The End Comes Way Too Soon

Jan. 20, 2017

By Eric Capper

When my phone rang in the middle of a meeting Wednesday morning and that familiar picture of Zach Orr popped up on my screen, I figured he was just calling to say he was back in town and we should get together for lunch. It's the same picture of him that I've had in my phone since Jan. 1, 2014. It's a picture of him wearing a hat that reads "Heart of Dallas Bowl Champions." It was a joyous moment when he was celebrating the culmination of a great Mean Green career with his teammates at the Cotton Bowl.

However, this phone call was different. There was the usual small talk questions from him, "how's the family," "how's recruiting going," etc. But, there was something in his voice that didn't sound right. "I was calling to tell you before you heard it from anyone else, I've been to a couple doctors and they found something wrong with my spine. My football career is over." It was like he almost said it in passing.

Wait. What? This can't be right. You are in the absolute prime of your career. You finally earned your way into the starting lineup this year, and not only led your team in tackles, but you finished ninth in the entire NFL. You earned All-Pro honors. You played 92 percent of your team's defensive snaps. Your head coach John Harbaugh said about you, "he's going to become one of the best linebackers in football." You are in a contract year, and will soon be financially rewarded for all of that hard work. This is the apex of your football career, there is no way that can be taken away from you.

Those of us who work in college athletics do so for different reasons. For some it's just a job. Others love being around sports and it affords them that ability. For myself and many others it's because we feel like we can make a difference in the lives of 18-22 year-old young people, who also happen to be student-athletes. Our mission statement for North Texas Athletics is "Building champions and preparing leaders through the pursuit of perfection in academics, athletics and life." Simple and to the point. In over 20 years in college athletics I've worked with thousands of student-athletes. If I have helped only a few become better, more productive members of society, I consider my work a success.

The unexpected effect of my job over the years was the impact that those same 18-22 year olds would have on me. I expected that they would come in as freshmen, I would work with them for four or five years, they would graduate and I would never hear from them again unless they came back for a game at homecoming. How wrong I was. They have become my friends. I go to their weddings. I know their families and they know mine. We go to dinner. We play golf. I celebrate their careers and accomplishments, whether it be as a professional athlete, a coach, a motivational speaker or an insurance salesman. Not a week goes by when I don't hear from at least one former student-athlete via text, phone call or social media. They will be a part of my life forever, and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Zach is one of those guys. I met his parents during his junior season at North Texas and it was easy to see where he gets it from. Terry and Rita Orr are two of the kindest, most giving, honest, hard-working people I have ever met. The first time they invited me into their home, they couldn't have made me feel more welcome. Terry and I share text messages all the time. We discuss everything from the NBA finals to holiday gatherings and everything in between. When I texted him Wednesday to tell him that we were thinking about Zach and the family, it was a typical response from him. Something along the lines of `God has bigger plans and we are thankful that the doctors found this before it was too late'. Wow. How is that for keeping things in perspective?

But, back to Zach. Zach holds a special place in our household. He embodies everything that I want my son to look up to. Someone who is polite and humble. Someone who is hardworking and has tremendous perseverance. Someone who is loyal and trustworthy. Someone who knows what is important in life and doesn't let the balance of faith, family and work get out of alignment.

For the last two years our family has traveled to see Zach play. Our son was always excited about those games, but he was even more excited about seeing Zach at dinner the night before or hanging out with him after the game. His favorite times were the one-on-ones that he had with his idol. The person he held with such reverence. There were many times my wife and I would be having a conversation while this NFL player and this 8-year old were holding a simultaneous conversation right next to us. Zach is his hero, and if we have anything to say about it, that won't change because he isn't wearing a Ravens jersey.

Many student-athletes have passed through these hallways in my 15 years, but there are few, if any, who have the passion and love for their university like Zach does. I won't forget when Patrick Cobbs was playing in the NFL how he would reach out to me nearly every week during the season to talk about the previous Mean Green game and to see how the team was going to fare the next week. I thought that was rare. Zach took it to another level. During his rookie season with the Ravens, he penned a letter to his former teammates when North Texas started the season 2-6, telling them to stay the course. They won their next game and two of their last four. Zach was one of those guys who was proud to announce during the starting lineups on a nationally televised game that he came from "The University of North Texas." He was a model student-athlete while he was here, and after he left, he took full advantage of the platform that his new found fame provided him to show his pride in his school.

Zach Orr has probably never heard of Bob Teague. Teague is also a former college football player, who later went on to become a successful television news reporter, anchor and producer - mostly before Zach was even born. Teague is probably most famous for his quote "We leave footprints as we journey through life - make sure yours are worth following." Zach Orr has left footprints on everyone around the North Texas football family. He has left footprints on me and my family. For my son, and anyone, they are definitely worth following.