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Green Bay Becomes Latest Stop for Well-Traveled Orchard

With a tremendous senior season at Utah and a remarkable life story, Nate Orchard was one of the great stories of 2014.

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers signed outside linebacker Nate Orchard, a 2015 second-round pick with a remarkable story, to their practice squad on Thursday.

With Za’Darius Smith, Whitney Mercilus, Chauncey Rivers and Randy Ramsey on injured reserve and Jonathan Garvin on the COVID-19 list, the Packers were down to Preston Smith, Rashan Gary (hyperextended elbow), Tipa Galeai (promoted from the practice squad last week) and La’Darius Hamilton (practice squad). So, Orchard has a chance to add another chapter to his story.

As detailed by Sports Illustrated’s Brian Hamilton during Orchard’s senior season at Utah in 2014:

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.

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.

That man was Dave Orchard, who eventually would become Nate’s legal guardian.

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It wouldn’t be a smooth transition. He ran away a few times, including for three weeks before Dave found Nate shooting baskets at a Salt Lake City rec center. He became a father as a high school freshman and quit football as a high school sophomore.

But he eventually settled in, won state championships in football and basketball, and went to Utah, where he became a star. As a senior, he was a consensus All-American and winner of the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation’s top defensive end after recording 18.5 sacks. On a per-game basis, he led the nation in sacks.

“I didn’t imagine myself in this position,” he said at the 2015 Scouting Combine. “I was a kid who was lost. No way in heck did I think I’d be here today. 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.”

Of the Orchards, he said, “They mean everything to me They’re my parents. 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.”

The Cleveland Browns drafted him in the second round. As a rookie, he played in 15 games (11 starts) and had three sacks. Since then, he played in 31 games (two starts) and recorded three sacks. One of those sacks came against Green Bay in 2017.

The Browns released him after training camp in 2018. He’s bounced around since then, with Green Bay being his 10th NFL team. That includes four weeks with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2018, when Packers outside linebackers coach Mike Smith held that same title.

This year, he spent part of the offseason with the Tennessee Titans but was released before offseason practices. He recently spent two weeks on the Minnesota Vikings’ practice squad.

To make room on the practice squad, the Packers released running back Kerrith Whyte.