The St. Louis Rams needed a cornerstone to begin their climb toward respectability in the NFL.
They found one in Orlando Pace, the massive left tackle out of Ohio State who became the solid rock on the left side of the Rams’ Super Bowl championship team and prolific “Greatest Show on Turf” offense.
They valued him enough to trade up with the New York Jets for the first overall pick in the 1997 NFL Draft, making Pace the first offensive lineman chosen first overall since 1968. Their faith was rewarded with seven Pro Bowl seasons, five All-Pro selections, a Super Bowl championship and another runner-up finish.
Now 40, Pace will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Aug. 6 in Canton, Ohio, just 109 miles from his hometown in Sandusky, Ohio.
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“Some days I wake up and pinch myself ... you’re a Hall of Famer,” Pace said Wednesday during a national conference call with reporters. “It’s starting to sink in a little bit; the ceremony and the things you’re going to do, you start preparing the speech, the reaction of my teammates. Everywhere you go, you’re known as a Hall of Famer now and people recognize that. That’s a great thing about being in this elite company of 300 players and coaches.”
Pace was with the Rams for 12 seasons before closing out his NFL career in 2009 with the Chicago Bears. He was voted to the Hall of Fame’s All-2000s team, helped anchor an offensive line for seven 3,000-yard passing teams and three 4,000-yard passing teams, also blocking for seven 1,000-yard rushers.
He blocked the path to Rams quarterbacks, most notably two-time Most Valuable Player Kurt Warner, and also paved the way for another MVP, Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk.
Pace predicted Warner, who took two Rams teams and the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl and won two MVP awards, will get his Hall of Fame call next year.
St. Louis Rams, before the move
Pace will become the third St. Louis Rams player in the Hall of Fame, joining Faulk and cornerback Aeneas Williams. Other possibilities in the future include wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt.
“I think Kurt should have probably got in this year in my opinion,” Pace said. “Hopefully next year will definitely be his year. He’s been a finalist now for two years, so hopefully he gets a call.”
And as for Bruce and Holt, the two bookends who helped fuel the Greatest Show on Turf attack?
“They just went about their business,” Pace said. “They didn’t tell anybody about what they were doing, they were never controversial. They were a pro throughout their careers and I feel they should get rewarded for that.”
Pace and many of his former teammates from the “Greatest Show on Turf” era will be playing at the former Edward Jones Dome one more time Saturday for Bruce’s “Legends of the Dome” flag football game.
Warner, Pace, Bruce, Holt and many more players from those teams will be participating along with former Rams coaches Dick Vermeil and Mike Martz. Pace still lives in St. Louis and he hasn’t forgotten his way to the dome.
Pace also will be honored Saturday for his upcoming Hall of Fame induction.
“It will be really exciting to get back certainly, to really see those guys,” Pace said. “To me it works out perfectly because you get a that chance to thank coaches and teammates and guys that helped me along my journey before the actual induction at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
Pace still has a soft spot in his heart for the St. Louis Rams fans, even though the team relocated to Los Angeles after the 2015 season.
“(This) also gives us a chance to really properly close down the dome, where we had so many great memories with the fans of St. Louis,” Pace said. “Isaac did a great job planning this and I’m just excited to be a part of it, to see the guys and share in this last moment.”
The Rams will play their games in L.A. from now on, but Pace — and the fans in this region — know what happened here.
“It’s tough and I live here in St. Louis,” he said. “Once I’m a Ram, with that organization, I’m always a Ram. The great thing about that (time here) is nobody can ever take that away from us. What we did in 1999 here in St. Louis, nobody can ever take that away from us.
“That was a special time for us and we did it in here in St. Louis. which makes it even more special. I’m always going to be part of the Rams organization.”
Pace was asked about his legacy of helping the Rams go from a pretender to annual Super Bowl contender. He pointed to other key additions like Faulk, Trent Green, Warner, Vermeil and Martz.
“I just wanted to come in and do my part, live up to expectations,” said Pace, who certainly did that. “Having a Marshall Faulk ... no one knew about Kurt Warner, but when Kurt was implemented he ran the offense better than anybody. We had success. We all came together at that time and made everything work. It was a special time for us.”
Tough times with Coach Vermeil
Vermeil and his “boot camp” style training camps definitely got the Rams’ attention. Pace got to know the coach while Vermeil was still working as a television analyst.
“He did a number of my college games my last year at Ohio State,” Pace said. “You sort of have a relationship with who he was as a man and the things he was capable of. The first couple years were rough and we didn’t win a lot of games, but coach Vermeil had a plan for us and we ended up winning the Super Bowl my third year.”
Pace and his teammates learned about Vermeil’s toughness, which Martz tried to dial back a bit later while convincing the veteran coach his players would remain fresher.
“I think that made us tougher,” Pace said of his first NFL training camps. “It made me tougher and (learn) not to take anything for granted. Through hard work, it all worked out and we won the championship.”
One regret Pace has is never scoring a touchdown during his NFL career. Martz had numerous trick plays and some involved other linemen catching TD passes as tackle eligible receivers, but Pace said former Rams offensive line coach Jim Hanifan kept him out of the bag of tricks.
“You know what? I did get a little jealous when you see Ryan Tucker scoring touchdowns and John St. Clair,” Pace said, mentioning two other Rams offensive linemen who caught TD passes. “The one thing I don’t like about Jim Hanifan is he didn’t want me to catch the ball. He didn’t want me to get hurt.
“I know it was in the (playbook) and I think coach Martz wanted to do it. (Coach Hanifan) needed me in to block, so he vetoes all those thoughts and all those special plays that Mike Martz had put in for me.”