Still Setting the Pace – Part I

Orlando Pace was the most dominant offensive lineman in Ohio State history, if not the history of college football. Pace didn't just beat opponents, he destroyed them. His playing days at OSU have long since passed as he is now an NFL veteran, but he still cheers hard for his college team. Dave Biddle had a chance to speak with Pace recently about his days at OSU as well as his NFL career, and in part one of a two-part series, Pace discusses his recruitment to OSU, his college career, and more.

He accomplished quite a bit at Ohio State – and even more since he left – but not much has changed with Orlando Pace. He's still the same laid-back guy … just a little bit wealthier.

During his career with the Buckeyes (1994-96) Pace became one of the most decorated linemen in college football history, and managed to make the "pancake block" a household term.

He won the Lombardi Award (twice), captured the Outland Trophy, finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy race, was twice named first-team All-American, and won a Silver Football as the Big Ten's most valuable player.

But off the field, Pace was and still is as nice a guy as you will ever find. He probably hasn't "big timed" anyone a day in his life. was fortunate enough to catch up with Pace recently for a two-part story. Part one will delve into his early playing days, including his OSU career. Part two will discuss his excellent professional career with the St. Louis Rams and what might be next on the horizon.

Pace was one of college football's all-time greats

Pace was born and raised in Sandusky, Oh. – located on Lake Erie and the home of one of the nation's best amusement parks – Cedar Point.

When he was younger, he wasn't too crazy about roller coasters and didn't know much about football. Basketball was his first love.

But, he decided to go out for the local "pee-wee" team in fifth grade (even then, I can't imagine Pace would have qualified for pee-wee anything) and the rest is history.

But, it was a few years later until Pace realized he was really something special in football.

"You know what, I think it was my freshman year of high school," Pace said. "That was my moment. I knew that I was a big guy; I had always been bigger than all the other kids and things like that. I think I played well from that point on and started getting recognized. I started getting letters from colleges my sophomore year."

Pace quickly became one of the top recruits in the nation. Today, his recruitment would be the hot topic on every recruiting board in the Midwest. But in 1993-94, just before the Internet really exploded onto American culture, it wasn't that big of a deal. Diehard fans all knew the name Orlando Pace, but it was a completely different landscape 11-12 years ago.

"It came down to Ohio State and Michigan the whole time," Pace said. "I looked at other schools, but I always knew I was going to go to one of those two schools, I just didn't know which one.

"When I took my visit (to OSU), I was fortunate that Korey Stringer was my host. I was fortunate that he made me feel comfortable and he was probably one of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest reason, I came to Ohio State. He told me on the visit, ‘You and me on the same line next year.' I was happy to just be… because at the time he was an All-American and for him to host me and do those types of things was a big deal me."

So, if it wasn't for the late Stringer, Pace might have been lost to Michigan?

"No, honestly, I felt comfortable coming to Columbus," he said. "It was my home state and it was a chance for me to come in and play as a freshman. I saw that opportunity and I made it happen."

He sure did. The 6-7, 320-pound Pace was told to work with the first team on his first day of preseason camp and never looked back.

"I thought I could play, but I didn't know it was going to be that soon," Pace said. "A couple older guys, their grades fell off a bit and the opportunity opened for me and I took advantage of the moment."

Pace started all 13 games in 1994 and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. The Buckeyes went 9-4, including head coach John Cooper's first win over Michigan, 22-6.

"It was a good year," Pace said. "We weren't satisfied, but it was good to get the monkey off Coach Cooper's back. It was just good to play with Korey and those guys and get my feet wet on the college level."

In 1995, suddenly OSU found itself in the midst of a national title race. The Bucks won their first 11 games of the season and vaulted to No. 2 in the rankings, but fell to Michigan and Tennessee to close the season.

Offensively, Ohio State rewrote the record book in '95. Eddie George captured the Heisman Trophy. Pace paved the way for him and became the first sophomore to win the Lombardi Award.

"Oh yeah, anytime you can block for a Heisman winner, it's great," Pace said. "That was a special season for us. We did well. We didn't win the national championship, but we came pretty close. It was a good feeling."

But OSU might have been even better in 1996. Once again, it swept through most of the season undefeated, before a 13-9 upset loss to Michigan in Ohio Stadium.

The Buckeyes went on to defeat Arizona State in the Rose Bowl, 20-17, spoiling the national championship hopes of the Sun Devils. Ohio State finished 11-1 and ranked No. 2.

The two losses to Michigan still do not sit well with Pace, but he couldn't ask for a better final collegiate game than the Rose Bowl.

"First off all, when you come to Ohio State, I think the biggest thrill is to have a chance to play in the Rose Bowl," Pace said. "And at the time, Ohio State hadn't been there for a long time (1984 season). For us to have that chance and opportunity to play in the Rose Bowl, it was really special for me. The way the game was played and it came down to the wire and all those moments… I still see the game on ESPN Classic and it's exciting to look back. It's been nine years now and to look back and to say, ‘Man, that was a great game.'

"I would rank it as my top game until we played in the Super Bowl. But that's second to the Super Bowl."

In college, defensive linemen didn't have much of a chance against Pace

Pace still feels as though the Bucks should have won it all in '96.

"We felt we had the best team in the country," he said. "We lost the one game, but everyone else had at least one loss as well (one-loss Florida was crowned national champs). We felt we earned at least a share of the title that year, but we had no one to blame but ourselves. We should have went undefeated."

Pace became the first two-time winner of the Lombardi and also brought home his first Outland. Cornerback Shawn Springs and defensive end Mike Vrabel joined Pace on the All-American squad. Pace was named Big Ten MVP and finished fourth in the Heisman race.

Pace reflected on the vast number of awards he won while at OSU.

"I think as a sophomore, I can remember the first time I won the Lombardi award, it was a surprise to me because I was only a true sophomore and to win that award – I think it was the first time in history for a sophomore – that was probably one of the biggest accomplishments of my college career," he said. "But all of those accolades came my way because we had a good team. The players on the good teams are fortunate enough to get those awards."

Pace enjoyed playing for Cooper at OSU. He remembers Cooper being somewhat hands-off during practice. (Yes, the "I coach coaches" line is true.)

"I think he was a good coach and a real good recruiter," Pace said. "He kind of came in your house and kind of convinced you that Ohio State was good for you. When I was there, I enjoyed Coach Cooper, and also his assistant coaches that coached me. I think those are some great years."

After the 1996 season, Pace decided it was time to go pro. He knew he would be taken early in the first round, but he wasn't quite sure how high.

Well, he ended up being the top overall pick of the draft. The Rams needed a left tackle for their budding offense of superstars, and Pace fit the bill. So, they traded up to get him.

Pace smiles with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue after being selected as the No. 1 overall pick

St. Louis acquired the pick from the New York Jets in exchange for the Rams' first (6th overall), third (67), fourth (102) and seventh (207) round draft picks.

"I think once Peyton Manning decided to stay in school, I think that pretty much opened the doors for me to be the number one pick," Pace said. "So, I was kind of expecting it at that point, but before it was a toss up. I didn't know who was going to do what.

"But the Rams traded up and from that point, coach Dick Vermeil called me and said, ‘We're going to select you.' So, I knew from that point on what was going to happen."

Pace has accomplished a lot playing football, but he takes a great deal of pride in being the top pick of the draft.

"Oh yeah, because there's only a handful of guys that have been number one," he said. "Every year, there's only one guy. So, it's something that I can tell my kids about later on in life about being selected number one and being the first guy in the draft to be selected."

Looking back, there is little doubt the Rams made the right choice. Oakland selected defensive tackle Darrell Russell with the No. 2 pick, Seattle took Springs third, and Baltimore grabbed outside linebacker Peter Boulware fourth.

* In Part 2 of this story, Pace talks about his career with the Rams up to this point, including winning a Super Bowl, losing a Super Bowl, multiple Pro Bowl selections and contract disputes. He also talks about rooting for the Buckeyes in the 2002 national championship game and gives his thoughts on Jim Tressel. Stay tuned for that!

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