Zachary Orr had already broken down several times over the past couple of weeks. It happened not long after he learned the sobering truth — his football career was over because of a congenital neck/spine condition. It happened just two days ago after he got off the phone with former Ravens teammate Steve Smith Sr., a 37-year-old who recently retired on his own terms.
Orr wasn’t about to let it happen Friday. The 24-year-old, who morphed from an undrafted free agent to a starting weak-side linebacker and the Ravens’ top tackler in 2016, announced his retirement from the NFL after just three seasons without a hint of bitterness or regret.
“One thing that helped me be at peace with this is, I gave my all — on and off the field — to the organization, and they gave me a chance and they treated me with respect and gave me their all,” Orr said at a news conference at the Under Armour Performance Center. “I don’t have any regrets on the field or off the field. I can live with a lot of stuff, but the one thing I can’t live with is regret, and I don’t have any of that in my life.”
Orr said a postseason CT scan revealed that he has a rare congenital spine condition — his C1 vertebra isn’t fully formed at the top of his spinal cord — that would have put him at increased risk for paralysis, or worse, if he continued to play. He said doctors and specialists marveled that he was able to play football this long without having a serious health problem and told him that he would no longer to be able to pass an NFL physical, given his known condition.
Seated alongside general manager Ozzie Newsome, coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees, Orr spoke of how honored he was to make it with the Ravens and repeatedly thanked team officials, teammates and coaches. Fellow linebackers C.J. Mosley and Albert McClellan and safety Eric Weddle came to the news conference to show their support.
Orr, his right arm in a sling after having shoulder surgery, called the confluence of events that led to the discovery of his spine condition a “blessing” and spoke excitedly about the next phase of his life, which he hopes includes coaching and will include starting a foundation for at-risk kids.
“My brother [Terrance] said it best. He said, ‘Instead of asking, “Why me?” ask, “What’s next?”’ And that’s what I’m looking forward to and whatever that is, I’m ready to give it 110 percent,” Orr said.
The news is a significant blow to the Ravens, who watched Orr develop into one of their top defensive players this past season. The Ravens don’t have an obvious internal replacement at weak-side linebacker, although 2016 second-round draft pick Kamalei Correa and undrafted free agent Patrick Onwuasor will get a bigger opportunity.
In his first year as a starter, Orr finished with 132 tackles, three interceptions, five passes defended, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries, and received some All-Pro recognition after forming a dynamic middle linebacker pairing with Mosley. Beyond that, Orr became the latest symbol of the Ravens’ ability to unearth otherwise overlooked undrafted free agents, have them earn roster spots on special teams and then thrust them into key roles. Inside linebackers Bart Scott, Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe and McClellan all did it, and Orr followed in their footsteps.
“When I got the news about Zach, I had to do a double take because I never expected to hear something like that,” Newsome said. “But having had the opportunity to sit with a number of players at press conferences like this that have had longer careers, I don’t think there’s been any player more inspirational to me over the last three years than Zach.”
Harbaugh cited Orr as a great example for younger teammates because of how he embraced his role and remained focused on improving at every opportunity. Given little chance to make the team in 2014 as an undrafted free agent out of North Texas, he quickly became one of the team’s best special teams players.
Because of his breakout 2016 campaign, Orr, who made approximately $1.5 million over his first three seasons, was in position to earn a lucrative restricted free-agent contract tender this offseason that could have paid him in excess of $2.5 million for 2017.
“I think we’d all be lying in this room if we didn’t say the money’s great,” Orr said. “But I couldn’t have come to a better organization. I’m probably spoiled because this is the only organization I know. I loved coming to work each and every day.”
Orr took great pride in his football lineage. His father, Terry, played eight seasons as an NFL tight end, spending the majority of his career with the Washington Redskins. The oldest of Terry and Rita Orr’s four sons, Terrance, is an assistant football coach at DeSoto High in Texas. Zachary Orr’s two younger brothers, Nick and Chris, are playing at Texas Christian and Wisconsin respectively. Chris, also a linebacker, has told his older brother he will change his number to 54 to honor him.
The Orr brothers talked often about playing in the NFL together. Now, Orr said is forced to watch his brothers’ careers from the sidelines.
“It’s been tough for us, but at the same time, it puts things in perspective,” said Terrance Orr, who sat in the front row at the news conference. “His livelihood, his health is more important, and he realizes that. This is only a small chapter in his life. He knows it’s a tough road, but he’s going to be OK.”
Orr aggravated a right shoulder injury in the Ravens’ victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Dec.18. He hurt his neck the following week against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game that ended the team’s playoff hopes. He was put on injured reserve before the team’s regular-season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals. Orr said an MRI revealed he had a herniated disc in his neck.
Following the season, team doctors opted to have Orr undergo more extensive tests and that’s when a CT scan discovered the spinal condition.
Dr. Payam Farjoodi, an orthopedic spine surgeon at the Center for Spine Health at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., said in an email to The Baltimore Sun that abnormalities of the C1 vertebra occur in less than 4 percent of individuals with the vast majority having no symptoms until the diagnosis is made.
“Trauma to the head or neck, often seen in defensive football players, can lead to pinching of the spinal cord and paralysis in these cases of instability,” Farjoodi said. “He's lucky to have not had any lasting neurologic effects given his condition.”
Orr explained that the problem wasn’t detectable on MRIs and X-rays, and he had no reason to take a fuller CT scan in the past because he had no neck issues.
“I definitely feel blessed finding out this way because what a lot of people don’t know is one of my teammates in high school got paralyzed on the football field. So I’ve seen that up close and personal,” Orr said. “That affected not just his life, but the lives of others around him. That’s one thing that me and my family, we put things in perspective. It was tough news anyway, but you’d rather find out being in good health rather than finding out the alternative way.”
Orr said he consulted with other specialists and they all told him the condition put him at too much risk in a contact sport. Once he came to grips with that reality, Orr started notifying friends, coaches and teammates. That process continued Friday as he celebrated the end of a short yet rewarding career.
“Being so proud of what he’s done and where he’s gone and knowing the future, whether it’s financially or performance-wise, that’s the hardest thing for me,” said Ravens linebackers coach Don Martindale, who told Orr as a rookie that he had the potential to start in the NFL. “I wanted more things for him, but it’s just like I told him, it’s hard to go through life without saying, ’I coulda, shoulda, woulda.’ But he can say that in this aspect.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Edward Lee and columnist Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.