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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."

Cold days were always the hardest on Terry, and they still are. He's gone through spells where his back locks up too severely to get out of bed when the temperature drops past a certain point. His knees create their own set of problems.

There are a few pictures or jerseys from his playing days around the house, but the Orr boys mostly learned about their dad's playing days by asking him why he was hurting. Those questions usually prompted some type of story about a big play or a big hit or a confrontation with the likes of Lawrence Taylor.

Their biggest coup and one of the fondest childhood memories the brothers share came when they discovered the old, forgotten box of game tape stashed upstairs in the family house. It was filled with stacks of VHS tapes labeled with their father's name, a date and an opponent.

"Y'all wanna watch daddy play?" one of the older boys asked. Terrance was just starting high school. Chris wasn't much older than 8. And they sat captivated for hours as their dad ran over Horned Frogs and Aggies and then Broncos and Bills. Dinner time eventually broke the spell.

"We found your tapes," one of the older boys said. "Daddy, you were good."

"I told y'all," Terry said, and his bones were a little lighter that night.

TERRY AND HIS WIFE, RITA, SAT at the end of Row 17 in Section G inside Camp Randall Stadium last Saturday watching their youngest son and the ninth-ranked Badgers suffocate Northwestern's offense. This weekend they'll be in Forth Worth to watch Nick and his Horned Frogs face West Virginia. Combined they'll plan to see nearly three dozen games on Friday nights and Saturdays this fall. Last year they watched on Sundays, too.

Terry watches as a father now, not a former player. He cringes at contact and cranes his neck to search for the No. 54 jersey standing upright after plays. He laughs and says he'd cringe just as much when they stub their toes.

The Orrs never sat around the dinner table to discuss the downside of what it takes to fill up a cardboard box with memories from a football career. Terry says he never saw the need. "They've seen their old man walking around," he says. "They know."

The only conversations they had in that regard came when each of the Orr boys started little league football. Terry didn't necessarily want to talk them out of playing, but he wanted to make sure they knew what they were getting into.

"After they made their mind up there is nothing I could really do about it. I wasn't going to second guess or say I don't know about this. I told them it takes a lot of work," he said. "I told them I'm not going out there and running around, I already did my time. If you want to do it, it's a lot of work, so bear down and do it."

And they all worked hard, each brother dragging the next out to the hill at a local middle school where they silently ran sprints with each other all summer. Terrance clawed his way up to a roster spot at Texas State and a coaching gig. Zach was undeterred when he watched a high school teammate paralyzed by a hit on the practice field. He weathered ankle, thumb and shoulder surgeries while climbing from undrafted free agent out of North Texas to become All-Pro during his third year in the NFL. Nick battled through an operation to repair a broken forearm during his final year of high school and landed on TCU's roster. Chris dragged himself through the daily drudgery of rehabbing his ACL to return to the middle of Wisconsin's defense this year.

It's not like there weren't other options or routes to college and a good life for the Orr boys. So, why again did they choose to do this?

Last Saturday, on a third-down play, Chris knifed through the Northwestern offensive line and dragged down quarterback Clayton Thorson for his second sack of the year. He strutted and pumped his fist as a packed stadium applauded him and one father beamed with pride from Section G. Down on the field. Chris says the roar of the crowd leaves him feeling "at peace."

"There's something about 80,000 people cheering," he says. "There's something about that feeling that I can't help but be attracted to."

Adulation, while admittedly a nice perk, is fleeting and abstract compared to the pain and danger he and his brothers witnessed with front-row seats while learning the game. There is more to it than that.

"I know what's coming," Chris says. "But I look at it like this: I think it's fun to hear those stories, and I'd like to have some of my own. 'Why are your knees hurting? Because I played football. Because I did this.' That sounds a lot better to me than, 'Why is your back hurting? Well, I was sitting at this desk. Well, I'm just old.'"

Terry Orr didn't set out to teach his sons to love football, but they learned it from him nonetheless.

"You only get one life," Zach says. "Live it with something you're really passionate about. For us, we love football."

So when the Orr boys get together they trade war stories and compare battle scars. They relive triumphant moments and awkward visits to doctor's offices and heartbreaking conversations in exam rooms. They take their time telling and retelling, honing and shaping the narratives and perhaps stretching them just a little bit, getting them ready for a distant day when their children ask why they're limping. They'll have a story to share then, and to them it will be worth it.