Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Pace has inside track on Saints

As of four days ago, the mayor of New Orleans did not have a ticket to the Super Bowl.

One Roanoke city resident did, though. And he didn't even have to ask for it.

Michael Pace's story proves it's really not that hard to secure a seat at the biggest game in American sports. All you need is a boy with some drive and a little time.

"OK, let's just consider this sort of like a master's degree," Pace recalls telling his son Ryan in 2001. "You go down there, and I'll subsidize you for six months. Room and board, whatever. And after six months, you need to start earning some money.

"If you can't prove yourself in six months, then you need to do something different."

Ryan Pace, fresh out of college, had just secured a position as an intern with the New Orleans Saints. The official description of his role was "assisting in the coordination of all operations on game days."

The unofficial description: Fetch some coffee for the important people.

But Ryan apparently was good at his job. Quite good. Within a year, he'd joined the scouting department as an assistant. In 2004, he became a pro scout for the team, evaluating potential free agents, sizing up future opponents and helping the Saints identify the best prospects in the NFL Draft.

A six-month trial has since evolved into a nine-year career. Ryan, 32, is now the Saints' director of pro scouting, meaning he manages the entire pro personnel department on a daily basis.

In other words, he's had a big hand in what the Saints have done this season.

No word on whether he can still fetch coffee well, though.

"I had a feeling he could make it work," said Michael Pace, whose son played football and majored in marketing at Eastern Illinois. "He's got a great work ethic. I've run a business for years, and when you have people that are that loyal and that dedicated and are willing to do anything, you're going to find a place for them in your organization."

Michael Pace, a Fluvanna County, Va., native, moved to Roanoke in 2004 from San Francisco. He previously lived in Texas, where Ryan graduated from high school.

Michael, a Virginia graduate who owns Steger Creek gifts and collectibles stores in Roanoke, Blacksburg and Forest, bought the NFL Sunday Ticket so he could watch all the Saints games. Sometimes he and his son will compare notes on upcoming Saints opponents.

"I know a lot of the inside stories that I can't relate, like what went on with the acquisition of Drew Brees," Michael said. "And I know how hard he worked this year to get the defensive guys they got, like the Jabari Greer and some of these free agents that have really helped their defense.

"They had a lot to do this year with hiring a defensive coordinator, so there's a lot of inside information, which really makes it enjoyable for me because I really know what goes on behind the scenes in attracting free agents there and signing free agents and advanced scouting."

But the greatest benefit of being Ryan's father might be the South Florida opportunity this week. Not that Michael was going to beg, though.

"We were kind of superstitious; we weren't going to say a word about it," Michael said of securing a Super Bowl seat. "He called me [Jan. 25] and said 'Dad, you're going, right?' I said, 'Well...' He said, 'Dad. You're going.' "

He's going. And who knows? He might even see the mayor of New Orleans there -- provided that guy can get a ticket.

-- -- -- -- --

Treacherous roads and flimsy faith in the visiting team's chances prevented me from attending UVa's 75-60 throttling of North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Sunday. That's OK, though.

Here's all the column would have said, anyway: Holy bleep.

I realize the Tar Heels are rebuilding. But I don't care if they had two heroine-addicted manatees, a pair of plowed pandas and a flu-stricken sea urchin in uniform that night. It's still UNC.

So belated kudos to coach Tony Bennett and crew. Once this latest snow storm clears, maybe I'll actually get a chance to see them play again -- and write the expletives in person.

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