- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 16, 2006

Before every attempt, Virginia Tech kicker Brandon Pace looks up at the place where the crossbar meets the vertical base of the goal post.

As his career with the Hokies comes to an end, the fifth-year senior from Virginia Beach is finally looking a little higher. Although he already has completed his undergraduate degree in sociology and will finish his master’s in May, Pace plans to use the education he earned on the football field first as he tries to catch on with an NFL team.

That’s not something he could have expected upon arriving in Blacksburg as an invited walk-on in 2002.

“I wanted to play big time college football,” Pace said. “I guess if I didn’t, if I didn’t get the chance to come here, I don’t know what I’d be doing.”

But for one awful week in 2004 after he had taken over Tech’s kicking duties full-time and finally been placed on scholarship, a real future in professional football must have seemed further away than ever.

On Sept. 24 of his sophomore season, Pace lined up for a 43-yard attempt that would have beaten N.C. State. Down by a point with no timeouts, then-quarterback Bryan Randall had moved the Hokies 69 yards from their own 5-yard line before spiking the ball to stop the clock with three seconds left.

A meticulous creature of habit, Pace went through his routine with holder and now punter Nic Schmitt — marking off 7 yards back from the line of scrimmage, looking up at that spot at the crossbar for just a moment, then nodding to Schmitt, who in turn yelled to the snapper.

The snap was good, the hold was good, but as soon as the ball left Pace’s foot, it hung right and never corrected.

The kicker didn’t even see it.

“I knew it was right when I kicked it and I saw it right, so I didn’t even watch the rest of it,” Pace said.

The Hokies lost 17-16, falling to 2-2. That night, the Virginia Tech kicker locked himself in his room and slept, determined not to turn on the TV.

“I didn’t want to watch it and listen to the ESPN people and so on, because I knew it would be on there,” he said.

Certainly the possibility for jokes would be endless. Earlier in the week, pictures of the 20-year-old Pace drinking with his family and a teammate — pictures that he had posted — had been introduced into the news.

“It was bad,” he said. “I didn’t want my grandparents … to read bad things like that. I had to talk with Coach [Frank] Beamer that week … he asked you know, ‘Do your parents know you’re drinking?’ I said they were there. Literally, look in the next picture and they’re right there.”

Between the botched field goal and the family photos, Pace wasn’t about to call home.

“After he missed the kick, he didn’t talk to anyone,” his father Fred said. “He just locked himself in his own room in his apartment and didn’t have anything to say for a couple of days. I finally got to talk to him maybe Tuesday after that Saturday game. All I did was try to encourage him and say, ‘Hey, you can’t make them all. Go ahead and start working on the next one.’ ”

That advice, while sound, was already a little late. Just like he had been doing since middle school, the kicker already had gone back to work.

Both Pace’s father and one of his older brothers, Chris, had been productive, all-purpose kind of players without the size to really do much after high school, although Fred had played two years at Randolph-Macon. But Brandon was a soccer player on a traveling team until he tried out for football in middle school. He learned to kick on a goal post he and his oldest brother, Jeff, fashioned out of trees behind the house before his father finally built a PVC set-up with a net in a lot behind his grandparents’ house.

“The encouraging part of it was if you make the field goal kick, the ball comes back,” Fred Pace said. “If you miss it, you have to chase the ball in the woods. That was just to encourage him to be a little more accurate.”

Focused, precise, maybe even a little secretive, even then Pace had the mentality to be a diligent kicker.

“He always kind of kept his room a certain way,” his father said. “Everything had to be in a certain place.”

Now Pace insists on doing his laundry every Thursday because he likes to wear a specific pair of socks on Fridays before a game. He’s just as careful with his finances. Fred Pace likes to tell a story about how his wife, Donna, found hundreds of dollars squirreled away in her youngest child’s bureau drawers — “a little bit here, a little bit there” — a few weeks after the teenager who always insisted he was penniless went off to Tech.

“He’s also a miser,” his father said. “There’s another word they call him a lot around here is a weasel.”

Pace, though, was ready when the bill came for the N.C. State loss. Although he declined to speak to the media afterward, he insisted on watching the missed attempt with the rest of the team the following Monday.

“Coach [Bryan] Stinespring wasn’t going to show it but I wanted to watch it,” Pace said. “That’s when I realized how close it was, on the TV.”

The tape showed something else: The officials had incorrectly spotted the ball on the play — it should have been placed 2 yards closer after a 2-yard run by Randall.

There’s a competitiveness about Pace that’s easy to miss under the evenness, but his father says Pace hates losing, no matter the circumstance — golf, bowling, family football games.

“If he couldn’t be on the winning team or winning at whatever sport they were playing he’d grab the ball and run inside,” Fred Pace said. “… Brandon likes to be No. 1.”

A week after the humbling miss against N.C. State, Pace showed that sense of dedication in a win over No. 6 West Virginia. The third-year sophomore made four out of five field goal attempts, including one from 46 yards, as the Hokies won 19-13.

The Hokies ended the regular season that year with a 10-2 record and received an invitation to the Sugar Bowl. Pace also was named a semifinalist for the Lou Groza award, given annually to the top kicker in Division I-A football, for the first of three times.

This season, going into the final regular-season game at home against in-state rival Virginia, Pace still had the opportunity to set an NCAA record for field-goal percentage in a career.

After making his first attempt early in the third quarter, Pace missed on a 47-yarder with 6:42 left, ending his school-record streak of 22 consecutive successful kicks. He said after the win that the routine he prizes so highly was disrupted by an official blowing the whistle, but it was already too late.

“I just take my steps back and then, when I take my last step back, I kind of line up and make sure I’m aimed down the middle of the goal post,” he said. “And then I take my steps to the side and then I always look up through the goal posts because basically, basically you want to visualize where it’s going to go.”

With only a bowl game left with the Hokies, Pace is already hoping that the technique that’s been so successful in college will continue to work for him at a higher level, one he’s just beginning to visualize.

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