We think a lot on the who and the what of sports, but we don’t spend much time on the why.
Why do people do this? Why do they feel an elemental need to ensure children know how to throw a ball and understand the offside rule?
It must be so they can have the advantages of the athletic life. If we’re going all Greek philosophy on it, ideally, what should that life look like?
It should look like Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. He won’t get the proper credit for it, but after retiring this week, he was the ideal athlete. Mainly because athletics was the least of it.
As best I can tell, people put kids into sports for a few reasons. There are the reasons they talk about (learn how to be a good teammate, build confidence) and the ones they don’t (I’m afraid he’ll be weird otherwise; I would like to relive my childhood).
Most of us play sports without distinction, which is fine. It’s a better way to spend your time than smoking behind the portables. It does build confidence. It does prevent you from getting too weird (though it increases your risk of becoming too normal).
A kid wakes up one day and realizes they’ve learned how to skate backward. Maybe that means they are more inclined to learn a pragmatic skill, such as mathematics or plumbing. That’s the hope.
In high school, the young athlete may play on a school team, earning the prestige that comes with that. For a very few, the road continues into their late teens. Now they’re getting an education out of it. Maybe they get to the States. If so, their social capital massively increases.
A few weeks ago, I sat in a restaurant in Heathrow eavesdropping on two old ‘friends’ who’d just run into each other. They were one-upping one another on their college-age children’s accomplishments. Suzie was in law school and Jimmy was building houses in Guatemala. That sort of thing.
This quietly vicious tit-for-tat went on for a bit until one of them dropped, “He’s at Duke. He’s playing lacrosse there.”
That was the end of that discussion.
A few hundred of the millions we started with will keep going. So they’re making a few bucks out of it. If they picked right – golf instead of rhythmic gymnastics – more than a few bucks.
That’s where athletic journeys dead end. They play for a few years and they age out. A few will go on to coach. A few more go into media. Most end up retiring somewhere warm and begin to die slowly of boredom.
The best off may be the scrubs. They have to go out in their mid-to-late 20s, get real jobs and become real boys and girls. They will have purpose in their lives because they have no other choice. But they will forever get to drop, ‘Yeah, when I was playing baseball in Texas I … oh yeah, I guess I never mentioned that I played pro for a while.’
All doors will open to them, forever. They are minor North American nobility.
This is the outcome parents secretly imagine the first time they see little Jimmy swing a club.
But there is a rarely achieved level beyond this. Some pros – too few to start naming – have a plan for later. They’re more than sports.
So few are this way because in order to become a pro you need tunnel vision. When he was still in major junior, I made the mistake of asking Connor McDavid about his interests outside hockey. He didn’t have any.
Books, video games, girls? No, no and no. The best he could come up with was “hanging out with friends,” and he didn’t say that with much conviction.
So what do you do when you’re not playing hockey?
“I’m happy to be alone, just be in my room by myself, thinking about what I have to do next.”
‘Thinking about what I have to do next’ – this was a 17-year-old.
These days, that’s the mindset required to make it. It’s not conducive to what Marcus Aurelius would have considered a well-rounded life.
But somewhere in sports, the black swan must exist. Duvarney-Tardif was it.
Nobody in sports (or any other job) has it all, but Duvernay-Tardif came the closest that I can think of.
He comes from a Québécois family of intellectuals and adventurers. They famously spent a year sailing en famille in the Caribbean while Duvernay-Tardif was a young teenager. Why? Because why not?
Duvernay-Tardif started football late and didn’t get the advantage of top competition. He played university in Canada. The benefit he did get here was an environment where football isn’t everything. It’s not even that much of a thing.
He excelled at his studies. A preposterously athletic giant – Duvernay-Tardif is a 320-pound man who could be described as ‘lithe’ – he was taken in the subterranean portion of the draft by Kansas City. Four years later, he was an NFL starter who’d just graduated from medical school.
In the usual course of things, this is where you burn a few grafs listing sporting highlights. Won this, signed for that much, once punched a coach because he’s such a competitor. But having attained everyone else’s dream life, those would be the least compelling facts about Duvernay-Tardif.
He married his two jobs until deciding they needed an amicable divorce. During the worst of the pandemic, he quit the game to work as an orderly in a Quebec care home. Everybody loved that story. What they didn’t talk about so much was that that decision cost him his football career. When Duvernay-Tardif got back to Kansas City, he was Wally Pipped. He never seemed the least bit bothered by that.
This week, Duvernay-Tardif retired from the game.
It didn’t get much attention beyond a news flash because he hadn’t been a starter for a couple of years. People you’d stopped hearing about are always leaving sports. They’re not worth reflection.
But this is a landmark moment.
There are other contenders, but I cannot think of a more realized or more useful athletic career. If you compile a list of the dreams people have for their children when they start in sports, no one has checked more of those boxes than the junior doctor from Montreal.
In a more sensible world, we would say Duvernay-Tardif is the finest athlete this country has ever produced, because he leveraged the possibilities of sport to their absolute maximum. It gave him a career and a life. Instead of using that advantage to buy into a crypto business and get a Rolls-Royce in every colour, he decided to do a little good.
You want to build character in young people? Here you go. This is what that looks like. This is the model.
We don’t need more government money for high performance. We need more money for what Duvernay-Tardif has been able to manage. You want to make sports a policy goal? Tell me how you do that. Can’t tell me? Then figure it out.
Here’s a mission statement for where sports should be headed in countries lucky enough to have money to spend on its hobbies – fewer millionaires, more doctors.
One hopes Duvernay-Tardif, 32, has a long, happy life. When he goes, I wonder if winning a Super Bowl will feature in the first line of his obituary. I suspect he’ll have done too many more interesting things by then.