness, most grit, who's going to be able to gain the trust from the coaches," he said. "So yes, it's important to train and everything, but building the resiliency, the focus, and the grit is really what's going to differentiate you as an athlete."

He added the physical and mental training in his two years living on water benefited what would be a decorated football career.

"Sailing is actually a sport on its own, when you're out there on the small ship and … you're leaning backwards to try to compensate the force of the wind and the sail," he said.

The communication and leadership skills to operate a sailboat, he added, particularly when there's adversity or distraction, carried over to football, (especially) "when you play in front of a hundred thousand people, and you have to really hear yourself think."

Soon after helping the Chiefs to a Super Bowl title in 2020 and the hectic schedule of media appearances that followed, Duvernay-Tardif and his girlfriend Florence escaped to St. Lucia for what was intended to be two blissful weeks of sailing. COVID-19 cut the trip short.

Duvernay-Tardif returned home to Quebec, and became the first NFL player to opt out of the 2020 season, instead working as an orderly from the very early stages of the pandemic at a long-term care facility near his home.

That decision saw him named the Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian of the Year at the 2021 Espys.

The six-foot-five, 321-pound Duvernay-Tardif returned to Kansas City last season expecting to battle for his starting spot, but was sidelined for a month after breaking a hand in training camp. In November, he waived his no-trade clause, allowing Kansas City to deal him to the Jets. He started seven of his eight games at right guard for the Jets.

He hasn't had much opportunity to sail since the pandemic thwarted his 2020 vacation, but his dad Francois recently finished building a 40-foot sailboat, and Laurent joined his dad recently for the first sail aboard what was a seven-year labour of love.

Duvernay-Tardif is a big believer in sustainability of SailGP, saying the impact of what he calls "the clean version of Formula One" could transcend sport.

"I feel like SailGP is a little bit like NASA, there's so many technology and technological improvements in sailing that are going to be able to apply to other areas," he said. "When you look at maritime transport, for example, that's a big (contributor) to CO2 emissions. If we could design some sort of sail for the front of the boat to reduce the CO2 emissions, and the pollution of those boats, it would make the sport even better if we're able to spread that technology around.

"That's my hope for the future, to be able to share that knowledge and really be in line with our mission, which is to try to be eco-friendly and eco-responsible."

Canada, which is in its first season on the SailGP circuit, hopes to host a race next season. Duvernay-Tardif would love to be a part of it.

"That would be amazing," he said. "There's so many things around educating kids and promoting physical activity, and you can be sure that the minute we get an event in Canada, I'm going to be the first one making sure there's kids out there to experience what it's like to be on a sailboat."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 9, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press