By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Ryan Pace's ascension to becoming the league's youngest general manager of the NFL's charter franchise is a story of sacrifice, focus and perseverance.
"I remember leaving Eastern Illinois in some beat-up car and driving down to New Orleans for the job interview," Pace said. "The other night, we're flying back here to be the general manager of the Chicago Bears. I'm not really proud of that. I'm really proud of the path that I took. It just makes me smile."
Undoubtedly, Pace chose the road less traveled. He earned an internship with the Saints' game-day operations department in 2001 to simply get his foot in the door and then started working his way up from there.
"I remember distinctly getting to know Ryan when he was lower level -- you could tell he was a go-getter and was going to move up quickly," said The Times Picayune reporter Jeff Duncan, who has covered the Saints since 2000.
Pace did indeed move up quickly and was promoted twice while a member of the Saints' scouting department. In fact, he made such an impression within the organization that two high-ranking members of the early 2000s Saints -- former head coach Jim Haslett and general manager Mickey Loomis -- both tried to take credit for unearthing Pace.
"Mickey Loomis tried to claim that he was the guy that found Ryan Pace, and Haslett was trying to say he was the guy that discovered him," Duncan said. "That's how well thought of he was way back, pre-(Sean) Payton. You could see that he was kind of a rising star in the scouting department."
Not only was Pace a rising star within the Saints' organization, he was well thought of throughout the league. So much so that as other teams started to express interest in hiring Pace, the Saints reorganized their front office to make it more difficult for other teams to hire him away.
"When teams started coming after Ryan Pace," Duncan said, "they promoted him into that (director of player personnel) position in 2013 and moved Rick (Reiprish) into director of college scouting. Ryan was a guy they leaned on in terms of talent evaluation. Along with Sean Payton, Ryan was definitely one of the strongest voices as far a personnel goes."
Clearly, Pace's prowess within the personnel and scouting function was what drew the Bears to securing his services, but his impact transcended all departments in New Orleans.
"He was universally revered," Duncan said. "Not just the football side. The business side, everybody recognized he was a rising star. I can tell you, of the people I've covered here over the years, there have been like three that stood out in the building: one of them was Mike McCarthy, the other one was Russ Ball, and Ryan was the other one. Ryan's head and shoulders above anybody else that's come through this operation."
McCarthy's now the coach of the Packers, while Ball is the vice president of football administration/player finance in Green Bay.
Pace's challenge now becomes being his own man in Chicago and dealing with unfamiliar responsibilities like the salary cap and managing a head coach on a daily basis. He's positioned himself for this opportunity and earned it, so now it's time for him to actualize his plan.
Pace has benefited from working with one of the league's most stable quarterback-coach relationships, shared between Drew Brees -- who was signed as a free agent in 2006 while Pace was a part of the pro personnel department -- and Payton.
In Chicago, Pace must find a head coach who can lead a locker room and a quarterback who can lead on the field. Clearly, Pace understands how instrumental these roles are and will have to make crucial decisions about both if he wants to establish a similar level of stability.
"My experience in New Orleans, the relationship between the head coach and general manager, that's critical," Pace said. "So is the head coach and the quarterback. Those are the two most important relationships in the building."
The wheels are in motion on hiring the head coach. Upon accepting the job last week, Pace ran the interview the team conducted with Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles just minutes later. This Tuesday, Pace will interview Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.
Pace's journey has landed him where he always dreamed of being, but now he finds himself at the beginning, not the end.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.
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