Seattle Seahawks

Nate Orchard was a teen runaway saved by a coach. Now he’s the Seahawks’ newest pass rusher

Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Nate Orchard (54) during warm-ups for an NFL football game in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)
Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Nate Orchard (54) during warm-ups for an NFL football game in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann) AP

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll loves to import guys who have overcome adversity. Guys who have unique stories. Who carry to Seattle sizable chips on their shoulders, from failure or hardship.

Nate Orchard has all of that. And more.

What’s remarkable about Seattle’s newest pass rusher, signed by the team on Thursday, isn’t that he is a former second-round draft choice of the Cleveland Browns. Or that he’s trying to re-start his career after getting dumped by three teams in two months during last season.

It’s that Orchard is even in the NFL. Or, more important, that he graduated from high school then college, and became a husband and father.

He was once a teenage runaway who could barely read.

Now 26, he was Napa’a Lilo Fakahafua when he walked out of his family home and into the streets of Salt Lake City at age 13. He took only the clothes he was wearing. And a basketball.

“I didn’t imagine myself in this position. I was a kid who was lost. No way in heck did I think I’d be here today,” Orchard told me in the spring of 2015 during an interview at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. “I always dreamed of it. But I went off the road. I went astray and wasn’t doing the right things.

“But I’m back on track now.”

The only reasons he went to and played for the University of Utah, the only reasons he then became a Cleveland Brown, a Buffalo Bill, Kansas City Chief and now Seahawk?

Dave and Katherine Orchard.

Nate was born in Los Angeles. He moved away from his mother while in grade school to Salt Lake City, to live with his brother Max who was an 18-year-old father of two children. School wasn’t the first priority in that crowded house of brothers growing up fast.

Dave Orchard was Nate’s coach on a club basketball team. Nate and Orchard’s son were teammates. The coach and his wife Katherine had housed some players who needed help. One day on a ride to practice when he was 12, Nate asked Orchard if he could live with him, too.

Soon coach Orchard and his wife became Nate’s legal guardians.

Not that the ensuing teenage years were smooth from there. That is why he later legally changed his name to Nate Fakahafua Orchard, to honor what the Orchards did for him.

Such as when they searched for three weeks before finding him in Salt Lake City, taking jump shots with his basketball at a park.

He had run away again, this time from home to protest his adoptive parents instituting a bed time.

“They mean everything to me. They’re my parents,” Nate said in 2015 of the Orchards. “They’re folks who didn’t give up on me when things got hard, when I was a stubborn kid and ran away so many times just because I had chores and I had a curfew.

“They didn’t give up on me.”

They saw him mature into a 6-foot-3 basketball player and football wide receiver with grades not just worthy of college, but of a 4.0 grade-point average. He won state titles in both sports for Highland High School. He was all-state at wide receiver. He thought he was going to be a college wide receiver at Utah — until Utes coach Kyle Whittingham offered sage advice.

“Going into Utah at 190 (pounds), that was what I was expected to play at,” Orchard said of wide receiver. “But Coach Whitt said, ‘Hey, put on 60 pounds and you can go to the NFL, I promise you that.’”

He was 195 pounds as a freshman. He was 215 entering his sophomore season. By his junior year he was 225.

“Then I jumped up to 255 going into my senior year,” Orchard said, smiling.

He had 18 1/2 sacks as a senior, setting a Utah school record and tying for most in the nation that season.

He wasn’t a wide receiver anymore.

Orchard gave credit for that fast-track way to the NFL, and to his economics degree, to Utah’s nutrition staff, his own natural maturity — and marriage.

In the spring of 2013 before his junior season at Utah, he married Maegan Webber. They’d dated in high school. In the summer of 2013, their daughter was born. Katherine Mae, named after coach Orchard’s wife and the co-adopter who took him in, turns 6 this summer.

They’ve since had a second child.

Nate says marriage had an impact on his play, too.

“Huge,” he said. “At the same time, being married you go home at a reasonable hour and get plenty of sleep.

“Married. Got a little girl. Doing all the right things. Just taking care of my family is my main priority.

“I’m ready to be the best at the next level.”

He said that in 2015, at the start of his journey into the NFL. The Browns drafted him in the second round two months after that combine. As a rookie he started 11 games for Cleveland.

He’s only started two in three seasons for three different teams since.

The Browns released him in September, after Orchard had just five sacks in three years for them. They used him more as a standup, outside-linebacker type than the hand-on-the-ground edge rusher he was at Utah. He got waived two days after he intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown in Cleveland’s final preseason game of 2018, at Detroit.

So he went to Buffalo. He played three games for the Bills. Then he signed with Kansas City. He played one game last season for the Chiefs before they released him in early November.

Because of their need and Orchard’s skills, the Seahawks will likely ask him to rush out of a three-point stance off the edge. He’s likely to be more the end he was at Utah and less the stand-up, linebacker type he was for Cleveland.

At 6-3, 255 pounds, Orchard has prototypical NFL pass-rusher size.

What no one can measure is Orchard’s motivation to finally make it, to stick in this league after traveling a long-odds, at times lonely road to get here.

Seahawks offseason workouts begin at team headquarters April 15. Their minicamps and organized team activities begin in late May. During that time Orchard will begin his quest, alongside returning 2014 Seahawks draft pick Cassius Marsh, another free-agent defensive end the team signed Thursday, to win a job this summer as Seattle’s needed, edge pass rusher opposite top sack man Frank Clark.

Sure, perhaps Orchard has long odds to win that role.

Yet they aren’t longer than the odds he beat to get through college, to marriage and fatherhood, and into the NFL.

Gregg Bell is the Seahawks and NFL writer for The News Tribune. In January 2019 he was named the Washington state sportswriter of the year by the National Sports Media Association. He started covering the NFL in 2002 as the Oakland Raiders beat writer for The Sacramento Bee. The Ohio native began covering the Seahawks in their first Super Bowl season of 2005. In a prior life he graduated from West Point and served as a tactical intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, so he may ask you to drop and give him 10.
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