The legend of Orlando Pace, the most dominant lineman in college football history

Orlando Pace helped change the way left tackles are viewed, becoming perhaps the most dominant lineman in modern college football history. Sporting News via Getty Images

The first time Shawn Springs watched Orlando Pace walk onto the practice field at Ohio State in 1994, he had two important questions.

One: "Who is feeding him?"

And two: "Who gave birth to him?"

Springs, a future All-American in college and All-Pro in the NFL, laughed while recalling his initial impression of Pace, who was one class behind him.

"He's huge, right?" he said.

It's true. The former high school All-American arrived from Sandusky, Ohio, at 6-foot-7 and more than 300 pounds. It was such that Buckeyes coach John Cooper would threaten the team in practice: "You're going to have to run around Orlando" instead of the field itself.

Former Ohio State great Archie Griffin -- the only player in college football history to win the Heisman Trophy twice -- remembers seeing a young Pace and thinking he was a mountain of a man.

"And then I watched the man," Griffin recalled, "and he moved like he was a running back or a tight end."

It was hard to fathom that much ability in that big of a body. But over Pace's three seasons at Ohio State, coaches, teammates and the rest of the college football world would watch in awe as an offensive lineman did things they'd never seen before, chasing down safeties and blocking players with one arm.

Pace won Big Ten Freshman of the Year and only got better, becoming the first sophomore to take home the Lombardi Award. By the time he was a junior in 1996, he was just as good at protecting the quarterback's blind side -- he didn't give up a sack in back-to-back seasons -- as he was at creating holes in the running game.

He popularized the "pancake" by blocking his opponents so thoroughly that they ended up knocked off their feet and lying prone on the turf. And Pace helped change the way left tackles are viewed -- from that of a mauler to something combining physical skills and finesse with raw strength.

Twenty-five years after Pace cemented his legacy with a rare run at the Heisman Trophy, these are the untold stories of perhaps the most dominant lineman in modern college football history.

A natural, like 'a thicker Shaq'

Stanley Jackson, OSU quarterback: Summer conditioning is where you'd be most impressed. We'd run 2-2.5 miles, and all the big fellas struggle with that. Except Orlando. It was easy for him. All that weight and all that size and it was easy for him. He was beating some linebackers, he was beating defensive ends, he was beating guys that he shouldn't [have].

Luke Fickell, OSU defensive tackle: Here's a guy that's 6-foot-8, 330 pounds -- 50 pounds heavier than me -- and I can't even come close. I've always said, "God is fair." But I don't know if I believe that anymore because I'm working my butt off and I can't even come close to running with this guy.

Bill Conley, OSU defensive ends coach: He never got tired. It was amazing.

Jackson: Sometimes in the summer when we got a break, we would go to the basketball court. That probably wasn't the smartest thing, but we did it. And you found out right away that he was pretty special. He could run the floor like anybody. He had a soft touch around the rim. And if you weren't careful, he would dunk on you.

Dee Miller, OSU wide receiver: To see someone 6-8 and the starting tackle putting the ball between his legs and pump-faking and turning it around and hitting glass, that's gonna catch your attention.

Shawn Springs, OSU cornerback: I said, "Orlando, you're a lineman. You're not supposed to take the shots. You're supposed to get the rebounds." He wasn't having that. He could dunk, get boards, shoot, break [ankles], block shots. He would block a shot and then run down the court. Orlando could hoop. He was sweet.

Juan Porter, OSU center: I would say he was a thicker Shaq.

John Cooper, OSU head coach: He could have probably played basketball for the Buckeyes.

Winfield Garrett, OSU defensive tackle: He could hang clean 400 pounds with ease.

Dave Kennedy, OSU strength coach: I said, "I'll bet you a Gatorade you can't do a set of 20 with no straps." And, listen, he picked it up like a circus strong man and did 20 and then did 10 more and just gave me a wink.

Springs: God makes some people born a lineman.

Jackson: I had a theory years ago -- a joking theory -- that there are aliens amongst us. And it was because I had a chance to be around some really special athletes. And he's one of them. Like, how do you explain that guy? No one else is like that. How do you explain a guy that big? That agile? That fast? How does that happen?

Cooper: People ask me all the time, who's the best I've ever coached? And I would be hard pressed to tell you that I had somebody that was better than an Orlando Pace.

Dominating seven days a week

Jim Heacock, OSU defensive line coach: I came to Ohio State in '96. When I was interviewing for the job with John Cooper, they were practicing. And just looking at him, when you saw Orlando Pace, he was special.

Jackson: His feet were better than yours. His hands were better than yours. And on top of it, he was really strong. He had no weaknesses.

Conley: The only thing you tell the defensive linemen going up against him is, "You've got to try to work the edge. Don't you dare get face-up on the guy. Or you're done."

Kennedy: Mike Vrabel is as mean and hardworking a player as anyone. He was an all-time enforcer and had an absolutely unbelievable engine. But he would go against Orlando in pass rush and he'd throw one move. And if he didn't get it, he just turned around and walked away like it was over.

Matt Finkes, OSU defensive end: If you're trying something and he stops it right off the bat, then you just stop and reload and go to the next rep. I mean, it just is what it is.

Fickell: Mike [Vrabel] might not say it, but you know we'd do one-on-one pass rush every day and I don't remember a time that he beat him. And here's a guy that played 14 years in the NFL and is the all-time leading sack guy in Ohio State history. And that's a drill set up a little more for the defense and you don't ever beat the guy? He was that good.

Springs: You need another question other than, "Who's winning the battles?" No, no, no. I have never seen anybody beat Orlando with my own eyes. Listen to me. I have never, ever, ever, not seen this guy dominate anyone in front of him. You might be able to go to NFL films and find someone, probably. But in college? Nobody was even close. Not even Vrabel. Not even close. Listen to me: Vrabel is a JV, f---ing high school football player compared to this dude. And Mike is my boy. And Mike was killing the Big Ten.

Cooper: Some of those veteran defensive ends would move back in line instead of having to go against him.

Jackson: Guys were trying to make deals with him so that when they went against him he wouldn't maul them: "Hey, man, leave me alone. I won't rush hard every time you're up there, Pace. Leave me alone."

Finkes: I couldn't do that. But some of our second- and third-string guys, they were supposed to be up there when Orlando was up and they somehow found a way to tie their shoe at that time.

So what did success against Pace look like?

Heacock: Not getting embarrassed.

Porter: It's not your family closing their eyes and saying, "That's my son getting killed over there." Or your position coach going, "Geez," and turning around and shaking his head. It's a stalemate like, "OK, he didn't kill you, you're still alive."

Fickell: The laws of physics cease to exist when you go against Orlando Pace. My coach would always say, "Low man always wins, low man always wins, low man always wins." And then I go against Orlando in like a board drill and I'm like, "Hey, Coach, low man's not winning here." He goes, "I forgot to tell you that genetics overrides the laws of physics."

Finkes: One time one of our backup defensive ends went up against him and -- I mean, it happens -- Orlando took a shot and whiffed, and the guy went around him and the entire defensive line just went crazy. Even the offensive linemen were like, "Oh. My. God." It was a scene. And Orlando said, "We're going again." He wouldn't let the rotation go through. He said, "Nope, line up again. We're going again." And then he actually just pass-blocked the guy with one arm. He showed everyone there it was a fluke.

Quiet? Yes. But Gentle? Not so much.

Pace was somehow dominant without being domineering. Despite his size, he wasn't one to throw his weight around in an excessive show of force. But after enough time alongside Ohio State's other, older, offensive tackle, that would start to change.

Kennedy: He had a super quick laugh and a super quick smile and didn't take himself too seriously.

Pepe Pearson, OSU running back: We used to give him heat about how big his head was.

Porter: Somebody made a trash can into a helmet using tape and turned it into Orlando Pace's helmet.

Garrett: The savagery with which we cracked jokes -- you know it's different now. They called him the big dude from "The Goonies."

Miller: Pace is so shy. He'll be somewhere, and even though he's big, it's almost like he tries to hide.

Jackson: The one thing that probably could have improved his play was if he wasn't such a nice guy. I think when the Lord designs people, you can't have it all, right? If Orlando Pace or Dan Wilkerson were mean guys, then they'd probably be in jail.

Kennedy: It's too bad Korey Stringer isn't alive to tell you about his dealings with Orlando.

Stringer, an All-American at Ohio State, died in 2001 after complications from exertional heatstroke. His No. 77 jersey was retired by the Minnesota Vikings.

Garrett: Korey was an old-school, blow-snot-out-your-nose mean.

Jackson: Stringer would come into the huddle and tell us what play to run. He would tell the coach, "Run behind me." That wasn't Pace. That wasn't in his personality. He was just a quiet guy, went to work every day with his lunch pail and handled his business.

Miller: Being alongside Korey, that's when you started to see Orlando pick dudes up and just slam them on their back and just lay on them.

Porter: By his junior year, it was like, "Man, you know what you're gonna get." He's gonna eliminate the guy he's going to block. You don't have to worry about it. It was the biggest security blanket ever.

Miller: [He was] a totally different person. Now he'll bust your ass on the field and still be quiet afterwards.

Fickell: I tell my own guys today that I've never seen a great or even a really good offensive lineman that didn't have a chip on their shoulder and wasn't a prick and tried to bury people -- other than Orlando Pace. Korey Stringer and Orlando Pace were side by side. Korey was a p---k. He would try to bury and hurt you. And Orlando -- and maybe it was just because he didn't have to with us -- but he was a really good, nice guy. Like he didn't have to be a complete p---k. He was just so big, so strong, so athletic, so good, that he could do it with finesse. And I've never seen or played with or played against any other lineman that can be so dominant and still be so graceful and full of finesse.

Kennedy: I had Larry Fitzgerald and it's kind of like Larry Fitzgerald. He might be the nicest guy in the world while he just absolutely beats your ass. He'll help you up after he pushed you in the hip. Orlando was physical ... Gentle? Yeah, I'm smiling while I'm beating your ass and knowing that I'm going to beat your ass all day.

Jackson: I have seen someone try him outside of the lines of football, and that was a mistake for the person to try it. And as I think back to it, I don't think he was even angry then. It was just matter of fact -- you tried him, you took a test and you failed.

Miller: We were going up to this skating party and it was at this frat, and you know, fraternity guys and football guys really never got along. So somebody was talking trash and pushed Pace. Pace turned around, I mean, and leveled this dude. Pow! I saw this little guy, about 5-9, with his feet up in the air. That was the only time I saw Pace mad.

Jackson: What is the quote about the president? "Walk softly but carry a big stick." He had the full respect of every kid on the team, and every coach, by the way. So when he started talking, even coaches would get quiet and listen. He earned that.

Pearson: There were a few times that [I had] Big O off the field with me, he would come and grab me out of different situations ... because he cared about his teammates.

Cooper: One thing I was impressed with was his work ethic. Not only was he a talented player, he got better. ... You didn't have to worry about Orlando. We had to coach the other 10 guys.

Fickell: We would go out and say, "We're going to start something today." But not with him. ... Vrabel fought almost every offensive lineman at some point in time. Even me, I'd fight almost every guy whether it was a running back or whatever. But I don't know why not Orlando other than because he's so darn good. He was so humble about it, too. If you would fight, you'd feel bad, like, "What the hell am I doing?"

William Carr, All-American nose tackle at Michigan: The one thing that I loved about him, he didn't even talk. He just whooped you, got up and went on his way. He didn't say nothing to me. I didn't say nothing to him. It was just, "See you next play, boss."

An unstoppable force: 'He just totally wiped them out'

Opponents were hoping for a reprieve from Ohio State's dominant run game after Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George left for the NFL following the 1995 season. But with Pace to run behind, Pepe Pearson stepped into the starting lineup and the Buckeyes managed more than 200 rushing yards per game in 1996.

Tarek Saleh, All-American linebacker at Wisconsin: We were like, "We can't wait to watch the film." All of the sudden, [Stringer] is down the field. And the next minute, there's this other ... offensive lineman running down the field, and all of a sudden, he jumps over a defender to block another guy. We're like, "Oh, my God! Did you see that?" And it was Orlando.

Barry Alvarez, Hall of Fame coach at Wisconsin: You say the name and that first thing I think of is probably the most dominant offensive lineman that we ever played against. You knew they're going to run the ball behind him whenever they needed something. You couldn't do a whole hell of a lot about it.

Saleh: Usually an offensive lineman has to give up one option, right? If they're going to get out and protect your speed, they're going to give up the inside. And if they're going to protect their inside so they don't get run over, you just get outside on them. There's something you have to concede. But when you're Orlando Pace, there is no concession.

Alvarez: There were so many good games he had. As coaches it would almost take your breath away. You'd look and go, "Oh, my god, I can't believe that guy." It was so commonplace for him just to manhandle anyone he went up against.

Springs: He just combined that nastiness attitude with his athleticism. He would chase a guy down the field 40 yards, block them and throw them out of bounds. I've literally seen Orlando make a dude cry. ... He made a dude from Rice cry. The dude was frustrated and started tearing up. He was pissed off and just started crying. And then Orlando kept driving him. Orlando just abused him all day.

Porter: We played Notre Dame and in interviews during the week they were talking about pancakes ... and the kid was like, "No, we're not gonna get pancaked." So that was the big thing all week.

But Pace had a knack for doing just that, pancaking his opponents -- knocking them flat on their backs.

Porter: There was a timeout and they're just standing there on the field trying to look tough. Beforehand they were talking crap to Orlando. I was looking at them and they had their guns out trying to flex. And I was like, "Those bicep muscles aren't gonna help you when his ball is snapped." And then that next play, all I remember is I'm blocking someone and all I see is two bodies just come across my face and it's Orlando taking that one guy that's saying he's not gonna get pancaked and just taking him from the left side of my vision all the way across my face to the right side, and just dumping him and landing on top of him. ... They thought they were the biggest, baddest things on earth and the next play he just totally wiped them out.

Miller: The craziest thing I remember has nothing to do with a block. We were playing Notre Dame, and Pepe Pearson was our running back and Pepe was probably a 4.3, really fast track guy. He ran a sweep and Pace led him all the way down the field. Like you see Pepe running, but then you see somebody that's 6-8, 330 leading him like, "Yeesh."

Garrett: Crazy? He was a little different. Like on the backside play, he'd cut off the tackle, then reach the middle linebacker and then spring up and block the safety and allow the running back and cut off his ass for a touchdown, crazy s--- like that. I never saw O-linemen do that. They weren't even taught to do that because nobody else can really physically do it.

Pearson: There [were] a few times where guys would try to get under his skin and then there was hell to pay. There [were] a couple games, Purdue I specifically remember, they had a highly touted defensive man and he tried to get under Orlando's skin. And you know, I think he had a record number of pancakes that game. But most people really feared Orlando, so they wouldn't talk that much because they knew they had a hard, hard day ahead of them.

Jackson: There's one particular play that stands out for me and it was against Iowa, where he pancakes his primary guy, gets up, knocks down a linebacker and then gets to the end zone before Joe Montgomery, knocking down three other people.

Kennedy: He's 60 yards out in front of him and Joe doesn't have to slow down to stay with him!

Jackson: Blocking five people in one play is the greatest single effort I've ever seen from a football player.

Springs: There have been times I've seen him coming and I moved out of the way. That ain't the guy you want coming and running down the field at you.

Finkes: You go back to the Indiana game, they had a ... defensive tackle-size guy on the outside that they put over top of him to try to stop the run. And Orlando just mauled him. It goes back to technique. Orlando didn't just have the physical ability. He would be under your pads before you're going like, "How's this 6-8 guy getting underneath me and I'm 6-3?"

Garrett: I saw a lot of people get their ass whipped by Orlando and get up and shake his hand, like, "Damn, that was good." A lot of people watched Orlando and didn't really have hope when they came in the game. They would just kind of shadow him or stop pass rush and try to bat the ball down; they really didn't want to go at him. They played like they didn't want to be on the highlight tape. They just wanted to be around and hope Orlando didn't pancake their ass.

Carr: You didn't want to get caught on film getting finished by Orlando Pace because that was everywhere.

Saleh: With Orlando, you're like, "All right, you know, let's just get our bat on the ball. Let's not let him drive me to the first row on a zone play."

Carr: He was the truth. There's probably five people that I would have paid to ever want to play football, and he's one of them.

Miller: Usually watching film we would rewind things because like, "Hey, you have to shorten that route," or, "Look at that DB's hips," or "Man, you got to come out of that break faster." But a lot of times they'll be like, "Did you just see what Pace did to that dude?" It was pancake after pancake after pancake.

The 'Pancake Man' makes a Heisman push

While Pace's play spoke for itself, getting him in the Heisman conversation was another matter. To bring awareness to an often overlooked position, Ohio State created an advertising campaign that dubbed Pace the "Pancake Man" for, well, all those times he made pancaking his opponents look easy. The coaching staff wound up crediting Pace with 80 such blocks during his junior season.

Archie: It probably got started in practice. Somebody says, "Wow, he pancaked him!" And then, "Wow, he pancaked another one."

Conley: As a former high school coach, you'd use the term [pancake], but you didn't really define it. It was defined with Orlando Pace. A lot of kudos go to Steve Snapp, who was our SID at that time. He's the guy that came up with that. It was a great recruiting tool because it was something unique. We had magnets, these pancake magnets that were a stack of pancakes and they had the name Pace across them. ... Anytime you get a catchy thing like that, that's good.

Garrett: Pancakes had been around for a thousand years, but Ohio State did a great job of making them famous.

Carr: He added a little syrup to it, too. He was gonna make you feel it.

As clever as the magnets were, the commercial featuring Pace flipping pancakes was even better. For the shy big man, it was also a constant source of good-natured ridicule.

Jackson: Of course we gave him a hard time. You know, they got him in an apron flipping pancakes. Like, are you a cook now?

Miller: It was like, "Hey, Pancake Man, you got this round?" Or, "Hey, Big Pancake, this tab is on you, right?"

Pearson: I'm running behind that joker so I'm loving every bit of it.

Finkes: To elevate his status a little bit, they had him play defense a couple times. And the first couple times, it was not pretty. Instead of using his technique and staying low and doing all the things that he would normally do as an offensive lineman, a couple times he just stood straight up and wanted to make tackles, and all of a sudden, you see Orlando Pace come straight back, 6 yards deep with a guard in his chest because he's looking to try to tackle on the guy. Our defensive coordinator kind of sat him down and said, "Look, you're not making any tackles here. That's not what you're here for. We need to take up two blocks and take those guys back in the backfield. If you can create a pile and someone trips over, we'll credit you with a tackle."

Fickell: He was the nose guard on goal. Well, yeah, but what is he going to do? Don't worry about it, he's athletic enough, he'll be fine.

Conley: He'd come out ... so hard that he would knock the offensive lineman back off the line of scrimmage.

Jackson: He would do his job. He would go in there and stop the short run. But here's the thing about it: Nobody was surprised. Nobody over-celebrated. You go in there and you put him down a fourth-and-goal and he's the one that makes the tackle and then he stays on the field and he's your starting left tackle. Then you run the play behind him, and he opens the hole up. Nobody was surprised, nobody celebrated that, because it seemed like a modest accomplishment for someone that successful.

Finkes: He just got better and better. The hype around him, that's one of the things you didn't know how he would handle. He was so quiet. You didn't know how he was going to react to the whole kind of Heisman Trophy campaign and the pancakes and all that stuff. I remember the Rose Bowl and how the whole talk was about Derrick Rogers and how elite of a pass-rusher he is and how fast he was able to get around the corner and he was going to be the guy that was going to give Orlando Pace problems. I remember watching film with Orlando and I'm like, "I don't see anything this guy does that is coming back inside or into your body -- all he's really doing is speed rushing. That's not going to beat you. You're way too fast, and way too quick and have way too good of footwork for that to beat you." ... I don't think Rogers ever got close to either one of our quarterbacks. It was kind of what we saw -- he would try to speed rush up field and Orlando would take him 10 yards deep.

Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel ultimately won the Heisman. Pace, who won Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, finished fourth in the voting -- the most recent offensive lineman to finish in the top five.

Archie: There's no question over the years that linemen get overlooked and you wish that wasn't the case. But ... they're the reason a guy like me won a Heisman Trophy [twice]. You can't do that without a great line in front of you.

Carr: If it's truly about the best player in college football, he was that. He got robbed. You need to call that the biggest theft in Heisman Trophy history.

Jackson: It's kind of like your girlfriend is a 10, she's a dime and everybody notices, right? And you ultimately marry her. At some point you might feel like she's not a 10 anymore. But everybody is looking and saying, "What are you talking about? Your wife is gorgeous." But you live so close to her that you forget sometimes. That's what it was like with Orlando Pace. You forgot he was so great because he was there all the time.

Finkes: There [have] been some guys that have won some awards, but I don't think there's ever been anyone that was as dominant and consistent as Orlando. I mean, he never took a play off. He never had a mistake. I mean, he never messed up. You could count on him being where he's supposed to be. And then half the time you can count on taking care of that job and then taking care of somebody else's job.

Saleh: Hands down, he was the best player. ... He was just one of the quintessential franchise left tackles in the history of football.

Miller: He revolutionized the position. After Pace, people started to look for 6-8 guys that were big and athletic, that can run. Where's the next Orlando Pace? We don't want these 6-3 guys that are short and stubby.

A Hall of Famer twice over

Pace -- a two-time unanimous First-Team All-American and the only repeat Lombardi Award winner ever -- was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2013. But his career in the NFL was equally impressive.

John Becker, Rams college scout: I'm an old guy, but he's hard to forget. And I couldn't ever forget him because he was one of the most unusual players I've ever scouted because he was one of the very best. I've seen a lot of good ones, but he was the whole package, the whole enchilada.

Charley Armey, Rams director of personnel: When I watched him work out, he was every bit as agile and as quick as the defensive backs he pancaked. He may have been the best athlete on the field of all the players at the time. Just remarkable at how quick and agile he was, how quickly he could change directions, how fluid and natural his athletic ability was. Then couple that with the fact that he is extremely intelligent. So here is everything you look for in a football player.

Dick Vermeil, Rams head coach 1997-1999: I don't think I've ever seen anybody like him. I always went in early and studied game films and then watched practice. Then I'd go in the locker room and visit with kids. And I just thought he was as complete a package as an athlete, a football player and a person as I had been around.

Becker: When he's a junior in college, you're drooling about, "How are we going to get this guy?"

Vermeil left the broadcast booth to become the head coach of the Rams, who held the sixth pick in the 1997 draft. Pace, to the surprise of no one, announced that he would be leaving school early to enter the draft.

Vermeil: I just started working on a way to trade up. Bill Parcells was a friend and he didn't want the first pick, so we worked on a trade and got it done so we could move up and get him. At that time, the Rams thought they had a starting franchise quarterback in Tony Banks. Then the next thing you need is an All-Pro-caliber, Hall of Fame left tackle. And I was never big on drafting an offensive lineman in the first round unless you could emotionally and physically evaluate him as a Hall of Fame candidate somewhere down the road. With Orlando, you had to be blind not to recognize.

Becker: It's like if you're looking at a beautiful woman -- you don't have to look long to know she's in a class of her own.

Armey: There was no question in my mind that he would probably be one of the best left tackles ever to play the game. They don't come along like Orlando Pace very often when they check all the boxes. Sometimes there's a flaw someplace -- maybe it's a personality, maybe it's quickness, maybe it's speed -- but he fixed all the boxes.

Becker: You saw arms that were like 36.5 inches. If he shook hands with you, he would engulf you. But his range as a pass protector was really, really rare. I mean, he was so big and he was extremely light on his feet, he looks like freakin' Fred Astaire or something. It was just his ability to do things with great ease. He never struggled with anything. I never saw that guy struggle. If he was like that in the classroom, he would have been a freaking Einstein. He's as close to having it all as anybody I've ever laid eyes on as a scout.

Becker and the Rams were proved right. Pace played immediately as a rookie and was named a Pro Bowl alternate his sophomore season. He wound up making the Pro Bowl a whopping seven times, was named an All-Pro four times, won Super Bowl XXXIV and was named to the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 2000's.

Armey: All those years he played for the Rams, I bet he didn't give up one or two sacks in a year. ... Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, we had a lot of really, really good players and we had a really good defensive football team. But he sure made it a lot easier. ... You didn't have to worry about the backside pressure when Orlando was in the ballgame. He could eliminate any threat that you had.

Springs: He could block out the sun, man. Now everybody talks about the "Greatest Show on Turf" and about Torry Holt and all those guys, but they don't realize that the problem was unless you really, really blitzed, you weren't getting no pressure because Orlando was on Kurt [Warner's] blind side and he was so big that, hell, you can barely see him.

Jackson: He's got a gold jacket, right? So his play speaks volumes.