The word explode is what got my attention.
It’s just not a word you ever expect to hear from a doctor.
I’m sitting there, kind of dozing off. You know how a doctor’s office can put you to sleep? Everything’s white, it’s quiet, kind of cold. My dad and my agent are sitting there with me, waiting. Then the spine specialist that the Ravens had sent me to see walks into the room, looking all doctor-like in his white coat, holding the results from my MRI and CT scan.
He sits down and cuts right to the chase.
“In my medical opinion, you need to stop playing football immediately.”
That wakes me up.
The only reason I was even there was because I had suffered a herniated disc a couple of weeks earlier against the Steelers on Christmas Day. The injury ended my 2016 season, so the Ravens team doctors wanted to look at my spine to see what was happening. That was when they found something they hadn’t expected — “a serious cause for concern,” they called it.
I had just had a breakout season, and I was due to become a restricted free agent. I had signed with the Ravens in 2014 after going undrafted out of North Texas, so I was one of the lowest-paid players on the team. But the Ravens and I had had some preliminary talks last season that indicated I was in line to possibly get a second-round tender, which is worth about $2.8 million, for 2017 — far more than I had made in my first three years combined.
I had worked my whole life to put myself in this position. I was only 24 years old. My NFL career was just beginning.
And this guy’s telling me it’s over?
Is he serious?
Now, I’m no doctor, but I’ll do my best to explain what he told me next:
Apparently, I had been born with a rare congenital spine condition. My C-1 vertebrae — the one at the top of my neck, just below my skull — is not completely developed. It’s about 80% as big as it should be, and it’s also kind of split at each end, making it weaker and more prone to cracking, breaking or even shattering. And this is a problem because the C-1 helps control the movements of your head and neck. It also plays a big role in helping you breathe.
And then after throwing all this medical stuff at me, the doctor sums it up in terms I could understand a little better.
“If you take one hit the wrong way, your C-1 could explode.”
“You could die, on the spot.”
I could die.
On the spot.
After he says that, I kind of check out, mentally. My mind drifts to a vision of myself lining up for a play at midfield at M&T Bank Stadium.
The sun is out and we’re wearing our alternate home uniforms, the all-blacks. The stands are filled with Ravens fans in purple. The ball is snapped. The running back takes the handoff and comes right up the gut. The hole opens up and I come downhill full speed and meet the the back at the line of scrimmage. We collide, and we both go to the ground.
I don’t feel the contact.
I don’t feel the explosion.
The running back gets up.
Guys wave to the sideline for the trainers to come out.
The stadium goes silent.
Everything goes silent.
Now, I don’t feel anything.
I imagine myself lying on the Ravens logo at midfield like a chalk outline, my C-1 shattered into tiny pieces of bone, floating around inside my neck like pebbles. Guys from both teams are gathering around me, all of them taking a knee and then praying. My parents are watching from the stands, the rest of my family and friends are watching at home. The TV broadcast cuts to a commercial….
I snap out of my daydream and I realize that I haven’t really thought about death since I was nine years old, the first time I put a football helmet on. I remember holding the helmet in my hands and seeing a little white sticker on the back. A warning:
SEVERE BRAIN OR NECK INJURY, INCLUDING PARALYSIS OR DEATH, MAY ALSO OCCUR WHILE PLAYING FOOTBALL.
I don’t know why, but I’ve always remembered that warning. I don’t remember if that’s what it said word for word, but it was something like that.
I mostly just remember the word death.
Back then, I wasn’t concerned with dying, or suffering a long-term injury. I was a kid. I just wanted to play football.
But now, I’m being warned again — this time by a doctor — about serious injury … about death.
And I realize that that’s not how I want to leave this earth.
I don’t want my life to end on a football field.
I don’t want to die during a commercial break.
The doctor left the room and it was just me, my agent and my dad. Neither of them had said a word since the doctor had come in.
I asked them, “You guys O.K.?
They looked at each other, and then my dad said, “Are you O.K.?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve been playing football my whole life, and I’ve never had a problem. But if the doctor feels this way, and he’s telling me I should stop playing or I might die on the field, then I can’t go out there and play, can I?”
They both just looked at me.
“I guess I’m done.”
We walked out of the doctor’s office and out to the parking lot. My agent got in his car and my dad and I got into ours, and as soon as I shut the car door, my phone started blowing up. Text, after text, after text. I couldn’t even finish reading one before another one would pop up.
“I’m so proud of you!”
I had no idea what they were talking about … but then I realized: While the doctor had been telling me that the next hit I took could kill me, and that my career was basically over, the NFL had announced its All-Pro selections. I had made the second team. And the texts kept coming in.
“You made it!”
“This is just the beginning!”
“Can’t wait to see what you do next season!”
It took everything I had to not break down and cry.
The texts kept coming for the next few days, like little aftershocks, and I didn’t have the heart to tell anybody the truth. What was I gonna do, text somebody back who’s wishing me luck next year and say what’s really on my mind?
There is no next year.
Nah. I just texted, “Thanks.”
As the days passed, it started to feel like my spinal condition was this thing that was hanging over me … this secret that I was keeping from the world. And after about two weeks, I couldn’t stand it anymore and I decided to announce my retirement to the world. I kind of wanted to do it just so people would stop wishing me luck for a 2017 season that was never going to happen for me.
And this is where I think I need to clear a few things up.
There has been a lot of confusion about whether or not I sought a second opinion before I retired.
I did not.
I said in my retirement press conference in January that I had spoken to multiple doctors — which is true. I had talked to doctors on the Ravens staff, and then I saw the spine specialist they referred me to.
Steven Senne/AP Images
I don’t think anybody who knew what [the doctor] had said to me that day in his office was thinking, Well, maybe Zach can still play?
So technically, I did speak to multiple doctors.
But I only got one medical opinion.
A lot of people said it wasn’t very smart for me to make such a big decision without seeking a second opinion, and maybe they’re right. Maybe I did rush my decision to retire.
But what really bothered me was that I saw a lot of negative comments directed towards the Ravens. Like, How could they just take one doctor’s word for it? Zach Orr was a budding star … how could they not seek a second opinion?
Well, it was the Ravens’ spine specialist who was the one who recommended that I stop playing football. It was a doctor they trusted, and the outlook was so serious, so grim, that to the best of my knowledge, the Ravens didn’t believe they needed a second opinion. They put my health and my well being — they put me as a person — ahead of their football interests, and I appreciated that. That’s why, to me, Baltimore is a first-class organization.
As for me … why didn’t I seek a second opinion?
Well, nobody told me to.
My agent is more than a agent to me, he is also a family friend, and he was in the room with me when the doctor gave me his opinion. He heard for himself how serious it was. So when I decided to retire, my agent treated me like Zach Orr the person, not Zach Orr the football player, and he respected my decision because he cares more about my health than he does about money or football.
And my family was just thankful that I learned about my spinal condition before it was too late.
What the doctor told me shook me up pretty good. I don’t think anybody who knew what he had said to me that day in his office was thinking, Well, maybe Zach can still play?
They were all scared, just like I was.
So nobody told me to get a second opinion.
And before I retired, I chose to not get one.
My dad didn’t want any his four sons to play football. He never watched games on TV. He never played with us in the yard — I’ve never played catch with my dad. On Saturdays and Sundays, my brothers and I would have to go upstairs to watch football on the small TV because my dad would be downstairs watching golf or NASCAR on the big TV.
When we’d ask him to watch football with us, he’d say, “Boys, you don’t know how much football I’ve seen.”
My dad, Terry Orr, played tight end for nine years in the NFL in the ’80s and ’90s, mostly with the Redskins. He’s a two-time Super Bowl champion. And football wore him down. The game has changed a lot since then. Guys still get beat up nowadays. But not like they did back then.
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
He suffered a number of injuries during his career, but in 1993 he broke four vertebrae in his upper back, and that’s what ended his career.
To this day, when it gets cold where my parents live in Texas, his back locks up on him and he can barely move. Every year, around November, we can tell when winter is coming, because dad spends more and more time on the couch or in bed.
He didn’t want that for his sons.
But that didn’t stop us from playing football. All four of us kind of gravitated toward the game. We saw his old pictures and trophies and rings. We played it with kids in the neighborhood. We just fell in love with football on our own.
Then, one day, my brothers and I found a cardboard box filled with old video tapes. And right in the middle of all our kids movies — right there with The Lion King, Flubber and The Sandlot — were tapes of some of my dad’s old college and pro games. It was like we had struck gold.
I remember specifically that the first tape we watched was when my dad was a running back at Texas. The Longhorns were playing TCU, and he broke off like an 82-yard run. He ran over one defender and then just took off and left everybody else in the dust.
My brothers and I looked at each other like, Damn, Dad was pretty good.
I guess it’s ironic that our dad didn’t want us to play because watching him play was what really sold us on the game. But he always allowed us to make our own decisions. So when we signed up to play for the first time, his only stipulation was that we listen to our coaches and work hard and play the game the right way — that we always give maximum effort.
And we did.
Aside from my family, football has always been my greatest love. So after I had been retired for a couple of months, and OTAs and off-season workouts started back up and I wasn’t there, I started to get the itch.
A lot of guys had reached out to me, current and former players who had had neck or spine issues — or who knew guys who had — and who had gotten a prognosis like mine and then gotten second opinions that said something else, and then kept on playing without incident. It got to the point where it felt like just about every other day I had somebody different texting me or DMing me like, “Did you get a second opinion?”
But any time I thought about actually going to see another doctor, I’d talk myself out of it, thinking, What’s the point?
Then I met Seth Russell.
I had played through a shoulder injury for much of last year. And after the season, in addition to getting my spine checked out, I also had reconstructive shoulder surgery. So after I retired, I was rehabbing my shoulder like three or four times a week at a gym near my home in Texas. The guys there knew my story, and one of them introduced me to Seth, who had played quarterback at Baylor the past few years. He was working out at the same gym.
Seth had broken a bone in his neck when he was a junior in college, and he had been through a process a lot like mine. A doctor had told him that he was done, that he shouldn’t play football anymore because he was at a greater risk for serious injury.
But Seth didn’t want to hear that. He wanted to keep playing. So he sought additional opinions, and after visiting a few doctors, he got some that said he could continue playing.
He came back and played last season at Baylor, and now he’s currently a free agent looking to continue his career in the NFL.
After telling me his story, he told me about a doctor in West Virginia. So I went there to visit Seth’s spine specialist … just to see what he would say.
When Seth’s doctor looked at my C-1, he agreed with the diagnosis that it was not fully developed. But he also analyzed the tissue and fibers surrounding my C-1, and he said that my body had basically realized that my C-1 wasn’t fully formed, so it had created an extra cushion of tissue around the bone to protect it. That’s why I had been able to play for so many years without my C-1 exploding.
The herniated disc was still a concern for him, but as far as my C-1, he said that he wasn’t worried about it. He felt that I wasn’t at any increased risk. He told me he didn’t think I needed to stop playing football.
That was encouraging. But still, I was thinking, O.K., now it’s 1–1. I got one saying I can’t play, and one saying I can. This still doesn’t mean I should get back on the field.
So I sent my MRI and CT scan to another spine specialist down in Florida, and he agreed with the second doctor. His opinion was that I didn’t have to stop playing football.
I said in my retirement press conference that if there was any way I could come back, I would.
Now I felt like there was a way.
Here we are again, at a place where I feel like I need to clear a few things up.
The Ravens never tried to talk me into coming out of retirement. In fact, when I informed the team of my initial decision to retire, it was the Ravens who suggested having a press conference with Coach Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome, and with my teammates and coaches in attendance. They wanted to honor me for what I had given to their franchise, and it was also an opportunity for me to thank all of them for what they had given to me. The Ravens have been 100% supportive throughout the entire process.
And my family didn’t talk me into coming back, either.
It’s been a crazy year for my family and me so far, but I think the most difficult part was when we saw people out in the media, and on Twitter and whatnot, accusing my family of pushing me back into playing football so I could land a big contract and get paid … like my family was in my ear because they were trying to mooch off of me.
I’m a grown man. I make my own decisions, even if I tend to rush into them at times.
My family doesn’t mooch off of me.
They support me in everything I do.
I chose to come back on my own because like I said, after my family, football is my greatest love. And when I saw a slight glimmer of hope that I could return to the field, I wanted to give it a shot.
Perry Knotts/AP Images
So at the beginning of June, almost five months after I had retired, I called Ozzie Newsome.
Originally, when I retired, I was scheduled to become a restricted free agent. That would have meant that other teams could present offers to me, like they would to unrestricted free agents, but the Ravens would be able to retain my rights by matching any offer that came in.
But because I had retired, nobody offered me a contract — not even the Ravens. And they didn’t tender me before the deadline, because … why would you tender a guy who’s retired?
So I became an unrestricted free agent. I could sign with any NFL team who wanted to sign me.
Some people thought I was trying to be sneaky — like I retired in January knowing that I would come back after the Ravens hadn’t tendered me. Like I was trying to scam the system to get around being a restricted free agent.
That’s not even the slightest bit true. And that doesn’t even make sense because I didn’t want to become a free agent.
I wanted to be a Raven.
I said as much to Ozzie when I called and told him that I wanted to come back. And he said that he wanted me to be a Raven, too.
“But you have to pass a physical,” he said.
Of course. This was going to be the biggest hurdle I’d face in my comeback.
So the Ravens flew me up to Baltimore for a workout and a physical. But at the end of the day, their doctors stood by their initial decision and said they couldn’t clear me to play — not with my spinal condition. They said it was too big a risk, both for them and for me.
That upset me a little bit because I wanted so badly to be a Raven again, but I understood. And once that process was complete and I knew I wasn’t going to be returning to Baltimore, I decided to announce that I was coming out of retirement. I wanted to see if a team would clear me to play. And if one did, I was going to play.
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
I visited five more teams and I interviewed with another 11 over the phone. Some teams looked at my C-1 and said that it was too big a risk and wouldn’t clear me. Others looked at my C-1 and said that it wasn’t a big concern, but that they were concerned about my herniated disc. I could have spinal fusion surgery to fix the herniated disc, but fused vertebrae would put increased pressure on my C-1, which was already weak. So they wouldn’t clear me, either.
And a couple of teams noticed something else when they looked at my MRI and CT scans.
They noticed little white spots on my spinal cord, which is a sign of damage to the cord as a result of my herniated disc. That was something else that could put me at an increased risk for a spinal cord injury.
So if a team wasn’t bothered by the C-1, they were bothered by the herniated disc. Or the spots. It was always something.
Six teams in person, 11 more over the phone — that’s 17 teams, more than half the league — and I couldn’t get one to give me the green light. Because at the end of the day, my spine was too jacked up.
And no team wants to be the one that has a player die on the field.
Today, I’m officially retiring from professional football … again. And I’m even more at peace this time around because the teams have spoken. If there was any way I could come back, I would.
Now, I know that’s not possible.
So, with that said, I want to give a shout-out to my family. I love y’all so much. You’ve always stood by me.
Shout out to Coach Harbaugh, Ozzie Newsome, Steve Bisciotti and the entire Ravens organization for being first class.
Shout out to Coach Wink for believing in me before anybody else.
Shout out to C.J. Mosley, Albert McClellan, Daryl Smith and Anthony Levine Sr. for being like brothers to me.
Shout out to all my teammates for always having my back.
And lastly, shout out to the best fans in the world. I’m gonna miss that sea of purple on Sundays. I’m gonna miss the electricity of M&T Bank Stadium. I’m gonna miss seeing everybody around town wearing their Ravens gear on Purple Fridays.
And you know what? I’m one of you guys now. I’m joining the flock. I’ll be wearing my purple on Friday and rooting the Ravens to victory on Sunday.
Logan Bowles/USA TODAY Sports
We have a saying in Baltimore: Once a Raven, always a Raven. Well, I wanted to end my career as a Raven. And even though it didn’t happen the way I envisioned, I’ve done that. I wish it didn’t have to end like this. I wish it didn’t have to end after I had just had the best season of my life. I mean, I was an undrafted free agent out of North Texas who came in and in his third season, led the Ravens’ defense — the Ravens’ defense — in tackles. That in itself was a dream come true.
But it’s just bad timing. Sometimes, that’s how life goes. I believe everything happens for a reason, and I’m excited for the next chapter of my life, whatever that may bring.
I’m just thankful that the Ravens gave me the opportunity to show people the kind of player I could be before it was all over.