Family history says they should walk away, but the Orr brothers can’t quit football
MADISON, Wisc. Chris Orr stood awkwardly in a sterile office surrounded by a few unfamiliar, hard plastic machines as a spinal specialist poked at his neck. It was early January, and Wisconsin’s middle linebacker was as healthy as he had been in months.
A couple weeks earlier, Orr started running for the first time since tearing his ACL on the first play of the first game of his sophomore season. The knee surgery that fall was the first on his right leg. A year earlier, team doctors had used a minor procedure to remove an infection from the other one. He thought it was just a bruise until a medical trainer explained that the pain in his shin was connected to the fever that spiked his body temperature to 109 degrees two days before he played in a game against Illinois.
This was a different kind of trip to the doctor’s office, though. One that most people would consider far more frightening.
On Jan. 6, Chris and his older brother Nick, a three-year starter at safety for TCU, were home in Desoto, Texas, on semester break. They were returning from a haircut when they found Zach, another Orr brother, waiting for them in the family room with an odd smirk on his face. Zach had been named a second-team All-Pro linebacker that morning after wrapping up his third season with the Baltimore Ravens. He had also just learned that his football career was over.
While checking on a herniated disc, doctors noticed that Zach’s C-1 vertebrae didn’t fully form when he was born. The bone at top of his spine that provides support for his head and neck was smaller than it should have been. One direct hit in the right spot could cause it to shatter, cutting off Zach’s air supply and killing him on the field.
“I was terrified,” Chris says, thinking back to that conversation in the family room. “This could’ve happened when he was in high school. There were plenty of big hits in college. We went to all those homes games. We could’ve watched him carted off. I couldn’t imagine seeing that.”
The problem wasn’t hereditary, but the Orrs decided Nick and Chris should get checked out just in case. So Chris spent an afternoon of his winter break in the south Dallas suburbs with a spinal specialist poking at his neck. Nick slipped in and out of X-ray and MRI machines 30 minutes down the road in Fort Worth. To them, that part wasn’t scary. Their spines were fine. It was just another task to play the game they love. They both remained unshakably certain that football is worth it.
“We just know it’s a part of the game,” Nick says.
A long family history in football didn’t allow Nick and Chris the same luxury that most college players enjoy — the misconception among the young and strong that they are invincible. The Orr boys know that health problems are inevitable. They know their wings are held together with wax. And yet, they’ll both take the field this weekend as fearless defensive cogs for two of the 10 the best teams in the country. Which begs the question: Why?
CHRIS FELL IN LOVE WITH FOOTBALL
because Nick did. Nick followed Zach’s lead. Zach followed their oldest brother, Terrance, now an assistant coach at DeSoto High School. Most Texas boys in Terrance’s shoes are taught to love the game by their fathers. That wasn’t exactly the case for the Orr brothers, though.
The Orr family patriarch, Terry, played tight end for nine seasons in the NFL and won a pair of Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins. Along the way he dislocated a couple shoulders, had an ACL “dangling by a thread” and lost count of exactly how many times he had his knees scoped. The helmet of a tackler broke four bones in his lower back in 1993, and Terry decided he had played enough.
“That was pretty much it,” he says. “I got to nine years and said, ‘Well, that’s good. That’s three times the average.'”
He had seen enough football at that point in his life, so the television at the Orr house was usually tuned to golf or NASCAR on Sunday afternoons. When the boys went into the backyard to play catch, Terry stayed seated inside. It’s not that he necessarily wanted to discourage them from playing, he says, but he certainly wasn’t going to push football on any of his sons.
There was the trouble with standing up to consider, too.
“I just remember him getting up from the couch and the look of pain on his face,” Chris says. “He would scrunch his face up real hard and grind his teeth.”