Zachary Orr‘s career in the NFL was just taking off—2nd team All Pro inside linebacker for the Ravens this past season— when a routine exit-physical MRI led to further testing and the revelation of a potentially fatal congenital neck/spine condition. Orr announced Friday that he will retire from playing football at age 24
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”, as described by Ravens staff writer Ryan Mink.
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.
“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.
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.
“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 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 second year.
“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 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. HC John 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.