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Zachary Orr Announces Early Retirement Because Of Spinal Condition

Posted Jan 20, 2017

The Ravens linebacker's congenital back condition was discovered after an injury in the Week 16 Pittsburgh Steelers game. Orr had already beaten the odds by becoming a standout player after being an undrafted free agent in 2014. Turns out, he also beat the odds by playing football for 15 years.


A month ago, Ravens linebacker Zachary Orr was an up-and-coming talent among the NFL’s league leaders in tackles.

Today, he’s a former NFL player.

Orr announced Friday that he will retire from playing football at age 24, after just three NFL seasons, because of a congenital back/spine condition that puts him in danger of serious injury or even death.

It turns out that Orr, the son of nine-year NFL tight end Terry Orr and brother to three other football players, was born to play football, but also born not to play.

His doctors told him that less than 1 percent of people are born with his condition, in which one of his upper vertebra wasn't totally formed, which left openings. He unknowingly played 15 years of football with it, starting when he was 9 years old, and never had a problem.

That’s why, as he made his announcement, Orr felt more lucky than sad.

“I’m really just blessed and thankful that we were able to find this problem,” Orr said. “The doctors and Ravens medical staff probably ended up saving my life, and definitely allowed me to live a normal lifestyle.

“I’m blessed and thankful that I’m able to walk away from the game in good health.”

Still, it’s a tragic twist of fate for a former undrafted rookie who had risen to become a starter and key piece of Baltimore’s defense. He led the team in tackles (132) last season.

More than that, it’s a cruel blow for a person that was named the Ravens’ Media Good Guy this season and had earned the respect of so many teammates and coaches. Orr said he has broken down couple times after receiving the news, most recently after a call from retired wide receiver Steve Smith Sr.

Orr discovered the condition by total happenstance. After making eight tackles and an interception in a critical Week 16 game in Pittsburgh, Orr suffered two herniated discs near the end of the game. They were right next to each other at the top of his vertebrae.

That already was a serious injury, but something that Orr could come back from. Orr had a typical MRI, but at the urging of the Ravens, he also had a head-to-toe CAT scan, which is not the norm. That CAT scan revealed his congenital condition for the first time.

Orr flew to Dallas to speak with multiple spinal cord experts, who were all stunned that he had played for so long with the condition.

From that point, doctors told him he wouldn’t be able to pass an NFL physical ever again. He had no choice but to stop playing. Contrary to some reports, the Ravens did not urge Orr to continue to play. Orr himself said he would continue to play the game he loves if he could, but it’s impossible.

Orr got the news with his father by his side. He immediately called his family, including two brothers currently playing college football.

“I was in disbelief. A lot of emotions came across my mind; I was shocked, sad, mad all at the same time,” Orr said. “I felt like I had much more on the field that I could improve on and was looking forward to coming back next year better than ever.”

Orr had already beaten the odds by being on the field at all without suffering an injury. He beat them again within his football career.

He was a standout at powerhouse De Soto High School in Texas, yet received few college offers and ended up at small-school North Texas.

He signed with the Ravens as an undrafted rookie in 2014 after talking to a Ravens scout, Lonnie Young, and Linebackers Coach Don Martindale about other great Ravens undrafted linebackers such as Bart Scott, Dannell Ellerbe, Jameel McClain and more. Martindale told him there was no reason why Orr couldn’t follow in their footsteps.

Orr was a special teams player as a rookie in 2014, then first broke into the defense near the end of his sophomore year. Last season, his stock skyrocketed.

Orr’s 132 tackles were tied for eighth-most in the NFL. He made three interceptions and forced one fumble. Orr was named a second-team All-Pro.

His coaches glowed about how he studied the game, how he worked in the classroom and on the field. He flew around the field and was extremely active in making plays, particularly on third down, on a defense that was ranked atop the league for part of the season.

Orr’s favorite play from the season was his game-sealing interception in Jacksonville in Week 3. When he came to the sideline, as teammates came to celebrate with him, Orr thanked them for believing in him when he became a new starter on the defense.

As he made his retirement announcement Friday afternoon, linebacker C.J. Mosley, safety Eric Weddle and linebacker Albert McClellan (another undrafted standout), all sat in attendance in support.

“I couldn’t have played for a better organization. I enjoyed every part of it in my three years here,” Orr said.

“After talking with my family and talking to God, everything happens for a reason. He’s done with this chapter in my life, as tough as it may seem and as shocking as it is.”

Orr’s father, Terry, didn’t encourage any of his four sons to play football. He still feels the pain of the sport more than two decades after his career ended in 1993. To this day, Zachary has never had a football catch with his dad.

But when Zachary showed his dad how badly he wanted to play football, how much he loved it and how hard he was willing to work for it, his father became his biggest fan.

Now, the 55-year-old father and 24-year-old son will watch two other Orr men continue to chase their NFL dreams. Nick is a rising junior safety at TCU and Chris is a linebacker at Wisconsin.

Orr said he plans to get into coaching now that his playing days are over. He’d like to find a role with the Ravens, or could go back home to Texas.

Harbaugh and Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees both said they are open to Orr coaching for them in the future. Harbaugh added that any organization would be lucky to have him.

“It’s time to open up another chapter, and I’m excited about that,” Orr said. “It definitely was difficult at first, but I’m at peace with it now.”

A month ago, Ravens linebacker Zachary Orr was an up-and-coming talent among the NFL’s league leaders in tackles.

 

Today, he’s a former NFL player.

 

Orr announced Friday that he will retire from playing football at age 24, after just three NFL seasons, because of a congenital back/spine condition that puts him in danger of serious injury or even death.

 

It turns out that Orr, the son of nine-year NFL tight end Terry Orr and brother to three other football players, was both born to play football, but also and born not to play.

 

His doctors told him that less than 1 percent of people are born with his condition. He unknowingly played 15 years of football with it the condition, starting when he was 9 years old, and never had a problem.

 

That’s why, as he made his announcement, Orr feels more lucky than sad.

 

“I’m really just blessed and thankful that we were able to find this problem,” Orr said. “The doctors and Ravens medical staff probably ended up saving my life, and definitely allowed me to live a normal lifestyle.

 

“I’m blessed and thankful that I’m able to walk away from the game in good health.”

 

Still, it’s a tragic twist of fate for a former undrafted rookie who had risen to become a starter and key piece of Baltimore’s defense. He led the team in tackles (124 132) last season.

 

More than that, it’s a cruel blow for a person that was named the Ravens’ Media Good Guy this season and had earned the respect of so many teammates and coaches.

 

Orr discovered the condition by total happenstance. After making eight tackles and an interception in the critical Week 16 game in Pittsburgh, Orr suffered two herniated discs while making a tackle near the end of the game. They were right next to each other at the top of his vertebrae.

 

That already was a serious injury, but something that Orr could come back from. At the urging of the Ravens, Orr flew to Dallas to have more tests done, including a full CAT scan, that revealed his congenital condition for the first time.

 

From that point, doctors told him he wouldn’t be able to pass an NFL physical ever again. He had no choice but to stop playing.

 

Orr got the news with his father at by his side. He immediately called his family to tell them the news.

 

“I was in disbelief. A lot of emotions came across my mind; I was shocked, sad, mad all at the same time,” Orr said. “I felt like I had much more on the field that I could improve on and was looking forward to coming back next year better than ever.”

 

Orr had already beaten the odds during his football career. He was a standout at powerhouse Texas high school De Soto High School in Texas, yet received few college offers and ended up at small-school North Texas.

 

He signed with the Ravens as an undrafted rookie in 2014 after talking to a Ravens scout, Lonnie Young, and Linebackers Coach Don Martindale about other great Ravens undrafted linebackers such as Bart Scott, Dannell Ellerbe, Jameel McClain and more. Martindale told him there was no reason why Orr couldn’t follow in their footsteps.

 

Orr was a special teams player as a rookie in 2014, then first broke into the defense near the end of his sophomore year. Last season, his stock skyrocketed.

 

Orr’s 132 tackles were tied for eighth-most in the NFL. He made three interceptions and forced one fumble. Orr was named a second-team All-[hyphen]Pro.

 

His coaches glowed about how he studied the game, how he worked in the classroom and on the field. On the field, he He flew around the field and was extremely active in making plays on a defense that was ranked atop the league late in the for part of the season.

 

Orr’s favorite play from the season was his game-sealing interception in Jacksonville in Week 3. When he came to the sideline, numerous teammates celebrated with the linebacker. When he got to the sideline, Orr thanked his teammates for believing in him when he became a new starter on the defense.

 

“I couldn’t have played for a better organization. I enjoyed every part of it in my three years here,” Orr said.

 

“After talking with my family and talking to God, everything happens for a reason. He’s done with this chapter in my life, as tough as it may seem and as shocking as it is.”

 

Orr’s father, Terry, didn’t encourage any of his four sons to play football. He still felt feels the pain of the sport more than two decades after his career ended in 1993. To this day, Zachary has never had a football catch with his dad.

 

But when Zachary showed his dad how badly he wanted to play football, and how hard he was willing to work for it, his father became his biggest fan.

 

Now, the 55-year-old father and 24-year-old son will watch two other Orr men continue to chase their NFL dreams. Nick is a rising junior safety at TCU and Chris is a linebacker at Wisconsin.

 

Orr said he plans to get into coaching now that his playing days are over. He’d like to find a role with the Ravens, or could go back home to Texas.

 

“It’s time to open up another chapter, and I’m excited about that,” Orr said. “It definitely was difficult at first, but I’m at peace with it now.”

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