Here to stay: Utah's Nate Orchard finds stability, success in new family
He showed up on Oneida Street wearing his uniform and carrying nothing. That’s how Katherine Orchard remembers him. Spring was coming, and she was weeding the garden outside of her four-bedroom home in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City. She looked up and saw the tall, reedy 13-year-old in what she deemed to be filthy basketball gear. Katherine hurried inside to fetch her husband, Dave.
Nate’s walking down Oneida, she told him.
She knew the kid. He played for the club basketball team Dave coached. She once gave Nate a ride to a practice or a game -- years later, it’s hard to recall exactly which -- at the request of her husband. Nate didn’t say a word on the ride.
Maybe a week or so later, Katherine met his mother. A quick hello, introductions, and that was it. Maybe a couple weeks after that, Dave told Katherine that the boy’s mother called. She asked if Nate could live with them.
Katherine said no. She and Dave had welcomed children in need into their home several times over the years, not to mention raising three of their own. She needed a break. Nate’s mother asked again a month after the initial refusal. Katherine said she needed to think about it. She didn’t know Nate. She didn’t know what she was getting into.
Now here he was at her house with nothing but the clothes on his back.
Are you here to stay? she asked.
Yep, Nate replied. I’m here to stay.
It’s more than eight years later. Nate is 6-foot-4, 255 pounds. He plays defensive end for Utah, and he specializes in terrorizing quarterbacks. Statistically speaking, there is only one player in the country better at this in 2014. Nate’s also a husband, a father and an economics major. He’s someone that’s not presumably wired to show no mercy toward other humans on a weekly basis. But he is. He is wired just like that. And he has an explanation for it.
“There’s that motor and that tenacity to get home,” Nate Orchard says. “Because my team needs me, because our fans are watching, because it needs to happen. I just need to get home. I need to get there. I’m going to find a way.”
One of the country’s most disruptive defenses belongs to 5-1 Utah, which enters the weekend leading the nation with 10.2 tackles-for-loss and 5.5 sacks per game. No team boasts more than the Utes’ 33 total sacks, in fact, despite the team playing just six games while many others have seven or eight in the books.
The tip of the spear is Orchard, the type of speedy edge rusher that defensive coordinators might create in a video game. He has 10.5 sacks, two shy of Washington’s Hau’oli Kikaha for the national lead, though Kikaha has played in one more game. The per-game rate is a virtual dead heat: Kikaha’s 1.79 sacks per game versus Orchard’s 1.75.
In the view of the coach who will deal with this next, Orchard is now the strongest in a chain of really strong, quarterback-smashing links that goes back a while. “This isn’t something new,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian says as his No. 20 Trojans prepare to visit the 19th-ranked Utes on Saturday. “Utah plays a specific style that in my opinion is unique to them, with the aggressiveness they play (with) on the defensive front. They’ve had great defensive linemen over the years. Now it’s Nate Orchard’s turn to be the lead guy.”
The Utes have a chance to upend the entire Pac-12 paradigm by mid-November: Their next three games feature home tilts against USC and Oregon with a road trip to Arizona State sandwiched in between. After Utah’s consecutive 5-7 seasons, it is a surprising position, even if coach Kyle Whittingham believes his team is “better equipped this year from a talent standpoint” than it has been in its Pac-12 existence. Before the season, it would have been fair to ask if Utah could get to this point. The question would have been familiar to the team’s most impactful performer.
He walked to the Orchards’ house years ago as Nate Fakahafua. He came to Utah as a rangy 6-foot-3 wide receiver south of 200 pounds. He changed, in order, his position, his body, his surname to honor his legal guardians, his marital status and then his daughter’s diapers. All of that fused into a changed approach. “It’s getting married and having a little girl, having my life put into perspective,” Nate Orchard says. “I’m finally starting to realize what I do on the field is my resume; my film is my resume. This is my last year. I have to ball out and do everything I can to be the best I can, to lay down that legacy for my kids and their kids. It’s more work, to know this is my last year, and that I need to do every little thing right. It’s scary, but it’s fun.”
It’s worth noting Orchard posted 17.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in the previous two seasons. This year’s production is more robust but maybe not revelatory. It’s the residue of a process. It’s what happens after finding his way.
He was born to Ana Fakahafua in Los Angeles. He left home in Inglewood, Calif., when he was 10 or 11 years old, moving to Salt Lake City to live with his brother, who was 18 years old with two kids and another one on the way. Nate helped care for his nieces, who he adores. He helped clean the house. But structure was limited, and school wasn’t exactly a priority; he describes the policy as, if you want to go, go. This was another stop of a life seemingly always on the move, torn between here and there. Katherine Orchard tells a story relayed by her husband: When Nate was 12, his biological mother talked to him about returning to California. If I come there, I will be dead or in prison, Nate was said to respond. If I stay here, I will have a life.
It just wasn’t clear what that life would be like until he received a tap on the shoulder after a club basketball game. Nate was very athletic and very frenetic -- he had lots of steals and missed layups because he couldn’t control his speed -- and the sponsor of the opposing team caught up to him as he left the gym. He asked if Nate wanted to play for him. Nate initially declined, but as he left, he noticed that the other team did have some pretty sweet uniforms. So he ran back inside and found the man who approached him. He told Dave Orchard he’d like to join his team.
Not long after, Nate’s older brother was being evicted from his apartment. The solution was to move in with his wife’s parents, but Nate wasn’t welcome to come along. His search for a new home began and ended with the Orchards. Nate recalls first asking Dave if he could move in during a car ride to a practice. After the initial periods of ambivalence, he showed up at their door after a walk down Oneida Street that day, and the decision was made for everyone. “When he first came here, we didn’t know if he’d be here for a month or a year or the rest of his life,” Katherine says. “We didn’t know what it was going to be.”
The Orchards didn’t set out to serve as a de facto shelter for teenagers. But one seventh-grader’s mother was a meth addict, and the grandmother who took care of him died, so they took him in. Another boy’s adoptive family kicked him out when he turned 18. He was a basketball teammate of the Orchards’ oldest son, and he slept over at the house all the time, so they let him continue to do so until he finished his senior year of high school. “It’s just been very circumstantial,” Katherine says. “It just sort of happened.”
So it was that Nate Fakahafua just sort of happened. He took the bottom mattress of a bunk bed in Sam Orchard’s room, sharing space with the family’s youngest son. “Definitely the biggest culture shock I’ve ever had,” Nate says. He recalls one of the first breakfasts he ate at the house, watching Katherine drop something into a toaster, then buttering it up and serving it on a plate. Nate took a bite. It was like nothing he’d ever tasted before.
“What is this?” he asked.
“It’s an English muffin,” Katherine replied.
That summer, during the family’s annual vacation to Newport Beach, Calif., Nate got caught in a riptide. He didn’t know how to swim. As he doggy-paddled for his life, his hamstring cramped, then his foot. A lifeguard pulled him up moments later, likely saving him from drowning. On the ensuing ambulance ride, Nate shivered and cried, saying he just wanted to go back to his mother. In fact the episode offered a convincing counterargument: The Orchards didn’t have insurance for Nate. They paid for that day’s medical care in cash. To avoid that in the future, they had to buy him the insurance, which is how, after talks with Nate’s biological mother and signatures on the required paperwork, the Orchards became Nate’s legal guardians.
“After that,” Katherine says, “he was really kind of ours.”
A Rockwell painting, it was not, at least at times. Nate happily helped his new neighbors move boxes or rake their yards. “He was always at his best when somebody needed him,” Katherine says. But he also was stunned when he was told he had a bedtime. He had never been told no, so he ran away multiple times when he heard that from Dave or Katherine, once disappearing for three weeks before Dave found him shooting baskets at a rec center on the west side of Salt Lake City. It put no small amount of stress on the family. Kate, the Orchards’ daughter, would yell at her parents for not going out to find Nate in the middle of the night.
“I look back,” Nate says, “and I caused so much frustration and worry.”
It probably is no surprise that stability was slow in coming. Nate became a first-time father as a high school freshman; the baby girl, Lily, was given up for adoption. But she lives nearby, she is happy, and Nate still sees her. (He writes in a journal he plans to give to Lily, he says, “when the time is right.”) He temporarily quit football as a sophomore because he wasn’t getting the ball enough, a decision he now labels “selfish and arrogant.” He was never much of a talker, and when problems arose, his instinct was to escape; Katherine recalls one time she and her husband attempted to talk through an issue, and an exasperated Nate said it would be easier if they just beat him up.
“Thoughts of just wanting to leave, just crazy things, suicidal thoughts that were unnecessary -- just dumb and selfish,” Nate says.
Time eased the tension. He stopped running away by the time he was a senior. He won state titles in football and basketball that year for Highland High. Nate had committed to Utah as a sophomore, and when he arrived on campus, there was a plan for him. In Whittingham’s recollection, Nate lasted maybe a day or two at receiver before shifting to defensive end. “Coming out of high school, he had those long arms and a big frame, 6-3 plus, he was lean, probably about four percent body fat,” the Utes coach says. “I mean, the guy was completely ripped. We’ve made a living on projecting talent because we have to. There are only so many four- and five-star guys out there.”
The Utah staff believed Nate could add 30 or 40 pounds. He has, and then some. “People say, ‘Look at you, you’re on steroids,’” Nate says. “They’re feeding me like crazy up here. I know I’ll never go hungry.” His diet involves eating everything and anything to keep his weight up, though there have been some additions and subtractions. He was a McDonald’s devotee -- he always chose it as his birthday dinner, while other Orchard children opted for spots like Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse -- until he watched a documentary that painted the fast food chain in a particularly damning light. Meanwhile, through another documentary, “Juicing,” he learned to concoct smoothies to boost his energy. His current favorite features ingredients like spinach, kale, blueberries and flaxseed. “I’m at the point where I hate eating a salad,” he says. “I started making those smoothies, I get my nutrition in for a day.”
It was part of his last-chapter plan, building the steadiness of his sophomore and junior years at Utah into a crescendo. Last summer, he worked with his former high school coach, Brodie Benson, to improve his hand speed -- “I’m pretty sure he had some bruised sternums,” Nate says of the blows he dealt Benson during drills -- and his burst off the line. The latter involved wearing a harness attached to a resistance cord, which was attached to a wall. Nate would get in a four-point stance and then explode forward at the whistle for about five to 10 yards, mimicking the depth of a quarterback’s drop. “Trying to gain as much ground with my first step as possible,” Nate says.
He was tackling the finer details of what already made him a formidable force on the edge. “The No. 1 factor and the No. 1 criteria in becoming a great pass rusher is your ability to get off the ball,” Whittingham says. “He does that as well as anybody. He’s got excellent burst and he also does a great job using his hands. All great defensive linemen have one common trait: They’re able to use their hands in concert with their feet, and he does that very well. He’s able to use them both as he works up the field.”
Generally, Utah’s defense creates discord through its own harmony: The ability of Orchard and other linemen to rattle a quarterback allows the defensive backs to pounce on routes. But a secondary that has found better consistency and improved its ability to disguise coverages also provides more time for the front seven to wreak havoc.
“Receivers may run a route thinking they might be open and, boom, they turn around and see their quarterback going down,” Utah safety Brian Blechen says. “It messes with their head. It’s nice having Nate consistently getting back there, getting the quarterback down if he gets one finger on him. Because I’m back there, trying to get the quarterback to look to this side, look where this guy is at, and by then, Nate’s on him.”
Everything indeed has fallen neatly into place since two springs ago. In March 2013, Nate married his high school sweetheart, Maegan Webber. That August, his daughter was born. And now this year, he has produced at a percussive enough rate to consider an NFL future more reality than possibility.
Before all these life-changing scenarios played out, however, he had another one to attend to. So one day early in 2013, Nate called Dave and Katherine and told them he needed to talk.
He wanted to change his last name, legally, from Fakahafua to Orchard before the wedding. Dave and Katherine were his guardians, but they took him in and they helped him more than he could imagine.
“Being married,” Nate says, “it’s a name that’s going to last for eternity.”
The Orchards, understandably, were a bit overcome. They often talked to each other about how much they put into Nate, in every sense. They did not know, though, if it would make a difference in the end. This was their answer. Of course he could take their name.
Nate, though, wasn’t finished.
He followed the first request with a second. He knew he and Maegan were having a little girl. So he sought one more blessing.
He wanted to name his daughter Katherine.
“You’re the only person,” he told the woman who years earlier welcomed a boy adrift into her home, “who’s never given up on me.”
Nate Orchard does what he can as a working Dad. He’s at school from 8 a.m. to midday, then in football until 6 p.m. or so, then in tutoring sometimes until 9:30 or 10 p.m. Some days he doesn’t see his wife or his little girl. But he helps around the house, contributing a little bit of everything. Or at least a little bit of almost everything.
“I’m not going to lie -- the diapers I try to avoid, the poopy ones,” Orchard says. “I always come up with some excuse like, ‘I gotta take the garbage out.’”
Syrupy as it sounds, life as a married father has grounded him; the addition of this responsibility seems to have relieved him of all his other burdens. Katherine Orchard sees him acting more friendly than he ever has, looking more confident in social settings. Unfortunately but perhaps predictably, he had been hit up over the past year by relatives he didn’t really know for $250 monthly contributions for family reunions he had never been invited to before. Now he has a ready excuse to wave off those looking for handouts. “Having his own family has given him permission to say no,” Katherine says. “It’s given him a lot of emotional freedom to focus on what really matters.”
It’s a blissfully simple existence: Wife and daughter and football and school, and no worries besides USC quarterback Cody Kessler and a labor economics test. In previous years, the Orchards would settle in for Utah games, and Katherine would wonder which Nate would show up. Was it the locked-in Nate or listless Nate? Would his focus be there? As ever, she wanted to see into Nate’s mind. And as ever, that was a very difficult thing to do.
Only it’s not anymore. Not this year. There’s no need to wonder. He looks like someone who found what he was looking for.
“There’s not a lot that I have going on that’s too stressful,” Nate Orchard says, just as he starts to tell his story. “I’m living the life.”