AT AN AGE WHEN MOST PASS RUSHERS ARE IN THEIR PRIME, CAMERON WAKE WAS STUCK IN A CUBICLE, LIVING THE LIFE OF DILBERT AND DWIGHT SCHRUTE. NOW HE'S MAKING OPPOSING BACKFIELDS HIS PERSONAL OFFICE SPACE
THE EMPLOYEES of Castle Point Mortgage had whispered for months about their new colleague during the spring of 2006. In certain ways Derek was just like them: A recent college graduate at 24, he spent 10 hours a day amid a sea of cubicles in a three-story office building in Elkridge, Md., working for $24,000 a year, plus commission, trying to sell home loans over the phone. "He definitely wasn't going to blow you away with his sales skills," says Collin Meerholz, his manager. "But he'd outwork you." Derek ate with his coworkers in the lunchroom, dressed down with them on casual Fridays and joined them for happy hours, ditching his tie and unfastening his shirt's top button.
In other ways Derek wasn't much like them at all, starting with his size: 6'3" and a muscled 260 pounds. They knew that he had played linebacker at Penn State for four years and that he still trained as if he were in season. He worked out for two hours before clocking in and two more afterward; between sales calls he would empty tuna packets straight into his mouth and bite into baked potatoes as if they were apples. Rumor had it that he'd even spent a few weeks at minicamp with the New York Giants and had tried out for half a dozen other teams. It was said that he could run the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds, extremely fast for a man his size, and that his vertical jump had been measured at 45½ inches, the second highest for any prospect in the history of the NFL combine. But nobody could find Derek's name listed among any recent draftees, and so curiosity reigned.
Finally, one morning that spring, a fellow broker decided that he'd heard enough of the gossip. He'd run track in high school, and while he stood just 5'8", he was certain that he could outsprint a man of Derek's build, so he issued a challenge: You and me in a 40.
The office was buzzing by lunchtime, wagers being placed over padded cubicle walls, until finally the rivals made their way to the parking lot, trailed by 25 spectators. Someone measured off 40 paces between the rows of Kias and Hyundais. A woman stood between the two sprinters, both wearing dress shoes, with one arm in the air.
No one there that afternoon had ever seen anything like it. Derek became a powerful blur of motion, taking three steps before his opponent had made his first. Less than five seconds later, Derek was past the finish line with a 10-yard lead. It would have been more had he not completed the race running backward.
Instantly, everyone knew the rumors were true. "He was a freak athlete," says Meerholz, himself a former collegiate lacrosse player at Division I Towson. But as the onlookers returned to their telephones, a question hung in the air: Why on earth was this guy spending his days hawking mortgages?
Derek wondered the same thing.
Eight years later—a stretch during which he started to go by his middle name and eventually signed his current five-year, $33.2 million deal with Miami—Derek Cameron Wake knows the answer. He had it in himself to do one thing better than virtually anybody else in the world. The problem: Nobody who mattered realized it, including himself.
I TELL MY FAMILY, I'm very good at one thing," says Cameron Wake. "There's a big, huge man in between me and another man, and I get to that other man. It's simple."
The task of rushing the quarterback—a skill that has increased in importance as the NFL has evolved into an ever more passing-based league—has indeed seemed easy for Wake since he finally broke into the NFL with Miami in 2009, when he was 27. In the subsequent five-plus seasons, he has amassed 53½ sacks, more than all but four other players, and there is really no trick to how he has done it. "I wouldn't say he has a plethora of moves—but he's got a few things that really work for him," says fellow Dolphins defensive lineman Jared Odrick.
Wake almost always starts on the left. He almost always rushes to the outside of his would-be blocker—rarely straight at him or to the inside. And, more frequently than almost anyone else, Wake reaches the quarterback before he throws. "I go to where I'm trying to get to," as he puts it.
Of course, scores of men who've been handed millions of dollars right out of college have failed to consistently accomplish that goal, but Wake has proved to possess abilities that others before him have not. One is the athletic explosiveness that he displayed in that Maryland parking lot.
Another is an unusual command of gravity that allows Wake, once he has burst by a lineman or knocked him slightly off balance, to veer in toward the quarterback at an angle that most rushers can't produce at full speed. At times it appears as if Wake is sprinting with his upper body almost parallel to the ground. "Skimming the grass, we call it," says Miami coach Joe Philbin. "Sometimes he looks like a speedskater going around a bend."
"Every single week the guy I'm going against is 320 pounds, guaranteed," says Wake. "I'm giving up 60 pounds. How can I win? I have to be moving faster than him, get under him. It's physics."
One explanation for why it took Wake so long to fully exploit this singular mastery of forces and vectors is that he was relatively late to football. He played basketball under Morgan Wootten (known as the John Wooden of high school coaches) at DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., but with future NBA players Keith Bogans and Joseph Forte on the varsity, Wake was stuck on JV until Wootten cut him as a junior.
Wake quickly showed enough talent at his second sport to earn a scholarship from Joe Paterno, but there his size pigeonholed him. A behemoth for a future mortgage broker, he was nonetheless deemed far too small for a defensive end, so he moved to linebacker. "I dropped into coverage, I ran up and hit running backs," he says. "I was sufficient enough to start at Penn State for four years. I wasn't bad."
He was not, however, good enough for an NFL team to seriously consider taking him on as a project. Despite his outrageous combine numbers, Wake was judged too big to effectively undertake the variety of hip-swiveling duties of an NFL linebacker. "I'm too small to play defensive end, too big to play linebacker," he recalls thinking. "So what the hell do I play?"
The answer, for a long time, was nothing. The Giants first signed Wake as an undrafted free agent in May 2005, and teammates quickly nicknamed him Mini Strahan—not because his play reminded anyone of the future Hall of Famer but because the rookie then sported a similar gap between his two front teeth. New York cut Mini Strahan a month before training camp even began, and he spent that season flying around the country for tryouts, awaiting a callback that never came. (Among those teams that passed on Wake after inspection: the Cardinals, Panthers and Raiders.)
By the following spring, the $7,000 reporting fee that the Giants paid him had dwindled to triple digits. "I needed to do something," says Wake, who by then had moved in with his parents. "Can't be that guy on my mom's couch." He opened up a newspaper and circled a job listing at Castle Point, even while committing to get in better shape.
"He had to get up every morning and go to meet the Man," says his father, Alvin, who met Wake's mother, Darlene, when both worked in information technology for the U.S. government. "I saw how grueling that was. My food bill and refrigerator saw it too."
After less than a year at the brokerage with no NFL calls (and with another class of rookies having flooded the league), Wake figured his football dreams were over. He decided to take one more real shot before settling on a nine-to-five life. He quit at Castle Point and took a trainer's job at the Bally Total Fitness gym where he'd already been spending four hours a day. During breaks he and the other employees—a track coach, a yoga instructor and so on—trained together. Nobody wanted to stay late to close the gym at 10 p.m., but Wake always volunteered. "Get the stragglers out," he says, "then I'd have the whole gym to myself. I'd turn the music up and work out for another hour."
In the spring of 2007, two years after Wake graduated from Penn State with a degree in sociology, the call came. That it was the Canadian Football League ringing, not the NFL, didn't matter. The BC Lions were holding a tryout at Howard University, a 25-minute drive away, his agent told him. "This is my shot," Wake thought. "Everything I've been working for."
He showed up early at the school's track, where at first he was unconcerned by the lack of football-type bodies. As the appointed hour grew near, though, he approached some of the people running lazy laps. "Are you with the CFL?" he remembers asking. "They'd look at me like, What the hell are you talking about?" After several phone calls the situation became clear: The tryout was about to begin, but at Hampton University, three hours south. Wake's agent—now his former agent—had erred.
"I felt like this was my last opportunity," he says. "That was it. Over one word."
WALLY BUONO, BC's coach, was more forgiving. He and his staff couldn't get Wake's tape (or those combine numbers) out of their minds, and on Memorial Day they extended him an invitation to training camp.
When Wake arrived in Canada, he did so with a name that Penn State fans wouldn't have recognized. Coworkers at Bally's had begun calling him Cameron due to a clerical mix-up, and he let it slide. "It sounds corny," he says, "but it represented a new chapter, a fresh start."
Embracing the second chance, Wake lived as a football monk. He rented a basement apartment for $460 a month and relinquished nearly all of his possessions. He had no computer, no cellphone, no TV. "A carry-on and a roller bag, that was my entire life," he says. He bought a purple-and-black pawn-shop bike for $40 to cover the two miles to and from practice. At night, while his teammates played video games or went out in Vancouver, he studied flash cards of the Lions' defensive plays.
Still, he arrived at his first practice having not put on pads since his last snap at Penn State, nearly three years earlier. It wasn't just that he'd never met any of his new teammates. "I didn't know anyone in the whole country of Canada," he says. He entered as a fourth-stringer for whom Buono and his staff had tempered expectations.
The first drill Wake participated in was one of football's most brutal and revealing: one-on-one pass blocking, one defender against an offensive lineman. Wake's opponent, the 6'7", 320-pound Jason Jimenez, was considered among the CFL's best and nastiest linemen. When the whistle blew, years of frustration—with being overlooked, with working in a cubicle—exploded out of Wake all at once. He burst from his three-point stance (this, too, was new to him) and thrust his helmet into Jimenez's sternum. He knocked the big man onto his back, ran him over and hit the pop-up figure representing the quarterback. Then he circled back around. "Let's go again."
There was no need. "You don't need to see that but once," says Buono. Cameron Wake was a pass rusher.
PASS RUSHERS in Canada typically run smaller than their NFL counterparts because the CFL's fields are bigger and their quarterbacks generally more mobile. Wake fit in perfectly there. "We can't have 280-pound defensive ends; they're not nimble enough," explains Buono. "When you're looking for the perfect Canadian rush end, you're looking for Cam Wake. You need thoroughbreds, not Clydesdales."
Unbridled, Wake led the league in sacks during both of his CFL seasons—16 in 2007, 23 in '08—and he was twice named Most Outstanding Defensive Player. In January '09 the Dolphins outbid eight other teams for his services, offering nearly $5 million over four years. In effect Miami was one step ahead of the game, as a new generation of agile quarterbacks—Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson—has led to a general downsizing of NFL defensive ends.
These days Wake resides in a six-bedroom Spanish-style house in a gated community, dotted with fountains, near the Dolphins' Davie, Fla., practice facility. Six luxury cars, all of them black, sit in his driveway. Women in sports bras jog by all day long, as if on a loop. "It's almost unreal," he says. "It's like all those Housewives shows."
For all of the new possessions that his belated NFL success has afforded him, Wake has hung on to one vital reminder of the old days: When he showers at the Dolphins' facility, he still wears the same pair of CFL-branded rubber sandals that he was issued on Day One with the Lions. As metaphors go, it's a bit heavy-handed, he admits, but he plans to keep them until the soles wear through. "I know what it took," he says. "Nothing should change now that I'm driving a BMW. The sandals are a simple reminder never to get complacent, always be humble—that I was the guy with a three-figure bank account, bought clothes from a thrift store."
Odrick thinks they mean something else: "Goddam right I played in the CFL; now I'm here, messing your s--- up," he suggests. "It's a pride thing."
Wake began this season with two sacks of Tom Brady in the Dolphins' Week 1 upset of the Patriots. (That was heartening for Miami's first-round pick, right tackle Ja'Wuan James, who spent much of training camp perceiving a whoosh of air on his right side. "When I saw him go out there and do it to someone else, in a live game, that made me feel a little better," says James.) And while Wake has gone sackless in three games since, Pro Football Focus still ranks him as the league's best 4--3 defensive end, attributable partly to his quarterback hits (five) and hurries (11). "If you look at holding calls, hurries, hits, pressures—they're not glamorous like the sack, but they definitely affect the game," he says. "The real football fan knows that's where value is found" (sidebar).
If the game is oversimplified, viewed through the prisms of sacks or size, one can start to see how an undersized defensive end might have slipped through the cracks. And yet even now, Wake can't help but look back and marvel at how the NFL missed him. "I was messing around on the Internet, and I found the 2005 New York Giants rookie class," he says. "Free agents, draft picks, everyone—I think there's one guy left: Justin Tuck. All those guys, where are they now? I always say, It's not where you start, it's where you finish. Whatever's made me into me, I'm not too upset about it."
At 32, Wake suddenly finds himself as Miami's second-oldest player, behind a long snapper—but he doesn't feel like it. "I'm old, but I'm young," he says. "I'm like that 2009 car with 400 miles on it. Still got some tread left."
Wake had to wait to realize his dream, and the morning does not yet approach.
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FIN ... THE END Wake may not always apply the finishing touch, but his QB hits and hurries—16 combined in 2014—are often preludes to teammates' sacks. Against Kansas City, he led Miami with five pressures, and the Dolphins bagged Alex Smith five times.
JEFFERY A. SALTER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
[See caption above]
KYLE TERADA/USA TODAY SPORTS (WITH CHEERLEADER)
CHEER UP, TOM Wake believes that a long road to the NFL gave him a leg up on the competition—and helped him make three Pro Bowls. After a fast start to 2014, Wake (right, sacking Tom Brady) could get the call again.
[See caption above]
KYLE CLAPHAM (CFL)
JEFFERY A. SALTER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER After Wake's stopover in sales, his low-to-the-ground explosions in the CFL (where he picked up his first and last shower shoes) convinced Miami to let him "skim the grass" in the pros.
JEFFERY A. SALTER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (WAKE)