By Todd Karpovich, The Sports Xchange
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Baltimore Ravens linebacker Zachary Orr is just grateful he can literally walk away from the game of football.
The 24-year-old was forced to retire after three seasons because of a congenital neck and spine condition.
Orr was initially placed on injured reserve after suffering a herniated disk Christmas day against the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, the career-ending congenital condition was not diagnosed until he underwent a physical after the season.
The condition leaves him more vulnerable to paralysis or even death if he continues to play.
“One thing that helps me be at peace with this is I gave it my all,” Orr said at a press conference Friday to announce his retirement. “I don’t have any regrets, on the field, off the field. I can leave with a lot of stuff, but one thing I can’t live with is regret. I don’t have any of that in my body.”
Orr was born with his C1 vertebra not fully formed — an issue found in less than 1 percent of the population. The condition however, doesn’t show up with a regular X-ray or MRI.
An after-season CT scan finally revealed the problem. Orr previously did not have that test because there was no history of neck problems, and therefore, not necessary.
When asked whether he thought about playing with the condition, Orr said that decision was made for him.
“If I could pass a physical, I would probably take that risk,” Orr said. “But I can’t pass a physical.”
Orr also said that reports claiming the Ravens tried to talk him out of his decision to retire are “110 percent false.”
It is a disappointing end to a promising career.
Orr evolved from an undrafted player from North Texas to a starter this season. He tied for eighth in the NFL with 132 combined tackles and earned second-team All-Pro honors.
As a restricted free agent, Baltimore was looking into offering him a contract extension, general manager Ozzie Newsome said at the press conference. Newsome, who is friends with Orr’s father and former Washington Redskins tight end Terry Orr, became emotional several times when talking about the young linebacker.
“I don’t think there’s been any player more inspirational to me over the last three years than Zach,” Newsome said.
Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees was also became emotional when he talked about Orr’s impact this season. His retirement leaves a void at linebacker for the Ravens.
“He’s one of the smartest football players I’ve ever been around,” Pees said. “That’s what makes the difference between football players and great football players.”
In addition to Newsome and Pees, head coach John Harbaugh, linebackers coach Don Martindale, and teammates Albert McClellan, Eric Weddle and C.J. Mosley attended the press conference.
“You often hear that football builds character, and that’s definitely true,” Harbaugh said. “It also shines a light on character, and it shows people kind of who they are, and to me, a shining example of that is Zach Orr.”
Orr becomes the latest player to cite long-term health when cutting short a promising career.
Chris Borland, a third-round pick in 2014, retired from the San Francisco 49ers after a standout rookie season because of concussion concerns. The same offseason, Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis retired from the 49ers at age 30.