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Ravens' Zach Orr handles retirement with class, amazing appreciation

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Orr sad to have to retire at 24 (0:22)

Ravens LB Zach Orr talks about retiring from the NFL due to a congenital spine and neck condition. (0:22)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Zach Orr's retirement news conference should've been the saddest day of a blossoming career. Instead, the Baltimore Ravens linebacker brought a refreshing perspective rather than tears.

A congenital spine and neck condition, diagnosed after the season, ripped away a handsome payday and any chance of playing in the NFL with his younger brothers, who are in college. But, as Orr put it, he was able to play the game he loves for 15 years and can literally walk away from it.

Orr knows all too well that might not have been the case. In high school, one of his teammates was paralyzed on the football field.

"I’ve seen that up close and personal, seeing how that affected not just his life but life around others," Orr said during his half-hour news conference Friday. "That’s one thing me and my family put things in perspective. If we had to find out, which was tough news anyway, I’d rather find out being in good health than the alternative way."

Orr is the 13th NFL player since the start of the 2015 calendar year to retire at age 25 or younger, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But Orr isn't stepping away from the game over concerns about repetitive head trauma, as 49ers linebacker Chris Borland did, or because of the lack of a desire to play the game, as Titans quarterback Jake Locker did.

The decision to play was taken out of Orr's hands: His condition won't let him pass a physical.

"If there’s some miracle way or some miracle treatment where I can play the game again, I promise you I’d be the first one to grab my cleats, start back training, and find a way to get back out there," Orr said.

Orr worked his way from being an undrafted rookie to the leading tackler on the NFL's No. 7 defense. Last season, he was only one of two NFL players with at least 100 tackles, three interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery (Carolina's Thomas Davis was the other).

Orr earned a total of $1.8 million over those three seasons, including a $3,000 signing bonus. As a restricted free agent, Orr was in line to make between $2.6 million and $2.8 million and could've received more if he agreed to a contract extension with Baltimore.

It would've been understandable for Orr to show frustration or sorrow over the cruel circumstances. Orr, though, expressed appreciation for playing the game since he was 9 years old with a condition that could've led to paralysis or death.

"At the end of the day, when I found out about the news, it was something I looked at as a blessing," Orr said.

Orr acknowledged that there have been times when he's shed some tears over the abrupt end to his career. The most recent time came a couple of days ago when he got a call from retired wide receiver Steve Smith. They talked for about a half-hour.

"After that phone call, I broke down," Orr said. "I have my moments."

Orr will go down as one of the more respected players in Ravens history even though he suited up for only three seasons. It was apparent in the way coaches praised his work ethic and intelligence, and the way teammates took time out of their offseason to attend his retirement news conference.

Over the past two days, coaches were going over each third down on defense this season, and they repeatedly saw Orr make plays.

"This guy is one of the smartest football players I’ve ever been around," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "He makes the job easy for coaches. That’s what makes the difference between great football players and football players. This guy right here is a great football player, and I can’t tell you how much we’re going to miss him."

Orr said he has relied heavily on what his older brother Terrance told him: "Instead of asking 'why me?' -- ask 'what's next?'" He will likely get into coaching, and the Ravens are open to bringing him on staff.

"He had a great year, so he left on a very high note," Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "As a friend, I’m very proud of him and happy for him. He was blessed to be able to walk away from the game healthy and at a high point."