By R.B. Fallstrom
AP Sports Writer
ST. LOUIS — Orlando Pace accomplished what he set out to do, becoming one of the best offensive tackles in the NFL. At 6-foot-7, he had the wingspan to ward off pass rushers, at 325 pounds he had the bulk for the power game, plus he was amazingly light on his feet.
“He’s cut from a different cloth,” former St. Louis Rams teammate D’Marco Farr said. “Canton is built for guys like him.”
There is one small regret for the new Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Though he played an outsized role in the Greatest Show on Turf with the assemblage of high-octane talent that produced two Super Bowl teams and a championship with the St. Louis Rams from 1999-2001, the soft-spoken, five-time All-Pro never made it to the end zone.
“I did get a little jealous when I see Ryan Tucker score, and some other guys, too,” Pace said.
Though head coach Mike Martz was somewhat receptive to the idea of giving Pace the ball in the second Super Bowl season, offensive line coach Jim Hanifan nixed the tackle-eligible hijinks, judging Pace too much of a vital cog to risk injury.
“He didn’t want me to catch the ball, he didn’t want me to get hurt,” Pace said. “He vetoed all those thoughts and all those special plays.”
Now, the 40-year-old Pace has a chance to dictate terms. He has chosen his son, Justin, to be his presenter in Canton, Ohio, on Saturday.
“He was my first-born and I wanted him to really share in that moment,” Pace said.
Pace was such a catch coming out of Ohio State in 1997 that the Rams traded up with the Jets to snatch him first overall. From 1999-2004, St. Louis was wildly successful, in no small part because of the gentle giant protecting the left flank for first Kurt Warner and then Marc Bulger.
“He was the MVP of what we were doing,” wide receiver Isaac Bruce said.
“The first time I saw him walk through the door I was like, ‘my goodness.’ He was huge,” Farr said. “He was one of our better athletes, and that included the receivers and the running backs.”
In an eight-year stretch from 1998-2005, Pace played every game in seven of those seasons. He had the franchise tag three consecutive years in a career finally derailed by a torn biceps.
The Sandusky, Ohio, native made such an impression that current Rams guard Rodger Saffold, who also grew up in Ohio, wears No. 76 in his honor.
Linebacker Mike Jones had the tackle that saved the 2000 Super Bowl victory over Tennessee, but like other teammates, he recognized the rare talent on offense that got the Rams to the pinnacle. Jones said Pace had the skills of a power forward.
“He had that rare ability to drive you off the ball and set a fence that no one could get around,” Jones said.
Hall of Famer and former teammate Aeneas Williams remembers being struck by a speech from Archie Manning, who said, “Guys, you see me limping, so it’s obvious that none of my teammates, offensive linemen, are in the Hall of Fame.”
“I can say this about Kurt Warner, he’s not limping. He’s fairly healthy and one of the reasons is because he had Orlando Pace protecting his blind side.”
Before the Rams chose him, Pace had never been to St. Louis. He was familiar with Dick Vermeil, though, from the coach’s experience on college football telecasts before returning to the NFL.
Pace was among the first to be credited with pancake blocks when he dominated at Ohio State.
“When I went to Columbus, it was almost like a dream,” Pace recalled. “Everything that could go right, did go right.”
The NFL agreed with that assessment, and Pace was the first offensive lineman picked No. 1 overall since 1968.
“There’s not a lot of hardships being No. 1,” Pace said.
There was an adjustment period. He made nine starts his rookie year, struggling along with the rest of the franchise, which had a losing record each of its first four years in St. Louis after making the move from the West Coast.
In 1999, the famously intense Vermeil backed off on what had been a grueling practice regimen. Everybody thrived with a more focused approach, and though Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk got the lion’s share of the credit, none of it would have happened without Pace paving the way.
In ‘99, Pace anchored a line that helped the offense produce the most passing yards in NFL history.
“I loved it in St. Louis, I’m always a Ram,” said Pace, who wrapped up his career with a year in Chicago in 2009. “Nobody can ever take that away. It was a special time for us.”
Pace is the second member of the Rams’ glory years in St. Louis to make it to Canton, joining Faulk. He hopes there will be more, and soon, with Warner a finalist the last two years, and wide receivers Bruce and Torry Holt also instrumental in that run.
“Kurt should have gotten in this year,” Pace said. “Hopefully he gets the call for what he did for two organizations, winning two MVPs. There’s no way he should not be in the hall.”
Pace takes his place there on Saturday night.