Raleigh McKenzie and Terry Orr were more than just teammates during the Washington Redskins’ glory days of the 1980s and early ‘90s. Each was a groomsman in the other’s wedding, their kids played together, and McKenzie is godfather to one of Orr’s four sons. So when Orr came to McKenzie in 1997 with an interesting business proposition, McKenzie had no reason not to listen.
“He’s a good guy,” McKenzie said. “Most people would say that, players and coaches alike. He was always doing the right thing. If he said he was gonna do something, he would do it.”
But Orr, who earned two Super Bowl rings, wasn’t a very good businessman, and he ended up doing some wrong things. Last month in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Orr admitted to bilking McKenzie, as well as ex-teammates Art Monk and Brian Mitchell and an investor from Georgia, out of $141,000. He pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud. Other charges were dropped.
Later this month, Orr, 40, will start a 14-month sentence at the federal prison camp in Lewisburg, Pa. He also must make an effort to repay McKenzie, Monk, Mitchell and James Sowersby, a businessman from Jonesboro, Ga., a portion of their investments.
The three former Redskins each invested and lost $50,000 in a failed shoe company deal, and the court ruled that Orr misused some of their money. Two other ex-teammates, Ed Simmons ($50,000) and Earnest Byner ($25,000), also invested with Orr and lost their money, but the prosecution could not prove any of it was misused.
Some of the money raised by Orr from his teammates and Sowersby was used for personal expenses and debts owed to investors from another ill-fated deal. For example, Orr used $11,000 to cover an overdraft on his checking account and $15,000 for a down payment on a GMC Suburban. He was in danger of losing his house, so $22,000 of Monk’s investment was used for mortgage payments (Orr eventually did lose the house to foreclosure). He also used the money to pay bills, education expenses for his children and a fur coat, among other things.
There also were other investors, and they have filed a civil suit to prevent Orr from declaring bankruptcy and forgo paying his creditors. But their lawyer, Gregory Murphy, doubts any of them will get much back, if anything. “You can’t get blood out of a stone,” he said.
McKenzie, who would stand to recover nearly his entire investment, said, “It would be like a big Christmas present. I’m not sitting around waiting for it.”
Of Orr’s ex-teammates, only McKenzie would comment or could be reached. McKenzie, like just about everyone who knew Orr in the dressing room or elsewhere, was shocked when he learned of Orr’s behavior. “He’d never shown any malicious behavior,” he said.
Most people who knew Terry Orr recall him as an intelligent, caring person with political aspirations and diverse interests, a good family man. Another former teammate, Rick “Doc” Walker, called Orr “a quality guy.” Mark Mitchell, a collector of historic newspapers and manuscripts who became friends with Orr, said, “It’s very hard for me to believe he is a bad guy.”
If he’s not a “bad guy,” Orr was a poor judge of character who linked up with the wrong people, a failed entrepreneur who harbored big dreams but lacked the instinct and savvy to realize them. And when he found himself in over his head, he used his friends’ money not only to bail himself out, but for his own use.
Orr would not speak to The Washington Times. His lawyer, Christopher Amolsch, said, “He took some bad advice from people. I believe he feels horrible about this entire thing. He didn’t go down this road with the intention of hurting anyone. He was conned along with everyone else.”
Murphy has a different opinion.
“It’s not a surprise that he was able to con people because he has a veneer that is very appealing,” Murphy said. “He comes across as a very nice person. An ‘Aw shucks’ sort of attitude that’s very endearing.
“I wouldn’t question whether some of the people he was involved with were also up to misdeeds here. But do I think he was unwittingly duped? Absolutely not. I’ve gone through all of his records and there’s no way he didn’t know he wasn’t writing luxury checks, as opposed to the business venture. Terry had to know what he was doing when he was taking money from his friends.”
McKenzie was a guard in the NFL for 16 seasons, 10 with the Redskins, and played with Orr on the 1987 and 1991 Super Bowl champion teams. He said he has had no recent contact with Orr, nor has he received an apology or explanation. “If he can’t do it face to face, at least write a letter,” he said.
And yet McKenzie said he is no longer angry.
“I’m past that,” he said. “Disappointed is probably the better word.”
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A native of Savannah, Ga., Orr moved to Abilene, Texas, and attended the University of Texas, where he was a running back. The Redskins drafted Orr in the 10th round in 1985, and then-coach Joe Gibbs converted him to tight end and H-back. After sitting out his first year with an injury, Orr played through the 1993 season with a brief interruption he was released in 1990 and signed with San Diego. He then re-signed with Washington the following year. Although Orr was known more for his blocking than his receiving, he seemed to make every catch count, averaging 18.1 yards for his 52 career receptions. He scored 10 touchdowns.
One of Orr’s most important plays was neither a block nor a catch. After the Denver Broncos took a 10-0 lead in Super Bowl XXII in January 1988, Ricky Sanders fumbled the ensuing kickoff. The Broncos might have blown the game open had they recovered. Instead, Orr fell on the loose ball and the Redskins stormed back to win 42-10 behind quarterback Doug Williams and running back Timmy Smith.
Orr also tried to contribute off the field, giving substantial time for speaking engagements. In 1993, he led a movement by several Redskins players against the National Football League Players Association over mandatory union dues. The NFLPA tried and failed to suspend Orr and 16 of his teammates before the season-ending game against Minnesota. Orr’s efforts helped lead to a court ruling that stated the players did not have to pay dues because they practiced in Virginia, a right-to-work state.
During the last few years, Orr became involved in Republican politics. He was named to the Virginia Stadium Authority in 1995 by then-Gov. George Allen and reappointed by Gov. Jim Gilmore in 1999. Orr also served on the state Criminal Justice Services Board and the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness.
One person who knows him said Orr might have had contacts within the circle of George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas. Last year, Orr was a speaker at a function hosted by the D.C. Chapter of the Texas alumni association (known as the “Texas Exes”). The event marked Texas Independence Day and also honored conservative Republican congressman Bill Archer, who was retiring. Amid politicians and high-rollers at the Army and Navy Club, Orr read a famous letter Col. William Travis wrote from inside the Alamo. Later in the year, Orr spoke at the kickoff of Virginia Lt. Gov. John Hager’s unsuccessful campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
By all accounts, Orr was considering entering politics himself. A political insider, who asked not to be identified, said Orr contributed $1,000 to Gov. Gilmore’s campaign and “was fairly well-known in Virginia conservative circles. He made it a point to get active in the Republican community. He became a visible spokesman for family ideals and values.”
Bill Buck, a former member of the stadium authority, said Orr was “active politically and socially.” Buck said Orr did not attend many meetings of the authority, but noted that Orr seemed to possess a certain charisma.
“Terry is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met,” Buck said. “He certainly is an intelligent guy. Very friendly, a marketing-type person. He’s good with meeting people. He always has a smile on his face and good, firm handshake.”
George Barton, who was the first chairman of the stadium authority, said of Orr, “Nothing about my association with him would have led me to believe he’d do anything dishonest or unethical. I thought he was a stand-up guy.”
Dave McWatters, a former member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors and a former stadium authority member, said, “I was surprised [to learn about Orr]. I thought he was a really normal straight-shooter.”
Orr had a varied career after he retired from the Redskins. He sold insurance and worked as a financial planner and capitalized on his name recognition. In 1998, he hosted a lunch at an IT conference in Falls Church sponsored by an e-business company called INPUT. He did some broadcasting for Home Team Sports (now Comcast) and wrote a weekly column for The Washington Post. Orr also started a management firm called Orr and Cuffee Entertainment. The firm’s main client was a gospel singing group based in Manassas, Va., called the Youthful Spirits. (Orr’s former partner, Ruben Cuffee, did not respond to several interview requests).
“Terry was our co-manager in 1998 and 1999, and he acted as an advisor,” said Marcus Fields, creator and lead singer of the group. “He helped us get some gigs, and helped us whenever we had some questions. Business questions, personal. He was a father figure. Very reliable. He was basically looking out for us.”
Orr ended his association with the Youthful Spirits “because he had some family responsibilities to take care of, and his job with HTS was taking up some of his time,” Fields said. “We were very busy, and he couldn’t be there all the time. We didn’t fire him or anything like that. We just took separate roles. He had goals, we had goals.”
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Although Orr was considered an athlete who made a successful transition to life after football, he wanted more. He wanted to make it in business, and politics was on the horizon. Orr started several ventures, but his big dream was to create a company that would market and manufacture athletic shoes bearing the logos of different NFL teams. The idea was fostered by Ron Ninowski, an acquaintance of Orr.
Orr sold life insurance and “retirement products” for Equitable Life in Falls Church and later took the same type of job with New York Life in Fairfax. While at New York Life, he took classes to earn his stockbroker’s license and his instructor, Kurt Ditbrenner, introduced him to Ninowski. Ditbrenner could not be reached, but nothing in the records indicates he was aware of Ninowski’s background.
“Terry probably had enough in him, his personality and intellectually, to be a success,” McKenzie said. “He just needed someone to guide him from getting off track.”
Instead, he hooked up with Ninowski, who told Orr and others that he once was a backup quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. But neither the Packers nor any other team had a quarterback by that name. If Orr was aware of that it didn’t cause him to end his association with Ninowski. According to the prosecution in court documents, Ninowski was not a former pro football player but “a consummate liar and notorious confidence man who has been under the watchful eye of the FBI for some time.”
McKenzie said he never met nor heard of Ninowski and believes the same is true for Monk and Brian Mitchell. But Orr’s friend, Mark Mitchell, did meet Ninowski once. Orr and Mitchell had the same stockbroker and Mitchell once sold Orr an 1883 Harpers’ Weekly newspaper, which portrayed abolitionist and editor Frederick Douglass on the cover. Mitchell said Orr was very interested in African-American history and added that it was Orr who inspired him to organize his collection. One day, Mitchell recalled, Orr came to visit and was accompanied by Ninowski.
“He told me about the shoe deal and he introduced me to some guy claiming to be a [former] backup quarterback with the Green Bay Packers,” Mitchell said. “I was just a little suspicious because of the way he talked. He sounded like a confidence man. Terry wasn’t trying to get me into the deal, but the way this guy talked just bothered me. I sort of warned Terry, ‘You better check this guy out.’”
Mitchell said he did that himself and learned there was no record of Ninowski playing for the Packers, or anybody else.
“I was concerned Terry was being taken or talked into something that might not be right,” said Mitchell, who has an extensive collection of African-American newspapers, documents and photographs and is trying to start a black history museum in D.C. “I’ve always liked Terry, but there was a sense of unreliability about him.”
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In February 1997, Ninowski convinced Orr to form a corporation the Orr Group that would invest in overseas construction projects. Ninowski, well aware of Orr’s contacts, told Orr to bring in other investors.
Through a complicated series of transactions orchestrated by Ninowski, Orr raised $500,000 from a pair of investors. Later, Ninowski told Orr the deal “fell through,” and $300,000 was returned. Court records indicate that most of the remaining money was spent by Orr on “personal expenses.” Ninowski got $50,000.
Orr, again listening to Ninowski, then went ahead with his shoe company venture. Ninowski told Orr to form a corporation, Questar Holdings, and together they would raise $1 million to build a factory in Mexico.
Orr found an investor to put up $150,000, but only if Orr signed a promissory note to repay $225,000 after 31/2 months. Orr, convinced the shoe deal would pay off, agreed. He even guaranteed the investor a return of $400,000.
But there still was the matter of the $200,000 Orr owed to the first team of investors. So he used the $150,000 for that, and contacted several former teammates and others, including Sowersby, about raising more money for Questar.
“He came to me with the plan and told me about the other guys he was talking to,” McKenzie said. “It went on for about a year. I can tell you he was working on it real hard. He had a legitimate plan.”
McKenzie said Monk, who played for the Redskins from 1980 through 1993 and caught more passes than anyone in team history, even had a lawyer look over the details. Everything seemed to be in order. But the endeavor would eventually fail when NFL Properties, the licensing and marketing arm of the league, decided not to grant Questar a license.
“We didn’t have room for his business plan,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said. “Our partners at the time were Adidas, Reebok and Nike, and we felt the footwear category was saturated.
“In order to receive a license, you need a unique product that doesn’t exist or a plan that is better than an existing licensee, and a plan that not only looks at year one but year five.”
McCarthy said the NFL receives 15 to 20 license requests a week.
McKenzie said he did not speak with Orr regularly about the deal. He said Monk checked into it and reported that “it didn’t look good.” McKenzie said he didn’t learn about the deal’s collapse from Orr, but when the FBI started asking questions.
Doc Walker, who knew about the shoe deal but chose not to invest in it, still has a hard time believing Orr intentionally broke the law.
“It happens all the time, guys trying to leverage dollars, trying to make everyone happy, trying not to fail anyone,” Walker said. “There are so many factors in a business failure, deals that go awry. I just don’t think in his mind, his attempts were to deceive. I think he was trying to make it happen, and somewhere along the line there was a breakdown.”
The prosecution never claimed the shoe company was a sham, determining that some of the money was, in fact, used legitimately. But the court ruled that $49,000 invested by McKenzie, $22,000 by Monk and $10,000 by Mitchell (who now plays for the Philadelphia Eagles) was used for Orr’s own purposes, as was $60,000 wired from Georgia by Sowersby. It is not clear how much Ninowski ended up with. Nor could it be learned how Orr came to know Sowersby, who could not be reached. Ninowski also could not be reached.
Orr, who earned a nice living playing football a source estimated Orr’s salary at between $200,000 and $300,000 during his later years, was always able to land a job and gets approximately $2,000 a month in pension benefits. Even though he worked as a financial planner, he apparently had trouble with his own finances. “He was not one to spare the expense if he wanted something,” Gregory Murphy said. “He bought things.” Orr’s failed business ventures also took a toll.
Orr’s house in Ashburn was not considered opulent, and McKenzie said he didn’t think Orr lived extravagantly. “If anything, it was more his wife [Rita],” McKenzie said. “You didn’t see Terry wearing designer suits, but you saw his wife wearing designer suits. She liked to spend more than he did.”
Said Murphy: “The sad thing for his friends is, what they saw in Terry was not the real person he was. He presented himself very well and seemed earnest and sincere in what he was trying to do, but if they knew how he was writing checks and how he was spending it, they’d know he was conning people. He simply he wasn’t what he seemed.”