Cover Story: Zach Orr's Coaching Comeback
Zach Orr dreamed of being a long-time NFL player, but when a congenital neck/spine condition ended his career early, he discovered he had the makings of a coach.
By: Ryan Mink
When the doctor told Zach Orr that he needed to stop playing football immediately, he kind of went into shock.
He was 24 years old, had just finished a breakout third NFL season, and was in line for a hefty pay raise. He had only come in to be evaluated for a herniated disc.
Orr was in the doctor's office with his father and agent. It wasn't a long conversation with the doctor.
Orr's C-1 vertebrae, located at the top of his neck right below his skull, wasn't fully developed at birth. It's about 80% as big as it should be and split on each end – a very rare congenital condition. One wrong hit and it could "explode."
"You could die on the spot," the doctor said, as Orr wrote in The Players’ Tribune.
As they walked back to the car, Orr's phone started blowing up with celebratory texts. The All-Pro teams had just been announced. After going undrafted just three years earlier, he was a second-team All-Pro.
"That's when it really started to hit me," Orr said. "I felt like I was just getting started in my career. I came crashing down."
Fast forward seven years and Orr's phone is once again flooded with congratulatory messages – about 800 of them – after being named the Ravens' new defensive coordinator. At 31 years old, he is head of Baltimore's prestigious defense.
During his introductory press conference, in the very same room where he announced his retirement, Orr acknowledged the improbability of his story.
"My plan was, honestly, make it to the National Football League, play like 10-15 years, go back home, coach some high school football," Orr said. "Never thought I'd be coaching in the National Football League."
At the same time, it's not surprising. Not when you know Orr's full story.
THE GREATEST CHRISTMAS PRESENT EVER
As Zach and his father, Terry Orr, walked to the car from the doctor's office, an older man walking in for his appointment stopped them and started chatting. Despite the devastating news he had just received, Zach was his usual upbeat, friendly self.
"Young man, you keep that smile on your face," the old man said as they parted. "It's going to take you far."
To this day, Terry believes that man was an angel.
"It was 30 seconds of something beautiful," Terry said. "It gave me a calming effect that everything was going to work out."
Part of Zach's comeback story is a credit to his support system, which kicked into gear immediately, starting with his tight-knit football family. Terry quickly tried to help Zach re-frame the devastating news.
Zach suffered the herniated disc during the Christmas night game in Pittsburgh in 2016, the game in which the Steelers knocked the Ravens out of playoff contention when Antonio Brown extended the ball over the goal line with nine seconds left. That was the last play of Orr's career (talk about brutal).
"God gave you the greatest Christmas present ever," Terry told his son. "Because if you didn't get injured, and if the Ravens didn't take the time to say we've got to take a different angle of X-ray, you would have never known."
Zach went home and stayed with his parents in the Dallas area where he grew up. He was also set to have shoulder surgery, so he needed the help, now more than ever.
Zach has three brothers who all played college football. His other brother, Terrance, said something that stuck with him. With Terrance in attendance, Zach repeated it at his retirement press conference.
"Don't ask God, 'Why me?' Ask, 'What's next?'"
"I still have love for the game," Zach said at his retirement press conference. "I don't know exactly what I'm going to next. I know eventually I want to get into coaching and things like that. I'm ready to attack that 110%."
Rehabbing from shoulder surgery, Zach had plenty of time to think. One day, Terrance came home and found Zach sitting alone on the couch watching his old highlights – high school, college, and the NFL. It was something Terrance had never seen him do before.
"He didn't say it, but his body language was saying, 'What could have been?'" Terrance said.
Zach wasn't ready to stop playing. He sought more medical opinions and found a pair of doctors who gave him their thumbs up. Zach called General Manager Ozzie Newsome and tried to come back to play for the Ravens, but the team's medical staff stuck with its original determination that he wouldn't pass a physical.
So Zach visited five more teams and interviewed with another 11 over the phone. None would ultimately take the risk. His career was done done, and he retired a second time on in August, about seven months after his initial retirement.
"I'll say this. If any doctor did clear him, they were getting a hungry linebacker," Terrance said. "He was the leanest, the fastest I've ever seen him. He was in the prime of his career at that time. There is no doubt that he would be playing right now if it weren't for that diagnosis."
THE MAKINGS OF A COACH
Terry was a former NFL player who never wanted any of his kids to play football.
He was a tight end for the Washington Redskins for eight seasons (1986-1993) and won two Super Bowls before his career ended with a spear tackle in the back, which broke four vertebrae.
When Zach's playing career received a life sentence, Terry was of course heartbroken, but also thankful his son finished with a full, healthy life ahead. When Zach tried desperately to get back into the NFL after the initial prognosis, Terry kept his mouth shut.
"It was a decision he had to go through, but I was kind of rooting that no one would pick him up," Terry said.
"I didn't want him to play football anyway. There are no Orr video tapes like the Manning video tapes of playing catch outside. I never played catch with any of them."
Unbeknownst to Terry, however, the Orr brothers had discovered their father's old college and NFL tapes amidst their Disney movies in a cardboard box and made them their homework.
"They were paying a lot of attention to details," Terry said. "Their conversations were not talking about video games. Their conversations were talking about different defenses and offenses."
Terry stressed education over football. His sons did both. Zach was a straight-A student. All of them went to summer school to pick up extra credits and get a head start before their freshman years of college. All four sons graduated from college.
Terry did give them some football advice. Along the same lines as "get your education," it was that if they wanted to play, they better play with their head.
"I told them to know as much as you can," Terry said. "If you all know what you're doing, that's 99 percent of it. Everybody has athletic ability, but if you know what you're doing, you're going to be in the right place and you'll make plays."
Terry likes to joke that Zach was "one biscuit from a three-point stance," but he was on the shorter side. He wasn't the best athlete on the Texas football field, but he was certainly one of the most dominant.
His coach at DeSoto High School, Claude Mathis, envisioned Zach having a long playing career, but isn't surprised by his fast ascension up the coaching ranks either.
"He ran the defense," Mathis said. "He just understood the game of football. He knew every check we wanted to make, knew everything the defense was going to get in, called out all the formations. He was a film junkie. He made my life a whole lot easier."
Mathis still recalls college recruiters thinking Zach was too short – part of the reason why he landed at North Texas instead of some other bigger program, and probably part of the reason why he went undrafted, too. Zach worked to make sure it didn't matter.
"He's a workaholic. He won't let anybody outwork him," Mathis said.
A thirst for knowledge of the game and a tireless work ethic. Everyone would have seen coaching coming if Zach wasn't such a good player.
"I knew he was going to be a good coach or football player, but I thought more a player," Mathis said. "He was a player – a football freakin player. He didn't care who you were. He would knock your ass out."
STAY IN THE GAME
It was tough for Zach to flip that switch from player to coach. But if there's an "I told you so" in this story, it belongs to big bro Terrance.
Terrance was coaching the offense at their DeSoto High School alma mater when Zach came back home following his first retirement. He gave Zach space when it seemed like he needed it, sat down next to him when he was watching old Ravens-Steelers highlights and say, "I hate Le'Veon Bell," to get a smile.
It wasn't long before he began lobbying his brother that he should go into coaching. As their father, Terry, described it, "Terrance wasn't really giving him a suggestion. He was kind of telling him."
"I saw no bitterness towards the game of football," Terrence said. "Sometimes when people have an injury like that, they're like, 'I don't want to watch football. I don't want to be around football. I don't want none of that.' He was the total opposite.
"He still had that fire and passion and that never left him and never will. He never was the biggest, fastest or strongest – me or my brothers. We had to play the game intellectually and have high football IQ. He was perfect for coaching."
DeSoto had just won the Texas state championship in 2016. The following summer, Zach started coming out to practices and giving his brother some coaching tips.
Terrance told his brother to look at him. He had no voice. He was sweaty. He was still in the game. That could be Zach.
"I told him straight up, 'I didn't have no chance of making it to the NFL, big dog. But the closest I could ever feel to playing the game of football is through coaching,'" Terrance said. "'I still get butterflies in my stomach during the national anthem. I still get excited during practice. You're going to put in the hours, you're going to build relationships, you're still going to have that locker room feeling with the players and the coaches as well. It's every emotion except my body isn't getting beat up.'"
Zach started to buy in. But it was a phone call from Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti that sealed the deal. Head Coach John Harbaugh had previously said he would talk to Newsome and Bisciotti about the possibility of finding a role for Orr in the organization.
Bisciotti made the call.
"He called me [and said], 'Man, I understand you wanted to get into coaching. We think highly of you, [and] everybody speaks the world of you. I've seen you work. Everybody says you're a hard worker, and I know you want to get into coaching. I would love to have you back in the organization, if that's something you want to do,'" Zach remembers.
"Shoot, the next day, I'm calling, probably blowing Ozzie's phone up; 'Hey, Ozzie, when are you ready for me to come back up?' I always felt like this organization has picked me up at some of my lowest professional moments."
Zach joined during training camp, at first in a hybrid coaching assistant/scouting role. He wasn't sure what he wanted to do at first, but it became evident after that first year.
"I liked being on the grass, being close to it," Zach said.
Zach realized that the hours are a lot longer for a coach than a player, but he got used to it. Much of the rest was similar, except without hitting people. That took more getting used to. When he first started, many players were his teammates just six months ago. Watching the rivalry games against AFC North foes, or on primetime TV, was especially difficult.
"That first year was the toughest year for sure because I was like, 'I know I can knock some heads off and do some stuff right now,'" Zach said. "I know what the doctor said, but I know what I can do."
Ravens legend Terrell Suggs played beside Zach for three seasons. Then he saw Zach's first two years as a coach. When he would walk by Zach in the halls, Suggs would jokingly yell out, "You'll never be one of them!"
But with time, the player inside Zach eventually faded. He spent four years learning on the job, assisting the other coaches and coordinators Dean Pees and Wink Martindale. He left Baltimore for his first shot at being a position coach, coaching outside linebackers for the Jacksonville Jaguars, but came back a year later to coach inside linebackers for Mike Macdonald.
Zach coached one player, Josh Bynes, who he beat out for a 53-man roster spot when he was a rookie and is three years older.
Zach doesn't put significance into being the second-youngest defensive coordinator in the NFL. But he does like it.
"It forces you to be on point," Zach said. "If you're not on point, this dude's going to be looking at you like, 'What is he talking about?' Now don't get no respect, you lose credibility. I like the challenge of being young."
Zach has earned his players' respect. Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen both went to the Pro Bowl this year. At the end of the year, Zach told them that he never thought he would have more fun coaching football than playing it, but that the 2023 season was the most fun he had in his football career.
"I have an immense amount of respect for 'ZO' and the way he goes about work, day in and day out," Smith said. "While it's unfortunate that his career was cut short due to an injury, I feel like he carries that passion over to the game of football and coaching. You don't know which day will be your last, so you have to give everything you have while you have it; I see he lives by that."
Zach has no desire to tackle anyone at this point. But he intends to build a defense that is going to "hit you first and ask questions later." Beyond winning games and helping the Ravens hoist the Lombardi Trophy, Zach said his motivation is to maximize players' talents and help them "leave the game on their own terms."
He didn't get that chance, but he's still fulfilling the NFL dreams he had as a kid.
"I envisioned me being in the National Football League. It may not be as a player, but now I have an opportunity to do it as a coach," Zach said. "Let me dive in fully into that and take advantage of that opportunity. It's not an opportunity that everybody, specifically at my age, can get. It definitely motivated me a lot."
Finally, Zach can enjoy those congratulatory text messages – at least once he finds the time.
"Let me just say this right now: If I haven't gotten back to you, I promise you I haven't switched up. I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Zach said with a laugh.
"It's wild. It's wild when you think about the whole situation and how it all unfolded. But honestly, I'm not surprised. I've worked. I just kept my head down and continued to prepare. It's always tough when people get knocked down and they stay down. If you show people you have the strength and courage and support to get knocked down and get back up, I think that can inspire somebody. If you can inspire somebody to keep going and not let life keep them down, shoot man, I feel like that's part of my purpose why I'm here on Earth."
577: Zach Orr on the Mindset His Defense Will Have, Going from Player to Coach, and His 'Wild' Journey
Ravens Defensive Coordinator Zach Orr joins Ryan Mink and Garrett Downing to talk about how he landed his new job, what he envisions for his defense, the sudden end to his playing career, and how that motivated him as a coach.