Zach Orr wasn’t sure what his future would hold when his NFL playing career came to an unexpected end in 2017.
Football was the former North Texas standout’s first love.
Orr picked up the sport when he was young, became a standout player at DeSoto, then at North Texas and finally with the Baltimore Ravens.
A previously undiscovered congenital neck condition forced Orr to retire and sent him on a search for a new life path that has led to coaching.
Orr joined the Ravens’ coaching and front office staffs in August 2017. He spoke about the transition this month after UNT announced it had included him in its 2019 Athletics Hall of Fame class.
“I’m loving coaching,” Orr said. “It’s not as much fun as playing. I love football. I loved everything about it when I was playing. Now as a coach, I can focus on the bigger picture. It’s amazing. It’s football. You still have the camaraderie. The coaches are like my teammates now.”
Orr works with the Ravens’ linebackers and is learning the ropes of coaching on the NFL level from head coach John Harbaugh and his staff.
The staff thought Orr would be a good fit and didn’t hesitate to give him a new start in football after his playing career came to its unexpected end.
“We all knew when he first had to leave, because of the injury, we said, ‘This guy needs to be a coach,’” former Ravens defensive coordinator and current Tennessee Titans assistant coach Dean Pees told the Baltimore Sun shortly after Orr joined the staff. “He’s really good.”
Former UNT coach Dan McCarney said he knew that Orr would find a new path in life shortly after his former star player’s career came to a close.
“There was just something really special about him,” McCarney said. “You want someone all the time in your program who represents integrity, sportsmanlike class and loyalty. He was the best in my five years at North Texas and one of the best I have been around in my career spanning 45 years in Division I football as a player and coach.”
Orr wasn’t sure what his future would hold in the days after he retired and abandoned a brief comeback attempt. He considered charity work and coaching on the college level.
Neither of those paths is as attractive as coaching in the NFL now that Orr has gotten a taste of the profession.
“It’s a great transition up here,” Orr said. “All I know at the pro level is the Ravens. I love the organization. It’s a special group with the coaches and the people on the administrative side.
“I learn something new every day.”
Orr is hoping those lessons will lead to a long-term NFL career that will allow him to build on his considerable legacy in football.
Orr was a highly regarded recruit out of DeSoto and was told by UNT’s staff when he arrived that he could start right away. He went on to letter in all four of his seasons with the Mean Green and finish in a tie for third in program history with 365 tackles.
Orr was a first-team All-Conference USA selection as a senior.
He credited the coaches he worked with at UNT for helping him develop as a person and player, including McCarney and defensive coordinator John Skladany, as well as the school’s administrative staff.
“Leaving North Texas, I was prepared,” Orr said. “There have been so many people who have helped me out.”
The lessons Orr learned at UNT helped him find his way into the NFL despite being passed over in the draft. He signed with the Ravens as a free agent and gradually worked his way into a starting role.
Orr was a second-team All-Pro in 2016 after finishing with 130 tackles and three interceptions. He suffered a herniated disc in his neck in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Christmas in 2016.
Orr found out a short time later that the C-1 vertebra at the top of his neck never fully formed, putting him at heightened risk for catastrophic injury or death.
Orr retired in January 2017. He briefly considered a return but was told by 17 NFL teams that they would not clear him to play.
Orr is still pursuing an NFL dream. He’s just doing so in a different capacity while keeping an eye on his old college team.
Orr is hoping to come back to Denton for UNT’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony during the program’s annual Champions Weekend on Oct. 18 and 19 that will feature the Mean Green’s game against Middle Tennessee.
“I will do everything I can,” Orr said. “I haven’t been able to come back as much as I want.”
Orr hasn’t been to a UNT game since homecoming two years ago, but he has found time to follow the Mean Green.
“He’s Mean Green,” said Terry Orr, Zach Orr’s father who also played in the NFL. “He will tell you where he’s from.”
Those roots have given Orr a sense of pride in the program he helped build. He led UNT to a win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl at the end of the 2013 season.
The Mean Green have played in bowl games in each of the last three seasons under new coach Seth Littrell and upgraded their facilities under athletic director Wren Baker.
“It’s neat to see how much the program has grown since I have been there,” Orr said. “Littrell and Baker have taken it to another level. I try to catch games online. I look at North Texas as a big Division I program.”