20 years after popularizing 'Pancake,' Orlando Pace's legacy grows again

Yates: Orlando Pace was a brick wall! (1:03)

Field Yates recalls Orlando Pace's unforgettable career in light of his upcoming induction into the Hall of Fame. (1:03)

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The exception to the rule used to line up across from him on the practice field, and Luke Fickell still hasn't forgotten the lesson.

An Ohio State defensive tackle during the Year of the Pancake in 1996, Fickell was regularly drilled on the importance of leverage and frequently heard the "low man wins" mantra that he still uses today as a defensive coordinator at his alma mater.

But there was one guy who wasn't susceptible to that technique when the Buckeyes matched up for board drills or worked on their goal-line sets, pitting Fickell against one of the most imposing blockers in the history of football. And that might not have been the only way Orlando Pace broke the mold before leaving Ohio State after three years and embarking on a career that will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend.

"There are some things that overtake the laws of physics," Fickell said. "And Orlando is one of those things that doesn't obey the laws of physics.

"My coach used to always say, 'Look, the low man always wins.' Then I would have to go against him. I'd say, 'Coach, I thought the low man always won.' But the thing about Orlando was he was a great person, great teammate. He knew the difference between teammates and the guys he had to finish off. It was almost like he was toying with us, saving the real stuff for the game."

When Pace unleashed his full complement of power, agility, speed and flawless technical skills, there was virtually no chance of getting the better of him on a game day. Just to try to quantify how otherworldly Pace was after arriving on campus in 1994 and instantly becoming a starting offensive tackle: By his final season, the Buckeyes had created a statistic just for him as part of a rare Heisman Trophy campaign for a blocker.

The Pace Pancake was born, both in the numerical form and in the shape of a magnet the school sent out to publicize him for national awards. The Buckeyes provided a running tally of blocks that left defenders flat on their backs, a total that eventually reached 80 and helped Pace finish fourth in the Heisman race. While the coaching staff would count the Pancakes for anybody on the roster who managed them, there was really no need to bother keeping track of anybody other than the freakish big man on the left side of the line.

"I'm not sure exactly how it started, but he was the only guy we kept Pancakes for," said former Ohio State coach John Cooper. "We might have kept Pancakes probably for other people, but he got a hell of a lot more than anybody else, that's for sure. I mean, he wouldn't get one a game, he would get several a game. He was a mismatch. I jokingly tell people, he was 6-7, 320 pounds, he could bench press 400 pounds, run a 4.7 in the 40 and go bear hunting with a switch. He could do it all.

"People ask me, who is the best athlete I ever coached? I don't know to be honest with you. Joey Galloway, Robert Smith, Shawn Springs or David Boston, it's hard to say who the best athlete was. But in my opinion, Orlando was the best football player. I mean, I don't know how you could play the position any better than he played it."

Pace continued setting that high standard in the NFL. He skipped his final season of eligibility, becoming the No. 1 overall draft pick of the St. Louis Rams and starting a decorated 13-year career in the league. But in some ways, his legacy as one of the all-time greats in the trenches might have been sealed before he even stepped foot on an NFL field.

Certainly, Pace wouldn't be Canton-bound without winning a Super Bowl or playing in seven Pro Bowls or becoming a model of consistency over 154 consecutive starts. But he was already being hailed as a mythical figure before then. There was his stockpile of individual awards with the Buckeyes and the plays he finished as a lead blocker 70 yards down the field. Then there was the dominating performance that Cooper still fondly remembers when Pace blasted open holes against Illinois stars Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice as Eddie George rushed for 314 yards in 1995.

"I can't imagine coaching anybody better than him," Cooper said. "We didn't even need to talk to him about coming back or not -- we knew he was going to leave after three years.

"Every game was a highlight film for him. For goodness sakes, you didn't have to go through and make a highlight film, you just looked at the game. It was an easy decision, if it's third-and-short, fourth-and-short, pretty easy decision to run behind Orlando."

Those short-yardage situations still required reps in practice, of course.

Even 20 years later, even against a guy who might have been taking it easy on him, Pace's impact can still be felt by a coach who remembers that the low man doesn't always win.

"One thing I can always tell you, I don't know if during all those pass-rush drills and things we used to do if me or [All-American Mike] Vrabel or anybody else ever beat Orlando," Fickell said. "Vrabel might not admit it, but I can tell you that I'm not sure if in practice or any drill if anybody ever beat him.

"We knew he was great, but even the whole Pancake thing, the promotions, without all the social media back then, I never really saw that much about it other than a magnet. So I guess if I look back at it, we probably didn't realize just how good he was in the moment."

There's certainly no mistaking it now. But just in case, there's a new bust in Canton that will serve as a permanent reminder.