The unsinkable Cameron Wake is going to the playoffs
The Miami Dolphins plucked their star defensive end from the CFL and only after the Pro Bowler went undrafted and unnoticed
You’d understand if Cameron Wake grabbed a mic every now and then, solely to remind NFL executives of all the big mistakes they made regarding him. The running total is 81.5. As in the number of sacks Wake has racked up despite being undrafted out of college, being cut quickly from his first team, being ignored by the rest of the league and ultimately needing to shine in another country before finally getting an opportunity to prove what he knew all along: That he can roll with the best of ’em. But the Miami defensive end doesn’t have time to hold grudges. He’s not about looking backward. That’s for losers. Wake’s definitely a winner. Besides, there’s too much work to do. For the first time in Wake’s career, Miami is in the playoffs. And as they did throughout their surprising regular season, the Dolphins will rely on Wake to anchor their defense Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC wild-card round at Heinz Field. Fortunately for the Dolphins, Wake has proven he’s the right dude for the job.
Few people in NFL history have been knocked down as much as Wake was before he even had a foothold in the league. Long ago, the so-called experts determined he didn’t belong. Yet, here he still is, a perennial Pro Bowler showing the doubters what it truly means to be undefeated. Wake has been an inspiration to his team because of how hard he worked to establish himself as an NFL baller, and the determination he showed in making it all the way back after suffering a serious injury, one that has either ended or irreparably damaged the careers of many cats much younger than him. Wake simply keeps on going.
Despite being eased into things early this season following surgery and rehab, he produced at a crazy level. Even people in the Dolphins organization familiar with Wake’s off-the-charts competitiveness didn’t expect him to be so good again so soon. If ever. But that’s the story with Wake: He’s made a career out of defying expectations. “Whatever the process was and whatever my journey was, it allowed me to still be here,” Wake said before Dolphins practice recently. “I left college in 2005. Here it is, the end of 2016, and I’m still playing the game I love and helping my team however I can. Is that part of my journey? I believe so. And it probably created the formula, whatever it was, that still allows me to continue to do this. So, I wouldn’t want anything to be different. I wouldn’t want to change anything. I’ll take my journey.”
And what a ride it’s been.
A prep standout at regional athletic power DeMatha High – NBA Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley and former Pro Bowl running back Brian Westbrook are among the school’s other notable alumni – in Hyattsville, Maryland, Wake was one of the nation’s top defensive players in his recruiting class. Then, he performed well while playing linebacker and defensive end in college at Penn State. Wake just knew he was on a straight-line path to having a great NFL career. Why wouldn’t he be? Surely, NFL decision-makers would recognize Wake’s talent. On to the draft, a big contract and the next phase of the grind, Wake figured. He figured wrong. During the 2005 draft, Wake heard name after named called. He knew those players would get their shot to fulfill a dream. His name wasn’t part of the process. The situation was as unsettling as you can imagine. However, Wake isn’t the type to give up. The undrafted rookie free agent signed with the New York Giants. He was on his way, Wake thought. A hurdle was cleared. Again, however, disappointment was around the corner. After only a couple of months, the Giants cut Wake. He waited for his next NFL contract. His phone never rang. “Nobody would even give me an opportunity to try out,” Wake recalled. He was out of football. He needed a new plan. Quickly.
Although the NFL clearly had no interest in Wake, he wasn’t ready to give up on the NFL. At his core, Wake believed he could still achieve all his football goals. But a detour was necessary. During better times in high school and college, Wake thought about the Canadian Football League as much as he thought about traveling to Mars. After all, he was a prep standout. In college football, it doesn’t get much bigger than Penn State. The CFL? That was a different world. That league was for guys who weren’t good enough to make it at the game’s highest level. Wake never looked at himself as one of those guys. Still, with no other options, Wake headed north. In an effort to jump-start his career in 2007, he signed with the BC Lions of Vancouver, British Columbia. Wake wasn’t where he wanted to be. But he had what he needed: A starting point for where he hoped to go. Wake’s talent took care of the rest.
The CFL had never had a better rookie defensive player. Not only did Wake produce a league-high 16 sacks, he became the first player in CFL history to be selected the Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. His encore was even better. In 2008, Wake led the CFL with 23 sacks and again was chosen as the league’s top defensive player. Finally, the NFL took off the blinders. A whole bunch of teams expressed interest in Wake, who signed with the Dolphins. Immediately, he made an impact, totaling 5½ sacks in 2009. The following season, Wake emerged as one of the NFL’s best ends. His 14 sacks ranked third in the NFL. After a 15-sack season in 2012, Wake was selected first-team All-Pro. He was selected second-team All-Pro twice (2010, 2014) and is a five-time Pro Bowler. During an era in which edge rushing has never been more important because the NFL is all about the passing game, Wake, who’s also stout against the run, has been one of the most consistently dominant players at his position. Of course, all of that leads to an obvious question: How in the heck did the NFL whiff so badly on Wake?
Scouting, to say the least, is an inexact science. Team officials evaluate countless hours of game film on players. They analyze seemingly endless computer files that list heights, weights, 40-yard dash times, reps in the bench press, etc. They interview potential draft picks and test their intellect. No football person to date, however, has devised a method to definitively determine who will thrive in the NFL spotlight. Wake is proof of that. Among undrafted players, Wake has the second-highest sack total in NFL history (Hall of Famer John Randle tops the list). Wake couldn’t tell you who goofed, “but, obviously, something was missed,” he said. “I’m the same guy, or I was the same guy, when I got here in 2009 that I was at Penn State. I didn’t have a growth spurt or go do anything dramatic. More or less, I’m the same guy. You know? I mean, this is me. I kind of laugh to myself and say, ‘Whatever the process is, I figured out a way to slip through the cracks.’ But even then, I knew I was a tremendous football player. I knew I could get the job done. But getting somebody to give you that opportunity, well, that’s probably the most difficult thing I’ve had to deal with. Obviously, I’ve shown somebody made a mistake.”
No doubt. With every game he plays, Wake is a reminder to the rest of the NFL. Getting it done on the field is the best way to stick it to ’em. For some, though, that wouldn’t be enough. Wake could be one of those dudes who walks around with a chip on his shoulder. Definitely could be. But he’s not. At least not these days. “Well, if you would have asked me back in 2006, ’07, maybe I would have been a little chippy about it and still had some thoughts” to share publicly, Wake said. “But that has come and gone. It’s been a while now. I’ve been in the league. I’ve been playing. You move on.”
After pausing for a moment, Wake pulled back the curtain a bit. Now, let’s keep it real: It’s sweet to prove so many people wrong.
“Probably four years ago, I actually went back and looked at the 2005 draft class,” Wake continued. “Looked at all the names that you probably would have seen on the front page of the paper after the draft back then. All the guys who were gonna be all-world and so on and so forth. A lot of those guys, they’re not playing anymore. And I’m still trying here, trying to help my team win. I’m still here. So nobody knows. Nobody has a crystal ball. If I had been a first-round pick, maybe I would have been done playing by now.”
It appeared Wake, 34, was done last season. On Oct. 29, 2015, he tore his left Achilles tendon during a game against the New England Patriots. The rehab process was lengthy and grueling. Many players who suffer the injury wind up retiring. And many who return never regain their pre-injury form. Factor in Wake’s advanced age for a football player, and it was reasonable to think that he finally would be defeated. That this time, perhaps, he wouldn’t defy the odds. Wake refused to go out like that. The same pit-of-his-belly fire that fueled Wake’s rise to the top of the NFL after being snubbed repeatedly enabled him push through rehab and get back in the game. Wisely, the Dolphins proceeded cautiously with Wake, using him exclusively as a situational pass rusher to start the season. Once the restrictions were removed, Wake took off after returning to the starting lineup in Week 6.
From that point, Wake led the league with 10.5 sacks. His 11.5 sacks overall ranked third in the AFC, and tied for sixth in the NFL. Wake also tied for third in the NFL with five forced fumbles. In a key 10-game stretch after Wake’s role increased, Miami went 9-1. Not surprisingly, he was voted to the Pro Bowl again. Wake always knew he would return, he says. It’s what he does. “I didn’t even look at [the rehab] the way a lot of people did,” Wake said. “It was an obstacle in front of me. It was a bump in the road. The way I’ve always been, and the way I always have my mentality set, is that there’s nothing that I can’t defeat. All it takes is hard work and dedication. Since I’ve had some issues in my career that I’ve had to attack, starting out early, that was just another one of those things. Just get in the weight room and attack the rehab. That was pretty much my mindset from day one.”
Ask anyone with the Dolphins, and they’ll tell you that their first playoff appearance since 2008 wouldn’t have happened without Wake. The impact of his performance on the field and his presence in the building was immeasurable. “The guy is unbelievable,” first-year Miami head coach Adam Gase said recently. “He finds a way to make huge plays at the most critical situations of the game. He knows it’s the right time, [and] something amps up in him and he makes a play. That’s what you need out of your playmakers.”
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph is no less appreciative. “He’s had a great year. Outside of that, Cam’s been a great leader,” Joseph said. “He’s been a great example for our young kids. That’s important.”
Especially now. After many years on shaky ground – in eight seasons in Miami, Wake has had six head coaches – the Dolphins finally seem to have a solid foundation in place under Gase, who had a strong opening act. On Oct. 16, the Dolphins defeated the visiting Steelers, 30-15, to begin their run to a playoff berth. In his first start, Wake was credited with one-half sack. That game launched the Dolphins and Wake to where they are now: with the 12 teams competing for a Super Bowl championship. For the Dolphins, the next challenge is to win their first postseason game since the 2000 season. They’ll have to do it on the road, making the task that much tougher.
That’s why it’s good the Dolphins can follow Wake. No one on the roster has more experience with clearing big hurdles. But even if Miami pulls off a surprise, don’t expect Wake to say, “I told you so.” Because as Wake knows better than most, actions speak louder than words.