Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: … And Then The Football Gods Created A Left Tackle
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.)
Moments after Orlando Pace was selected atop the 1997 NFL draft and posed for pictures with then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue, a gaggle of New York reporters surrounded the massive offensive lineman.
One of their questions came off thusly: “What is Orlando Pace?” to which the youngster replied, “I can sit up here all day and tell you about Orlando Pace, but I’m on a tight schedule.”
That’s how I feel about Pace, Ohio State’s left tackle from 1994-96, being named this week as a new member of the College Football Hall of Fame. I could go on for days about the exploits of Pace as a player, but I am limited by this column.
(Actually, I have stretched the boundaries of cyberspace with my previous columns as loyal Ozone readers are well aware, but … you get my point.)
Pace isn’t just a former Buckeye or a great player; he’s an ideal – a concoction of football perfection, someone who was born to protect quarterbacks’ blindsides and blast open holes for ball carriers.
The Big O was a wondrous treasure at Ohio State and anchored some of the most productive and entertaining offensive units in school history.
That he will be enshrined for his excellence at the collegiate level is like hearing city officials have voted to put a stoplight at the busiest intersection in town. It just goes in the “Duh” file.
Others to be honored in the new HOF class this December and officially inducted next year include the likes of Heisman Trophy winners Vinny Testaverde, Ron Dayne and Danny Wuerffel as well as two-time national champion quarterback Tommie Frazier and defensive standouts Tedy Bruschi and Percy Snow. Still, any news organization that doesn’t list Pace as the headliner of the class is missing the boat.
He was simply one of the best linemen ever to play college football and was as athletic and dominant for his position as anyone I’ve ever seen.
The irony of that assessment is the first time I heard about Pace was from keeping track of the top basketball prospects in Ohio. I was reading about the huge kid with soft touch and surprising agility at Sandusky (Ohio) High School.
But once Pace completely committed his time to football there was no doubt he had gridiron greatness ahead of him.
His former OSU coach, John Cooper, probably said it best this week.
“Orlando Pace is not only the best offensive lineman I have ever coached, but he is the best I have ever seen,” said Cooper, also a College Football Hall of Famer. “Every game was a highlight reel for him. We ran a lot of counter sweeps and a lot of screens, and on many of those plays Orlando had to be out in front of the ball carrier. And we had some pretty good ball carriers.
“I don’t know how you could play the position any better than he did. He was just a fantastic football player. He was the best.”
A Legend Grows … Quickly
When Pace announced his college choice – picking Ohio State over Michigan and Miami (Fla.) – he was listed in the 6-6 to 6-7 range and anywhere from 320 to 330 pounds.
Amazingly, he stayed right within those confines throughout his college and professional career, only his physique and his game improved from year to year.
Part of grasping Pace’s ridiculous gifts and accomplishments is to recall that he played right away at Ohio State and was able to learn the craft from one of the best college linemen at the time in Korey Stringer.
“For me, he was the reason why I played the game the way I played the game,” Pace once told me. “He taught me so much over that one year, just about how to play the game. I wasn’t a real vocal guy but I would look over and see how he played. He played a major part of just having me come to this university and playing.”
With the graceful Pace manning the left side and the brutish Stringer moving foes with regularity on the other end, the Buckeyes had an all-time enviable set of tackles in 1994.
Pace would start in all 38 games in his OSU career, including four before he ever attended a college class. Because of the quarter beginning the third week of September, and the Buckeyes assigned to play in the Disneyland Pigskin Classic to open the season, Pace was able to concentrate on football out of the gate and prove his worth as a true freshman.
“We were almost living a pro lifestyle,” he recalled during a conversation we had two years ago. “It was one of those things where you were waking up, going to practice, eating and going back home. So that was unusual for a college kid to experience all football for a month. But I think it helped my transition into the college game.”
Pace’s splash onto the scene sent OSU sports information officials scrambling to find record of another true freshman opening the season as a starter along the offensive line.
And as good as Pace was in ’94, what followed in his sophomore and junior seasons was simply jaw-dropping.
Even with the loss of star wideout Joey Galloway, Ohio State’s 1995 offense was breathtaking. Bobby Hoying broke out with a record-setting year at quarterback, Terry Glenn came out of nowhere to win the Biletnikoff Award, Rickey Dudley emerged as a topnotch tight end, and Eddie George outshone them all with 1,927 rushing yards, 25 touchdowns and the Heisman Trophy.
Pace, of course, helped pave the way for all of that success. His signature game had to be the blowout of Illinois under the snowflakes in which George broke the school record with 314 rushing yards. Pace obliterated freakish defensive end Simeon Rice that November day and also put some crushing blocks on All-American linebacker Kevin Hardy, proving he could excel against NFL-caliber talent.
Hardy ended up being the second pick in the 1996 draft, Rice was third, yet they could only flail at George, who ran behind Pace seemingly all day.
Pace was billed as perhaps the best player in the country going into his junior season, which, of course, he was. He seemed to confirm the notion in the season opener when he wiped out a defender in the end zone – 50 yards from the line of scrimmage.
That fall, the Buckeyes had sent the aforementioned players to the NFL and had no proven stars on the offensive side of the ball other than Pace. All he did was have perhaps the greatest season ever for a college offensive lineman and create space for ball-movers to keep up with OSU’s suddenly dynamic defense, led by new and ultra-aggressive coordinator Fred Pagac.
With Pace locking down the left side, Joe Germaine was effective as a dropback quarterback and Stanley Jackson had more time to survey the defense and occasionally burn it by taking off with the ball. Smallish tailback Pepe Pearson stayed healthy and rambled for nearly 1,5000 yards. Young receiver David Boston and veteran Dimitrious Stanley were afforded more time to do what they did best, which was run intermediate and deep routes.
The Buckeyes stormed through the regular season, lost a tight game to Michigan, and took down Arizona State in the Rose Bowl, the program’s first win in the Pasadena showcase in 21 seasons. OSU finished No. 2 in the country and Pace had nothing left to prove.
At one point in the season, Pace said, “I think average people and fans don’t realize that offensive and defensive linemen pretty much win games.”
However, they were starting to get the idea.
Even though Ohio State’s attempts to make Pace a Heisman candidate with their now-famous pancake magnets didn’t quite earn him the hardware, it’s significant that the intimidating tackle was invited to New York City as a finalist.
He came in fourth in the voting behind Danny Wuerffel of Florida, Troy Davis of Iowa State and Rose Bowl combatant Jake Plummer of Arizona State.
Pace also won the Big Ten’s coveted Silver Football – a lineman named the MVP of an elite conference – as well as the Outland Trophy. He also claimed his second Lombardi Award, becoming the first person ever to pull that feat.
Watching Pace, who was named to Ohio State’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2011, it was difficult to decide what was most impressive about him. He didn’t allow a single sack his sophomore or junior season of college but also could absolutely plow people on sweeps and even straight-ahead running plays.
Playing the toughest position in football, Pace totaled 80 pancake blocks in 1996 alone and graded out between 85 and 94 percent all season. That is absurd.
Pace was so immovable in the trenches that Cooper used to shuttle him in to play along the interior defensive line on goal-line and short-yardage situations.
Even at a school where Jim Parker, Bill Willis, Chris Ward, Jim Stillwagon and Stringer once toiled, only one season by a lineman could even compare to Pace’s junior year: John Hicks’ amazing 1973 campaign in which he won the Outland and Lombardi and was the runner-up for the Heisman.
Still, even Hicks will tell you he wasn’t the athletic specimen that the Big O was.
How good was Orlando Pace? He was named as a starting tackle along with Pitts’ Bill Fralic on the Sports Illustrated All-Century Team announced in 1999.
One More Honor To Go
Pace’s extraordinary career was just beginning, it turned out.
The Buckeyes were regulars on ABC in the mid-1990s and broadcaster Dick Vermeil, who was known for coming in midweek to review film and chat with coaches and players, came to appreciate just how special Pace was.
When the St. Louis Rams hired Vermeil as their new head coach, Vermeil brought in a very veteran coaching staff and lobbied Rams management hard to trade up for the top pick of the draft so they could snag Pace. They did just that, acquiring the pick two days before the draft in a deal with the New York Jets.
Vermeil declared Pace as a lineman with “no limitations” and immediately announced the rookie would be inserted at left tackle. The move allowed the Rams to shift Wayne Gandy over to right tackle and Zach Wiegert, a former Outland Trophy winner at Nebraska, to right guard.
“This pick shores up our whole considerably,” Vermeil said.
Pace learned under Jim Hanifan, who became a renowned offensive line coach from tutoring the Washington Redskins’ “Hogs.”
The Rams used the young lineman as a cornerstone to one of the NFL’s great turnaround seasons in 1999, which climaxed with a thrilling win over George’s Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV.
With Pace protecting Kurt Warner, wideouts Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt and sensational running back Marshall Faulk, the Rams were billed as the “greatest show on turf.”
“I thought at Ohio State with Eddie and Terry Glenn and all those guys that it couldn’t get any better, but it’s clear this is a great offense to be in,” Pace said at the time.
Warner won league MVP honors in 1999 and 2000 and Faulk followed in 2001.
In his 12 years in St. Louis – he also played for one season in Chicago – Pace was named All-Pro five times and he was voted into seven Pro Bowl games. He started 154 consecutive games and was a standout in just about all of them.
Pace once told me, “I just want to be the best college lineman ever.”
He may have achieved that goal and he certainly carried over much of his greatness to the professional game.
I gave myself the assignment of covering the 2001 Hall of Fame Game in Canton as the Rams were facing the Miami Dolphins in an exhibition contest and it afforded me a chance to catch up with Pace, Germaine and Ryan Pickett, who were all members of the Rams at the time.
Pace was on display on the same weekend when the latest Hall of Fame class of seven included three former linemen – Jackie Slater, Ron Yary and Mike Munchak. The festivities seemed appropriate, even at a time when Pace was just beginning to assert his dominance at the professional level.
Pace often was compared to the hulking Slater, the most accomplished lineman in Rams history, and Munchak was known for his athletic prowess, a Pace calling card. A USC product, Yary was the first pick of the 1968 NFL draft – a feat not produced by a lineman until Pace was the top choice 29 years later.
However, Pace had to play the game with a heavy heart as earlier in the day he headed to Warren, Ohio, and attended the funeral for Stringer, who had died tragically from heat stroke at age 27 that week.
Even though it was a meaningless preseason game and he had reason to mail it in, Pace still was impressive. He completely stifled Dolphins end Jason Taylor, who was considered the top pass rusher in the NFL at that time.
“I think the thing that is so nice about it is when you’re back there you don’t ever worry about what’s happening on your back side,” Warner told me afterward. “I think that’s the best compliment you can give a lineman – you don’t worry about the guy over him. With Orlando there I never have to worry about the guy on our left end. I know he’s going to be taken care of.”
A rookie defensive lineman that year, Pickett was in awe – and he played with Pace in college.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “To see somebody of his size and his athletic ability, and just to watch him in practice, how graceful he is and being so perfect on everything, it’s just amazing.
“The guy is special. Real special.”
Added Holt, “He’s real quiet but I’ve never questioned his toughness or physical ability. I nicknamed him Big Soldier because he’s not very outspoken, he stays to his own but he handles his business. We never have to worry about O missing his assignments or not giving us an effort. He’s always going to go out there and be a true professional.
“I stand right beside Orlando in the huddle. I always ask him how he’s doing against the guy he’s blocking and he says, ‘Uh, fine.’ ”
That, of course, was an understatement. As someone who used to follow those Rams teams closely I used to like to see an opponent beat Pace early in the game. Why? Because it would tick him off and he would make sure it didn’t happen again.
And I’m not exaggerating when I contend his man was done for the day. GAME OVER.
The resume, the reputation and the ring are intact. It’s now only a matter of time until they make a bust of Pace and put it into the Hall in Canton.
“I really can picture Orlando being right across the street some day, following in the shoes of Jackie Slater and guys like that,” Germaine told me in 2001. “He’s one of the league’s best if not the best.”
Of course, that was his goal all along.
* This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.