A remarkable scene unfolded when Zachary Orr’s stunning retirement press conference ended at the Under Armour Performance Center Friday.
The auditorium was nearly filled with Orr’s teammates, coaches, friends, family members, journalists and Ravens staffers, but rather than get up and leave now that the event was over, everyone stayed in their seats, seemingly transfixed by the grace and perspective Orr had exhibited on what surely was one of his most disappointing days.
It could have been the saddest of occasions, almost funereal in nature. Orr, 24, had beaten the odds and was well on his way to becoming the Ravens’ latest rags-to-riches story. Three years removed from joining the team as an undrafted free agent, he was on the cusp of stardom, his starting linebacker spot secure, his first nice payday at hand. Now, though, he was being forced to quit football because of a rare congenital neck condition* *that had just been discovered.
“My hand is pretty much forced,” Orr said. “I’ll never be able to pass a physical. I can’t get cleared to play.”
Instead of bemoaning his bad luck, though, Orr shed no tears Friday, uttered no wistful “woe is me” grievance over his lost opportunity. He repeatedly flashed a bright smile and spoke excitedly about what lies ahead, referencing plans for his foundation, a future in coaching and his younger brothers’ football potential.
He actually was lucky, he said, not unlucky, because he had been born with the neck condition, which could have caused a horrific injury at any moment on the field, but he played football for 15 years without it causing a problem while he rose from the peewee ranks to the pinnacle of the sport.
“I’m pretty much shocked that nothing major ever happened. I look at it as a blessing,” he said. “I had a high school teammate get paralyzed on the field, so I’ve seen what can happen.”
He still loved the game, he said, and would happily keep playing if “some miracle cure” came along, but added, “I’m happy that I can walk away from the game in good health.”
Coming from a young man whose career dreams had just been dashed, his show of perspective had many in the room near tears. Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome’s voice wavered as he recounted Orr’s quick rise from his start as an undrafted free agent.
The Ravens have held plenty of farewell press conferences over the years, but few have so effectively encapsulated why the departing player was so popular with coaches, teammates and others in the organization.
“Instead of asking, ‘Why me?’, I’m asking, ‘What’s next?’” Orr said, citing an older brother, seated in the front row, as having helped him shape his philosophy.
As much as the Ravens are going to miss Orr on the field – he led the team in tackles in 2016 – they’re really going to miss Orr off the field.
There’s early talk of trying to add him to the coaching staff (Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees called him, “One of the smartest players I’ve ever been around”) but apart from X’s and O’s, it was clear Friday that Orr has something to add as, well, let’s call it a perspective coach.
“One thing that has helped me be at peace with this is I don’t have any regrets on or off the field. I gave my all. I treated people with respect,” he said.
He conceded that he hasn’t always reacted so graciously since his injury was discovered shortly after the season. There have been tears, disbelief, some tough moments. When teammates learned of his situation and Steve Smith Sr. called with respects earlier this week, “I was all alone and I broke down,” Orr said.
But he pulled himself together, and by Friday, he said, he was ready to deliver his news to the world and get on with his life.
“When one door closes, another opens,” he said.
As I stood up and left the auditorium Friday, I was thinking the world could use a few more people like Zach Orr.