Sad news arrived last Tuesday with the passing of a wonderful receiver from the ‘60s, Jimmy Orr. He died at his home in Brunswick at the age of 85.
I instantly and vividly recalled how Jimmy Orr provided one of the most memorable days of my life. But beyond that, he had a fabulous football career.
Orr was a halfback for Coach Wally Butts from ’55 through ’57. Those Georgia teams weren’t very good, but Orr managed to lead the SEC in receiving twice.
He was talented enough to be drafted by the Rams as a “future” pick in ’57. He was traded to the Steelers before the start of the ’58 season, and promptly became the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. He led the league in average yards per catch, 27.6, a staggering number for that era.
After three years in Pittsburgh, Orr was traded to Baltimore, where he teamed up with the era’s best quarterback, Johnny Unitas. Orr would catch so many Unitas passes in the right corner of the end zone at the closed end of Memorial Stadium that the area became known as “Orrsville.”
“I must have caught 45 or 50 touchdowns in that right corner,” Orr told the Baltimore Sun in 2009. “It was sloped some, a little downhill, which helped me speed-wise. I wasn’t all that fast.”
He wasn’t all that big, either, playing at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds. Yet he became the deep threat in a Colts offense that featured the precise route-running of Raymond Berry, the prototypical modern tight end in John Mackey, and an elusive back with great hands in Lenny Moore.
“I’m glad I played football when I did,” Orr said in the same 2009 interview. “My time back then might not get me a tryout today. On the Colts, both Raymond Berry and I ran a 4.8,” he said, referring to their 40-yard dash times. “We might have been the only team in history where the tight end was faster than the two wide receivers!”
But Orr made it work. Over his 13-year career, he averaged 19.8 yards per catch. He caught 400 passes for 7,914 yards and 66 touchdowns. He retired after the Colts won Super Bowl V.
“He had an innate ability to get open,” teammate Tom Matte told the Sun last week, “and had more moves than any other receiver I’ve ever seen. And he and Unitas tied up real well. I can remember when I played quarterback, he’d say, ‘I’ll get open, just throw it.’ He worked hard to be a great receiver, studied film, and he and Unitas would work extra after practice, and had a great connection.”
“Jimmy was someone who was utterly dependable,” guard Bob Vogel, another teammate, told the Sun. “He gave you his best, and you knew that when he was in a game, you were going to get it. He was absolutely consistent. Unitas would not put up with a receiver who was not consistent, so the fact that he threw so much to Jimmy was an endorsement of John’s confidence in Jimmy.”
Orr’s legendary toughness also played well in the blue-collar Baltimore of the 60s. Early in a game against the Eagles in ’65. Orr injured his shoulder and was rushed to Union Memorial Hospital for X-rays.
“There were 17 people ahead of me in the emergency room,” Orr told the Sun. “But they had the game on the radio, and when someone recognized me, all of those people sent me to the front of the line.”
Diagnosed with a separated shoulder, Orr returned to Memorial Stadium in time to catch a 22-yard touchdown pass from Unitas to ice a 34-24 win.
Orr’s most memorable play might have occurred when he didn’t make a catch. In the final minute of the first half of Super Bowl III, the Colts trailed the Jets, 7-0. Matte took a pitch from Earl Morrall, sweeping right. He stopped and lateralled back to Morrall.
All alone far down the left side was Orr, frantically waving his arms so that Morrall would see him.
He never did. Instead, Morrall threw over the middle toward fullback Jerry Hill, and was intercepted by Jim Hudson.
“It was a shame,” Matte told the Sun. “He’s standing in the end zone, waving his arms, and Earl doesn’t see him. That killed us right there.”
My favorite Orr moment didn’t involve a catch, either. It didn’t even take place on a football field. On Aug. 28, 1965, the Colts came to Atlanta to play the Steelers in the second NFL exhibition game at Atlanta Stadium.
My family was close friends with Wayman Creel, the legendary high school football coach, then coaching Northside Atlanta. Coach Creel knew how I loved that Colts team. He also knew Jimmy Orr’s brother.
Between them, with Jimmy’s consent, Coach Creel, my Dad, and I were able to go to the Colts hotel before the game. Pretty soon, we were standing in the hotel lobby talking football with Don Shinnick, Jim Parker, Steve Stonebreaker, Raymond Berry, Jimmy Orr, and, yes, the man himself, Johnny U.
It remains, in my mind, the greatest day any 10-year-old ever had.
So, yes, Jimmy Orr was a fine receiver. But he also gave me a day I’ll never forget.