Every week during the season, The Baltimore Sun will spotlight how a member of the Ravens organization does his or her job.
The old urges tugged at Zachary Orr as he watched the Ravens cling to a narrowing lead Sunday night in Pittsburgh.
The linebacker in him wanted nothing more than to go smash someone wearing a black-and-gold uniform.
“Obviously, just being so closely removed from playing the game and having still wanted to play, I definitely have those moments where it’s like, ‘Man, I wish I could grab my helmet and be out there again,’ ” Orr says. “Especially in an environment like that.”
But that’s no longer his life.
At age 25, he’s not a football player. He’s a football coach.
A congenital neck/spine condition forced the abrupt career change from star Ravens linebacker to largely anonymous Ravens football assistant.
But as Orr plants himself behind a round office table at the team’s training facility in Owings Mills, he conveys no bitterness about the events of the past year. He always had to chug protein shakes to keep on weight as a player, so he’s about 25 pounds lighter. He moves without pain and smiles as easily as ever.
It’s been almost 12 months since he last strapped on his pads to go into an NFL game — Christmas Day 2016 in Pittsburgh. He made six tackles, intercepted a pass and watched helplessly as Antonio Brown stretched over the goal line to end the Ravens’ playoff hopes.
The loss “devastated” Orr. He had no inkling that less than a month later, he’d call an end to his promising career because Ravens doctors had found that the C-1 vertebra at the top of his spine wasn’t fully formed.
He felt the same as ever, but suddenly, doctors were telling him he’d face an unacceptable risk of paralysis or worse if he continued playing the game he loved — a craft he’d inherited from his father, Terry, a former tight end with the Washington Redskins.
It didn’t matter that he’d just led the Ravens with 132 tackles or that he was making a case for a long-term contract that might secure his financial future.
Orr changed his mind in June when an encouraging second opinion gave him hope he might not be done after all. He had become a free agent after his initial retirement. And buoyed by the positive medical news, he threw himself into workouts, hoping he could reclaim his career.
He met or spoke with 17 NFL teams, including the Ravens. Not one would risk signing him for a comeback.
In mid-August, he retired again, telling his story eloquently in The Players’ Tribune. “I’m even more at peace this time around because the teams have spoken,” he wrote. “If there was any way I could come back, I would.”
Orr had already spoken to Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome about working for the team.
He wondered briefly whether he should take some time away — go to all his younger brothers’ college games and decompress in the loving home his parents have always provided. Perhaps the pain of his abrupt retirement would remain too fresh if he stayed in the same building with the same people.
But he decided no, he needed to get back to work.
“Three weeks later, I was up here and I’d started,” he says. “I didn’t want to just sit around.”
If Orr wanted work, he chose the right profession. He always knew coaches were the ultimate football grinds, arriving before the players and staying long after they left. But he raises his eyebrows in awe when describing the workaholic tendencies of his colleagues on the Ravens’ staff.
For example, Orr got back to his apartment at 3 a.m. after this week’s Steelers game. If he were still a player, he would’ve taken it easy Monday. As a coach, he was expected in the office by 9 a.m. He’d already been working on a detailed understanding of the next opponent, the Cleveland Browns, since the previous Thursday.
“I’ve learned there are literally no days off,” Orr says, twirling his finger to evoke the treadmill nature of his new existence. “As a player, your schedule is done at 4 or 5 p.m. As a coach, that’s just halfway through the day. … You don’t understand how tough it is until you really go through it.”
He hasn’t actually slept the night in his office yet, though he has nodded off at his desk more than once.
Because of all that study, Orr feels smarter now when he watches game film. He understands the full context of why the Ravens did what they did on each play.
Orr used to get quiet at his locker before a game, slowly rousing himself for the hand-to-hand combat ahead. If he didn’t like what was happening on the field, he could run out and try to change it directly.
Now, he still wakes up with his stomach full of butterflies. But game day is more about waiting to see how the week’s grand design will play out in the chaos of NFL reality.
“I get to see a perspective of everything, how everything is supposed to fit together,” he says.
He’s paired with the team’s linebackers coach, Don “Wink” Martindale, and in the meeting room he doesn’t feel much different from the way he did as a player.
“I think I definitely can relate to the players in a unique way in the sense that, with a lot of these guys, I was in the heat of battle with them a year ago,” he says. “They know I understand how players think, how they feel. But now I’m also getting the coaches’ perspective, how they think, and finding the balance between the two.”
He’s taken a special interest in the player who replaced him, Patrick Onwuasor. It’s almost uncanny, but Onwuasor, whom teammates call “Peanut,” is another 25-year-old who went undrafted out of college and is perceived as undersized for the position.
“I’m so proud of him,” Orr says. “The great thing about him is he wants to be good. He wants to learn. He was an undrafted guy who’d never played the position before. But the main thing is he wants to be good. He works hard and he studies pretty much more than anybody on the team.”
He could just as easily be talking about himself.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees recently complimented Orr’s work with Onwuasor.
“We all knew when he first had to leave, because of the injury, we said, ‘This guy needs to be a coach,’ ” Pees said. “He’s really good. But, it’s really good for Patrick to identify with a guy that was just there.”
It’s not as if it was ever hard to picture Orr as a coach. Even as an undrafted rookie free agent, he carried himself with notable polish. His older brother, Terrance, is a high school coach in Texas.
“I tell people all the time that when we were younger, we watched cartoons like every other kid, but we also watched ‘SportsCenter’ all day whenever we could,” Orr says. “We used to pop in old game film to the point where my dad would be like, ‘Stop watching football. Football is not everything.’ But that’s all we wanted to do, all we wanted to talk about.”
When he played for DeSoto High School outside Dallas, his linebackers coach, Brian Stansberry, guided him through the fundamentals of football and growing up. At that point, Orr didn’t know whether he’d be good enough to play in college, much less the NFL. But he did know he wanted to influence someone else the way Stansberry influenced him.
He figures he can do that either by coaching or eventually moving into the front office a la Newsome, with whom he’ll work more closely once the season ends.
Despite Orr’s sense of mission, there’s some cognitive dissonance to his current life. He’s young. He feels great. He’s just as good an athlete as he was at this time last year. But he can’t do the job he chose.
“It’s still weird,” he says. “You know, we play teams that we played last year and old film will pop up, and I’ll be on there. It’s crazy to think that a year ago, I was playing and now I’m not, even though I feel physically fine and I can still lift heavy weights, still can run.”
Because of that, he has an unusual perspective to offer his former teammates, even those who are much older. He felt it recently when he watched the Steelers’ Ryan Shazier, another young linebacker on the rise, take a hit and end up in the hospital with a spinal injury.