By Nila Do Simon
Photography by Edward Linsmier
Cameron Wake likes to walk around shirtless. If he’s feeling even slightly modest—which is rare—he’ll throw on a skintight cropped tank that somehow holds in his bulging pectoral muscles while showboating his impossibly well-defined abs in all of their glory. When you see Wake today, shirtless or not, it’s hard to believe the Miami Dolphins Pro Bowl defensive end was ever a football afterthought. Since arriving to the NFL in 2009, http://cortrium.com/wp-includes/rewrite.php Wake has recorded more than 60 sacks and nearly 250 tackles. He’s an offensive coordinator’s nightmare: a lightning-fast 6-foot-3-inch, 262-pound pass-rushing monster that disrupts the hopes and dreams of many offensive plays.
Along the way, the 32-year-old Maryland native made a few fans. Because, let’s face it, he not only has an admirable athlete’s work ethic, but he possesses all the charm and looks that make for good TV. A gentle giant with kind eyes and a mega-watt smile, Wake is as personable as he is athletic. Articulate, thoughtful and full of hyperbolic similes and metaphors, Wake has provided a glowing personality to the Dolphins’ impressive defense, which at one point was ranked second in yards allowed this season. His opponents even like him, twice being voted by peers as one of the 100 best NFL players of the season.
“I got the hang on the defense pretty quickly. I mean, basically, whoever has the ball, go kill that person.” – Cameron Wake
The way he’s playing now, it’s easy to forget about the days back in 2005, which, as Wake tells it, were some of the lowest moments of his life. Back then, Wake was a self-described nobody. In the 2005 NFL draft, he went from being considered a late first-day pick to going completely undrafted, another football talent whose pro football dreams were dashed. The New York Giants called him up a few weeks later, and Wake couldn’t believe his luck. His dream had come true: he was signing with an NFL team. But the G-men ended Wake’s NFL career as quickly as it began, cutting him before he even made it to training camp.
Wake still remembers that day in June 2005 when he was called into Coach Tom Coughlin’s office. He was given the normal spiel (“We’re going in another direction”) and the scripted goodbye (“Hopefully this will motivate you and fuel your fire somewhere else”). They took away his playbook and asked him to leave immediately.
“I remember driving away from the facility and pulling into a little mini-mall,” Wake says. “I laid in my seat, with the chair back, and looked up at the sky and asked, ‘What do I do now?’ I’m not on a team. I’m out of a job, completely unemployed. I didn’t know what to do. I literally sat at that mini-mall for two hours.”
Twice now, Wake’s NFL dreams had been squashed by so-called experts who said he wasn’t good enough. As he drove back to his parents’ house in Maryland that night, Wake had no idea what the next morning would bring him.
Derek Cameron Wake readily admits his first love was basketball. Originally a center before moving to forward, Wake thought he’d get drafted to the NBA. Seeing Wake’s naturally gifted athleticism and his powerful play, the school’s football coach asked him to consider playing football. Wake resisted at first, a glimpse of a stubbornness that would later rear its head when he was told he was not NFL material. But the coach’s persuasion gave way, and Wake began playing football as a high school junior—his first foray on the gridiron. After a hapless start as tight end, Wake switched over to defense.
“I was making $40,000, riding my bike to work, shopping at a thrift store, and saving every dollar I could.” – Cameron Wake
“I got the hang of the defense pretty quickly,” Wake says. “I mean, basically, whoever has the ball, go kill that person. There might be some people who get in your way, so you might have to move them over and throw some people to the side, but that’s pretty much what I needed to do on defense.”
Within 17 months of picking up football, Wake received an athletic scholarship to Penn State, one of the most prestigious collegiate football programs in the nation. He made solid contributions as a linebacker in Coach Joe Paterno’s system, racking up 191 tackles through his college career. Still, professional football wasn’t in his sights.
“I thought an NFL player was this imaginary character who was just created,” Wake says. “Then, sometime in my sophomore or junior year, it just kind of creeped into my head that it could be real.”
Even after being dismissed from the Giants, Wake still believed the fantasy could become a reality. He never gave up the belief that he belonged alongside the best football players in the world. After coming home to Maryland, broke and unemployed, 23-year-old Wake did what all college graduates did: he started looking for a job. He eventually landed a position with a local real estate company, far from his glory days as a rough-and-tumble football player.
The desire to play ball never subsided. Soon, he quit his desk job to—of all things—work as a personal trainer at Bally Total Fitness, where the branch accidentally printed his middle name, Cameron, on his name badge. He went with it. After all, Derek Wake never made it to the NFL; Cameron Wake just might. He says he started working at the gym for a few reasons, but mostly to stay fit in case the phone rang and an NFL team would be on the other end.
Wake realized he had an undesirable label affixed to his name: NFL hopeful. With that tag, he was automatically lumped alongside countless other unsigned draftees and men deemed not good enough for the NFL. Even to this day, Wake can still hear the laughs and snickers when he told people that he, a recently hired Bally trainer, had NFL dreams.
All it took was a heart-to-heart with his mother, a conversation he recounts with fluidity, to give him much-needed confidence. One day after work, she sat him down and asked her son what his dream was. To play in the NFL, he replied.
“My mom said, ‘You need to go hard at it now to try to get to the NFL, but you can’t do it the other way around,’” Wake says. “She told me that I couldn’t work a desk job now and then all of a sudden at 45 years old, go play in the NFL. She basically said that if I still had football in my dreams, the only time to do it was now.”
So Wake dedicated himself to training and preparing for the NFL. He worked out harder and got himself into the best shape he’s ever been in. He watched Sunday games, angry that he wasn’t there playing against those same guys he tackled in college.
Eventually, a professional football team did end up calling, the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League. Despite being away from the field for two years, Wake made an immediate impact. Now called “Cameron Wake” by his teammates, he simultaneously earned Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2007, followed up by the CFL’s 2008 Most Outstanding Defensive Player award. Then, in 2009, Wake received a phone call from the Miami Dolphins.
Technically speaking, Wake is a freak of nature. A freak. He trains with monastic dedication, religiously going over game-day film, analyzing every play and every move he makes—and moves he should have made. Part of the reason why he loves walking around shirtless is because he loves the results from his hours inside the weight room. On an off-season trip to Italy, Wake says he “tasted” a lot of food, but never indulged in the rich cuisine. It would show during the season, he reasoned.
Wake likes to think his underdog story isn’t all that unique. In recent years, another Dolphins player, Bernie Parmalee, took the team’s inaugural rags-to-riches crown after starring in Dave Wannstedt’s backfield following a stint of driving UPS trucks, delivering sealed packages and cardboard boxes. As lauded of a player Parmalee was, he never made it to the Pro Bowl, never danced off into the sunset after ending a game in overtime with a sack-fumble recovery for a safety that resulted in a go-ahead score against the Cincinnati Bengals in the wee hours of Halloween last year. And Parmalee most definitely never performed the lunge-tastic Cameron Wake sack dance.
Despite his five-year contract worth $33.2 million and a legion of accolades from the same NFL experts who said he was not good enough nine years ago, Wake says he’s still that same stubborn, silly kid from Maryland.
“I like to think that I’m not very different from when I was known as Derek,” Wake says. “Coming out of college, I didn’t get this multimillion-dollar contract that a lot of guys did. When I graduated, nobody knew who I was. I had $7,000 to go to the Giants. After taxes, that’s not that much. Even in the CFL, where I was a two-time CFL Player of the Year, when I landed at the airport, they were like, ‘Who are you?’
“I was making $40,000, riding my bike to work, shopping at a thrift store, and saving every dollar I could. So when I got to the NFL, my attitude as to what a dollar is and the way you should act in the community never changed. That’s the way I want to be portrayed during my professional career.”
Today, he tells the Dolphins’ rookies that no matter what obstacles they face, they should never give up on their dreams. He says that for all the times he was told he wasn’t good enough, fast enough, strong enough or big enough, that those should be looked at as opportunities to prove all the naysayers wrong. Like he did.
Originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue.