Practice has long ended and the Dolphins’ facility seems deserted except for Cameron Wake … and his thoughts.
“Why am I here?” he asks. A gym rat, he’s not wondering why he’s working late. He’s wondering why he’s working, period.
On the outside, the answer is obvious: He’s an All-Pro defensive end. The league’s third-leading sack man entering Sunday’s game at Indianapolis. Worthy of a contract that has him set for life.
Why, he wonders.
Cam Wake has made a living out of getting knocked down, picking himself up, and chasing down the target.
If it happens within a handful of seconds, they call it a sack.
If it happens in a handful of years, it’s a career that almost never happened, because of a time he nearly gave up on football because he thought football gave up on him.
The funny part: He now reflects on how one of the worst periods of his life may also have created one of the best.
He wasn’t drafted. He failed all eight NFL tryouts. Should he have been one of the first players snatched off that draft board in 2005? Obviously.
“It turned me into the guy that I am,” Wake says. “My struggles, my obstacles, everything that happened to me, made me, ME. Is that what makes me say, ‘You know what? I got knocked down. I’ve got to get up and still chase the ball?’
“Hindsight’s 20/20, but I ask myself, ‘Would I have the mental toughness? Would I have the fortitude? Would I have the relentlessness that I have?’ I guess people call it a chip, but I call it that desire to be great, to not get complacent.”
So? Would he have grown complacent?
“I don’t know,” he says. “I mean, you see it all the time.”
Wake is 31 now, having last year signed an extension through 2014 worth at least $17 million over three seasons. It was only then that he believed he had made it, that he could care for the family that had cared for him.
Amid the rejections, Wake was asking why he was where he was (on his parents’ couch in Maryland) while guys he manhandled while playing for Penn State were where they were (on TV). Buoyed by a mother and father who encouraged him not to give up his dream, Wake spent a couple of years dominating the Canadian Football League and a couple of years working into the Dolphins’ system after signing as a free agent.
Hawaii, with both the setting sun and the Pro Bowl on the horizon. The family that had rallied around Wake once again surrounded him in the home he had rented, 91-year-old grandmother and all, watching him commandeer the grill from his dad — sweet, sizzling payback that justified the family’s faith in Cam’s football skills.
“The view at the house was spectacular,” says his mother, Darlene. “You’ve got the sun, you’ve got Hawaii, you’ve got the Pro Bowl jerseys. … It made it surreal, almost.”
If Cam had to do it over again, “I wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, man. I wish I would have been a first-round pick.’ It’s not where you start. It’s where you finish.”
But he’s not finished. Go back to this summer’s training camp. When the defensive linemen took their endurance test, Wake wasn’t there. That would have been too easy, he says.
“Pass rushing in the NFL is the most tiring thing that happens,” he says. “I don’t care, DBs want to talk about what they do. Wide receivers. When you’re 250 pounds and you’ve got to push a 300-pound man and still run at the same time, there’s nothing more tiring. So I feel like I have to be in better shape than the DBs, better shape than the receivers.”
So Wake tested with receivers Brian Hartline and Mike Wallace.
“And ran their time,” he says.
OK, so he has the drive and he’s athletic. That’s why he’s here. Right?
“When he was really small, we didn’t have him involved in sports,” Darlene says.
She still refers to him by his first name rather than his commonly used middle name, so she says Derek didn’t play sports because, oddly enough, he was too big. At age 6, she says, he would have been lining up against kids about twice his age because players are assigned by weight.
Basketball? His father, Alvin, had to twist his arm for that.
“The reason he didn’t want to play was he may miss some shots,” Alvin says.
“That Number 23 guy who plays for the Bulls?” Alvin advised Cam. “He misses every once in a while.”
Wake didn’t become the next Michael Jordan, but he was a star at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., made 191 tackles at Penn State and tested well at the scouting combine. The NFL still wasn’t convinced.
“I was in that space between, ‘OK, do I just continue to keep trying to go this route or do I put on a suit and tie and make up a resume and go out in the real world?’ ” says Wake, who figures he could have succeeded in medicine, finance or any other field he chose. “I was struggling and I’m lucky I had the support I had with my mom and my dad. They said, ‘You know what? This is now a time to chase your dreams.’ “
While Darlene questions whether her son ever would have given up football, she agrees it was a dark period.
“You work hard and do what you’re supposed to do, you get a payoff,” she says of what she taught her children. “For me, the pink elephant in the room was, What happened (to warrant such rejection)? And how do you support someone? How do you handle that? I think what Derek did was phenomenal. He handled it a lot better than I did.”
Alvin feared Cam would “throw in the towel.” Actually, he did.
“He quit the job he had as a mortgage banker,” Alvin says, “and got a job at a gym (as a personal trainer). It paid less but he knew he wanted to be in shape.”
Football fans know what came next: Two years in the CFL and two Defensive Player of the Year awards, which caught the eye of Dolphins scouts and general manager Jeff Ireland, who outbid other teams including the Colts. Four NFL seasons have resulted in 45.5 sacks and two Pro Bowl appearances.
The night of the barbecue, time stopped. There stood Cam and Alvin by the grill, feeling warmer than the flames.
“They did this for me, so that I could do this for them,” Cam says. “… It was kind of majestic.”
A torch was passed.
“Normally, I would run him away from the grill,” Alvin says. “That’s me. I do the grilling. It was such a proud moment, him being out there at the Pro Bowl, I said, ‘This is your day. Your work. Your moment.’
“What I said to myself was, ‘Let him shine. Even at the grill.’ “
His son had gone from being inactive his first couple of games as a Dolphin to finishing his rookie year, 2009, with 5.5 sacks. The next year, he had 14 to earn his first Pro Bowl trip. Since entering the league, Wake has more sacks than anyone except Minnesota’s Jared Allen (60.5) and Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware (57.5).
Is it any wonder that last week, Colts owner Jim Irsay demanded in a tweet that his offensive line provide a “NASA-like Heat-Shield” to protect quarterback Andrew Luck because the Dolphins “WILL bring the HEAT.”
“I didn’t all of a sudden become this monster,” Wake says. “I’m the same guy. I feel like I got overlooked, but that is what it is. Now I’m here, standing before you.”
And he knows how.
And he knows why.
NFL sack leaders since Cameron Wake entered the league in 2009:
Jared Allen;Chiefs, Vikes;60.5
Tamba Hali;Chiefs;44.0Clay Matthews;Packers;43.5