Cameron Wake’s Journey To The NFL
Playing in the NFL is no easy feat, and getting there is just as arduous. Just ask Cameron Wake, who was one of hundreds of players hopeful that his name would be called in the 2005 NFL Draft. His college career certainly fit the bill of a draftee – Wake established himself as a capable pass rusher and a disruptive force along the defensive line. The former PSU standout linebacker and 2005 NFL draft hopeful was one of the many players who had to endure seven rounds of torture, only to watch the draft conclude without his name being called.
Wake, who back in college was known as Derek, arrived at Penn State with much hype surrounding him. Growing up in the Washington, D.C. area, Wake attended northeastern powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School (alma mater of former Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook). After a dominant senior season, he was honored as the Washington Post’s 1999 Defensive Player of the Year.
Wake did not have to wait long to see the field for the Nittany Lions. The team lost three starting linebackers after the 1999 season, rendering the position’s depth incredibly thin. As a result, Wake saw action in all 12 games during the 2000, being only one of three true freshmen to do so defensively that season. He finished his freshman season with 10 total tackles, two stops for a loss, a pass deflection, and a huge blocked field goal against Illinois.
His sophomore season was cut short due to a brutal knee injury early in the season opener against the University of Miami. Wake tore the medial collateral ligament and medial capsule in his left knee, sidelining him for the entire season. The NCAA granted him a medical redshirt, preserving his sophomore eligibility status.
His next two seasons as a starter at weak side linebacker put him on the NFL radar. Over that period of time, Wake racked up a total of 122 tackles, seven and a half sacks, 18 tackles for a loss, two fumble recoveries, one interception, and a total of five blocked kicks. Wake established himself as a prolific run stuffer who could penetrate the backfield and make plays. On top of that, he flashed special teams savvy that teams covet, along with a knack for getting to the quarterback.
His only pitfalls came when asked to cover wide receivers on deep routes, as Wake’s foot speed was deemed to be subpar. Wake, who comes in at 6-foot-3 and 258 pounds, discarded the notion that he wasn’t fast enough at the NFL Combine by running a 4.65 40-yard dash, and again at Penn State’s pro day by running a 4.55.
The 2005 NFL Draft came and went, but Wake never heard his name called. Coincidentally, former Penn State kicker Robbie Gould found himself in a similar situation, having gone undrafted as well. As soon as the draft concluded, teams came calling. Wake signed a deal with the New York Giants, while Gould signed with the New England Patriots. Wake finally got his shot. His dream of playing in the NFL was halted, however, after the Giants released him in June, about a month before training camp began.
This time, no teams came calling for Wake.
Wake spent all of 2006 out of football. Instead of playing linebacker, Wake lived with his parents at their home in Maryland, still tying to keep the dream alive.
“I was really unemployed, and I wasn’t doing anything,” Wake said in an interview with ESPN.com. “I was working out. Then, I’d come home and wait by the phone. It kind of got to that point where I’m literally doing nothing. I’d see my mom and dad come home from work, and I’m a 23-year old, perfectly-able guy. I got my sisters at work, my mom and dad, and I’m sitting at home all day. I feel like I should be doing something.”
Wake eventually got on his feet, and took a broker position with Castle Point Mortgage to earn some form of income. To remain in premier football shape, Wake became an intern at a nearby gym, where he would serve as a personal trainer. As he worked, he would still occasionally watch NFL games, giving him added inspiration to achieve his goal of playing linebacker in the NFL.
In 2007, Wake had essentially received an ultimatum. With the NFL’s window of opportunity slowly dwindling, Wake could either continue working, or quit his job and put his entire focus on training for another shot at professional football. Encouraged by his mother, Wake chose to do the latter, and quit his position with Castle Point Mortgage and his personal trainer gig to fully dedicate himself to training.
His dedication eventually paid off, as he received a free agent offer from the CFL’s B.C. Lions. Though he would be playing in a foreign league, it was a great start. His contract was worth roughly $48,000, and gave Wake a platform to showcase his worthiness to NFL scouts and open up potential opportunities to further his football career.
It was in this instance that “Derek Wake” became no longer, and the legend of Cameron Wake was born. As I noted previously, Wake’s birth name is actually Derek. Due to a mix-up by B.C. coaches, Wake was accidentally referred to by his middle name Cameron. Wake figured that he got his first major opportunity being called Cameron, so why change now? He rolled with it, and the rest is history.
Wake burst onto the scene during the 2007 CFL season. In the first week alone, he gave opposing offensive linemen nightmares as he racked up seven tackles and three sacks. He garnered Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performance, but didn’t stop there. Wake ended up with 72 total tackles and a league-leading 16 sacks, plus the lone blocked field goal of the CFL season.
He was named both Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, which included winning the Norm Fieldgate Trophy, honoring the top defensive player from the West Division. Wake became the first player in the history of the CFL to accomplish such a feat in the same season. In addition to his new hardware, Wake also earned himself a CFL All-Star Team selection, which is equivalent to a spot in the Pro Bowl.
2007 gave Wake a taste of success, but 2008 propelled him to stardom. Wake further proved his status as a premier pass rusher, totaling a whopping 23 sacks while also adding 65 tackles and three fumble recoveries, one of which he returned for a touchdown. Awards came raining down on Wake again after the season, just as they had one year prior. Wake earned his second consecutive Norm Fieldgate Trophy, was unanimously named Defensive Player of the Year, and was selected to his second CFL All-Star Team nomination. In addition, Wake became the first defensive player to be named TSN’s Friday Night Gladiator of the Year.
Wake’s incredible production over two CFL seasons made him a hot commodity amongst NFL general managers in need of a dominant pass rusher. After racking up 39 sacks in two seasons, he was just the player teams wanted to have terrorizing opposing quarterbacks.
Teams such as the Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings, Miami Dolphins, and plenty more expressed interest in Wake’s pass rushing services. Wake worked out for eight teams, one of which was Miami. Three days after his workout with the Dolphins, the team offered Wake and signed him to a four-year contract worth up to $4.9 million, and included a $1 million signing bonus.
This time, he stuck around for good. Wake easily could’ve given up on his dream after failing, but stuck it out and developed into one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL. Since entering the league, Wake, who has moved onto the defensive line, has racked up 237 total tackles, 60 sacks, and 12 forced fumbles. Wake is a big reason why Miami’s defense constantly finds itself in the top 10 in sacks year in and year out.
Wake has had his fair share of highlight reel plays, but none more impressive than his walk off safety against the Cincinnati Bengals in 2013. With the Bengals facing third and 10 from their own eight-yard line in overtime, Wake bull rushed Bengals’ guard Kevin Zeitler and sacked quarterback Andy Dalton in the end zone for a safety, ending the game.
This season, Wake again ranks among the NFL’s best, having notched 8.5 sacks, 25 total tackles, and three forced fumbles. His presence along Miami’s stout defensive line is imperative to the team’s success, as he continues to terrorize AFC East opponents.
Wake’s journey to the NFL was certainly unconventional, but once he received his shot, he hit the ground running. In 2012, Wake signed a four year, $49 million extension. His story serves as a reminder to players that the door into the NFL is not necessarily closed if you aren’t drafted, you just have to work a little harder to remind those who overlooked you just how wrong they were.
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