Still Setting the Pace – Part II

Since being selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, Orlando Pace has had quite a ride in the NFL. He has become a regular Pro Bowl selection, but he has seen ups and downs on the field as well as in the business aspect of the sport. In the second segment of this series, Pace talks with Dave Biddle about winning (and losing) the Super Bowl, his contract situation, raising a family, and being a Buckeye fan. Click the link for more.

The fun was now over for Orlando Pace. As the top overall pick of the draft by the St. Louis Rams in 1997, he was not only expected to produce - he was expected to be dominant … and right away.

But it takes a while in the NFL.

Pace started nine games as a rookie - all at left tackle. The Rams finished 5-11, but little did Pace know that this struggling franchise was on the verge of greatness.

"My first year, really the first couple years, they were all growing pains," Pace said. "We were a young team and I was just coming into the league. I was just trying to get my feet wet. It was kind of like learning how to ride a bike again with different techniques and facing things. In college, it was more about dominating people and things like that. And at this level, it was different. The competition level had risen and I had to step my game up."

His second year in the league - 1998 - the Rams didn't exactly take that next step. They fell to 4-12.

However, Pace began to be recognized as one of the league's best linemen. He started all 16 games and was named a Pro Bowl alternate.

Pace has become a regular pro bowl performer

"Heading into that season, that was a goal of mine," Pace said. "Anytime you are the first selection of the draft, I think a Pro Bowl is something that you want to do by the third year and I was fortunate enough to be selected by my peers to the Pro Bowl as an alternate in that second year."

Then, in 1999, it all came together for the Rams.

First, they traded for a running back named Marshall Faulk. Then, they signed two quarterbacks: starter Trent Green, and backup Kurt Warner.

Green was injured in the preseason, opening the door for Warner, a former Arena League player.

Led by Warner, Faulk and Pace, the Rams suddenly had the top-ranked offense in the NFL. Warner was named NFL Most Valuable Player, and Faulk was selected as the AP's Offensive Player of the Year. Pace was named to the Pro Bowl.
The Rams went on to defeat the Tennessee Titans, 23-16, in one of the most thrilling Super Bowls of all time.

The favored Rams led 16-0 in the third quarter and it looked like just another Super Bowl blowout. But led by Eddie George and Steve McNair, the Titans clawed their way back in the game, and eventually tied things up at 16-16 in the fourth quarter.
Warner then connected with Isaac Bruce for a 73-yard touchdown with 1:54 remaining in the game to give the lead back to the Rams.

However, the game was not over. The Titans drove down the field and eventually had the ball at the 7-yard-line with seven seconds remaining. McNair found Kevin Dyson on the 3 and he appeared to be going in for the tying touchdown, but was pulled down by Rams linebacker Mike Jones as time expired.

"It was a great feeling," Pace said. "Looking back on that time, it was a real special year for us. Like I said, up until then, the Rose Bowl was the biggest spot. But just to be on the stage where everybody in the world is watching you. And that's what every kid … when I was in fifth grade and I first started playing football, I dreamt of playing in the Super Bowl.

"For the first quarter, you just felt like you were walking on air. It was a tremendous feeling."

Pace described his feelings standing on the Rams' sidelines during the tense moments of the final drive.

"We just wanted that clock to run out. It was crazy," he said. "On that last play, I thought our D stopped him short, but we didn't know for sure. It's hard to describe how I felt winning that game. It was amazing."

But Pace tipped his cap to George's grit. His punishing running style, that Pace knew all too well from their OSU days, wore down the Rams defense. George almost led the Titans to the upset.

"That was the one downside, because Eddie is a good friend," Pace said. "I'm happy that we won the Super Bowl and I wouldn't change that for the world, but I would like to see Eddie at some point in his career get one."

Following the '99 season, Dick Vermeil decided to "retire" (he would later resurface as the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs). Pace enjoyed playing for him for his first three seasons in the league.

"He's a good guy. He's from the old school," Pace said. "First couple years he had a process where he worked us tremendously hard. And then that third year when we won the Super Bowl, he's the guy that really helped shape and mold my career. So, I was happy not only to be selected by the Rams, but to be coached by him."

Offensive coordinator Mike Martz was promoted to head coach in 2000.

Once again, Pace was selected to the Pro Bowl. He was not called for holding the entire '00 season, and paved the way for Faulk, who was named NFL Most Valuable Player.

The Rams took a step back under Martz, finishing 10-7, including a first-round loss in the playoffs.

In 2001, St. Louis re-established itself as the NFL's premier offense.

Pace was named to the Pro Bowl for the third consecutive season (fourth including the alternate selection). Warner was the league's MVP, Faulk was AP Offensive Player of the Year, and the team finished with a sterling 14-2 record in the regular season.

They were expected to roll through the postseason unchallenged. However, after a tough win in the NFC championship game against Philadelphia (29-24), the Rams were showing some weaknesses, especially defensively.

In the Super Bowl, St. Louis was upset 20-17 by New England on a last second field goal by Adam Vinatieri.

After you've won a Super Bowl, it stings even more to lose one.

"It was tough, man," Pace said. "It was year when we felt like a dynasty was about to be formed. We played New England and New England was a tough team. They came out and played well. It came down to the wire and they kicked a last second field goal to win the game.

"To be honest, that was really tough. If winning the Super Bowl was the height of my career, losing the Super Bowl had to be one of those things that … the whole offseason was just horrible."

Since then, Pace has just gotten better and better. He was named to his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl in 2004 and is regarded by some as the best left tackle in the game. It's Pace, Baltimore's Jon Ogden, and everyone else.

"It's a goal, man," Pace said of the Pro Bowls and recognition. "It's something that I work and strive every year to get better. I like the free trip to Hawaii. I enjoy that. It's something that I work towards and something that I try and get better at every year and try and help this team win. I think that's the biggest thing - just try and help this team win. And if I do my part, then those Pro Bowls and All-Pros and all those things will come."

But the NFL is not all fun and games. There is a cutthroat business side to it.

Starting in 2002, when his rookie contract expired, the Rams decided to make Pace their "franchise" player.

Sounds good on the surface, but it wasn't good for Pace. Instead of long-term security, he was forced to sign a one-year contract (for the average yearly salary of the top five offensive tackles in the game).

Pace held out of training camp in 2002 and 2003, hoping a long-term deal could be struck. But agents Carl and Kevin Poston wanted too much money, and the Rams were more than content with the one-year deals.

Each year, Pace would return to the Rams before the regular season began. But even for a player like Pace, camp is important. He needed the fine-tuning, but wasn't getting it.

Heading into 2004, nothing had changed. The Rams again "franchised" Pace, and the Postons were still demanding too much for a long-term deal.

So, Pace decided enough was enough. He fired the Postons and signed his one-year tender without an agent. Franchise tenders are non-negotiable, so Pace wasn't taking much of a risk. In fact, he actually made more money, because he didn't have to pay out the "agent's cut."

Pace is an easy-going man, but admits the business side of the NFL can be quite stressful.

"It was a situation where the first year, I expected it," Pace said of the franchise tag. "The second year (2003) and last year was extremely tough because you've held out and you try not to make the situation personal because it is business. But, it was tough for me to come in and play (after holding out for most of camp).

"This year, we kind of rectified the situation and I was fortunate enough to get a long-term contract."

Pace recently resolved a long and stressful contract situation

You can say that again. Pace hired Kennard McGuire as his new agent (save the "show me the money" jokes) and instructed him to get a long-term deal done. He wanted to stay in St. Louis, but would be up for a new team if the situation was right.
But a move was not necessary. After a few short weeks of negotiations, Pace and Rams agreed on a 7-year/$52.9 million deal on March 16.

"It was great," Pace said. "I was actually headed down to Houston, the Texans were kind of recruiting me in a sense. We were about to make something happen and St. Louis came up and put the offer on the table. We accepted. It was really want I wanted. At this stage of your career, you really don't want to switch and go to teams. I wanted to stay in a place where I was comfortable and I knew people and my family was being raised and those types of things. So, it worked out for the best for me."

Family? The big guy has a family now?

"Yeah, a big family," he said. "I just had a baby girl last week, which is my third child."

Pace's children are named Justin (5), Jalen (2) and Kendall. His wife's name is Carla.

"We actually met out here in St. Louis," he said. "And then I guess I could say we dated in Cleveland - or she moved to Cleveland when I was home and those types of things."

In the offseason, Pace lives in St. Louis, and, where else, Orlando.

"I have a house here in St. Louis and also in Orlando," he said. "But I'll probably be up in Columbus pretty soon. So, we'll see."

Like many former Buckeyes, Pace thinks Columbus would be a good place to return one day and raise his family.

"I'm looking for some property out there," he said. "If I can find a lot of property out that way, I'm definitely moving back. Not sure when it will happen, but I think I'll be living in Columbus at some point."

If it happens, it will allow him to be a little closer to his Buckeyes. He says he's become a diehard fan since he entered the professional ranks.

"Man, every Saturday," he said of watching OSU games. "I'm a huge fan. A huge fan. I watch every game. I'm a diehard Buckeye."

Pace still feels as though his Ohio State teams of 1995-96 should have won at least one national title, but he was elated to see the 2002 OSU team take care of business.

He watched the 31-24 double-overtime win over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl and had never felt more pride in his school.

"Oh man, I was excited," Pace said. "Because in our locker room, no one gave us a chance - besides me and big Ryan Pickett and those guys - we were the only guys who thought the Buckeyes were going to win.

"It was a great year. I lived and died with those boys. All from the first game, up until the end. The Purdue game and all those games. I remember those games. I was biting my nails and it was an exciting year for me also."

Pace has a busy schedule during the season, but he has seen the refurbished Ohio Stadium and has met head coach Jim Tressel.

"Yeah, I've came down to a couple games," Pace said. "He's a great coach. He seems like he's really got those guys fired up and playing. And the team that won the national championship, they were a pretty young team and they did a great job."

Pace was an all-league basketball center at Sandusky High School and could always be found at Larkins Hall playing pick-up games while at OSU. Today, when he gets some free time, he still likes to shoot some hoops.

"I still play basketball," Pace said. "But when you have little ones, they eat up a lot of your time. I like to travel and things like that. But that's about it other than football and just getting prepared for the season."

Looking ahead to this year, the Rams are hoping to re-establish themselves as one of the league's best teams. Faulk is almost at the end of the road, but Pace has a new young star to block for: second year running back Steven Jackson.

Marc Bulger is a solid quarterback, Torry Holt is one of the game's best receivers and no one is worried about the left side of the line.

"We should be really good," Pace said. "We want to get back to the Super Bowl and hopefully we can make it happen this year."

If they do, you know they'll be serving pancakes at the victory celebration.

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