The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nate Orchard was ready to give up. After becoming Redskins’ unlikely hero, he wants to be more.

Washington Redskins outside linebacker Nate Orchard is congratulated by coaches after recovering a fumble near the end of Sunday's win over the Carolina Panthers. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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By the time the Orchard family hung a Christmas wreath on the front door of their red-brick home in Salt Lake City, Nate had considered giving up. The 26-year-old felt as if he was in the best shape of his life — he had recorded four sacks this preseason and recently run his fastest 40-yard dash (4.7 seconds) — yet he had struggled to find a team after the Miami Dolphins cut him before the start of the season.

The outside linebacker had gotten tryouts — nine in 11 weeks — but never a contract.

Orchard fell into a routine, flying Monday, working out Tuesday and returning home shortly after to train and install windows, 11 to 15 per day Wednesday through Friday, a side-hustle that started to feel like a main gig. The schedule strained his family, particularly his 6-year-old daughter, Katherine, who already had attended four different schools as her dad bounced around the NFL. She sometimes admitted she didn’t want him to make a team, because work meant change and work meant he was home less.

When things didn’t pan out with the Kansas City Chiefs in late November — a team he had been with for a month last season, one that said it liked him — the thoughts creeping in after every tryout felt inescapable.

“It hurt,” Orchard said, slipping into his mind-set from that time: “Maybe I shouldn't play anymore. Maybe I should just focus on the family and find a normal job.”

Then Orchard, having given it one more shot, was suddenly in the cafeteria at the Washington Redskins’ practice facility last week, signing a contract on his way out to practice. Then, four days later, he was running onto the field, the first-stringer after an injury to Montez Sweat and an ejection of Ryan Anderson. Then, at the goal line in the fourth quarter, he was polishing off a career day — four tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery — with two crucial plays to preserve a win over the Carolina Panthers.

“His growth has been extraordinary for one week,” Redskins interim coach Bill Callahan said of Orchard on Wednesday, hinting the edge rusher could sneak into the defense’s regular rotation — the type of opportunity occasionally presented to forgotten players during spiraling seasons such as this Redskins one.

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The team has four games left to see whether castoffs such as Orchard and practice squad lifers such as fellow linebacker Chris Odom, who recorded four tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in the Carolina win, are shooting stars or players who could stick around. There is a chance at some stability for Orchard because, even though it’s uncertain who will lead the front office next season, the Redskins will need outside linebackers, with just three under contract in Sweat, Anderson and Ryan Kerrigan.

Orchard won’t allow himself to think that far ahead. He learned about the league with the Cleveland Browns, who drafted him in the second round in 2015 and cycled through three general managers in three seasons. He attributes his resilience to his difficult upbringing, which gained a national audience on the 2018 season of HBO’s training camp documentary series “Hard Knocks.” In Orchard’s words, it’s like “The Blind Side.”

He grew up Nate Fakahafua and moved around “bad situations” in the Los Angeles area with his mother, Ana, and older brother, Max. One of his mother’s boyfriends got violent, and not long after, he decided to moved to Utah with Max. Ana wired them rent money every month for about a year, but Orchard said she eventually stopped, and the boys got evicted.

Orchard didn’t want to move back to California with Max, so he did the only thing he thought might work. He went to the Orchard family’s home. The father, Dave, coached him in AAU basketball, and even though Nate rarely spoke, they bonded on daily drives to practice. Nate asked the Orchards whether he could live with them, and after some hesitation, they adopted him.

The transition was turbulent at times, but the middle schooler attended classes regularly for the first time, grew close with the five other Orchard children and learned how to read from his adopted mom, Katherine. Nate developed into a dominant athlete, winning state championships in basketball and football. He committed to the University of Utah and, as a senior, led a dominant defense with 18½ sacks and got nicknamed “The Mayor of Sack Lake City.”

When the Browns drafted Orchard, the university plastered his face on billboards around the city: “Are U a Utah Man?” They were no longer there after last season when, cut by the Browns, Bills and Chiefs, Orchard moved back to Salt Lake City and the red-brick home.

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Maegan, Orchard’s wife, supported him as the Seahawks and then Dolphins let him go this year. She helped care for their three children, and Orchard went to the gym by 6 every morning so he could be home to drive the kids to school. He trained with his high school coaches until it all paid off last week with the Redskins.

He grew quiet this week at the Redskins’ facility as he described keeping his composure through the hardest moments of his journey.

“I got a wife and three kids. I don’t want them to see me break,” he said. “I don’t want them to see me weak, because that’s just not who I am. That’s not how I’m built.”

The Orchards couldn’t make it to Nate’s first game with the Redskins. They watched at home in wonder as, seemingly with each passing minute, he became a bigger part of the defense. He made the second-to-last tackle of the game against Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, which Callahan credited with saving the game. Orchard joked he only made it because he couldn’t go to overtime.

“My legs were fried,” he said, laughing.

The Orchards were still talking about the game when they switched off the television Sunday and started hanging ornaments on their Christmas tree. Then, Orchard’s mom Katherine said, one of their phones pinged. It was a video of Nate giving a postgame interview to NBC Sports Washington.

“My family, we been through a lot,” he said, his voice cracking, unable to contain the emotion any longer. “So to come out and represent myself and my family . . .” He dabbed at his eyes. “It means everything.”

Katherine, his mother, looked on as Katherine, his daughter, watched the video. The 6-year-old saw her father’s tears, and she couldn’t hold back her own. She said she was proud of her dad and added that she wouldn’t mind if he stayed away a little while longer.

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