Kicking Down the Door

Before he commanded a $33 million contract, Cameron Wake had nothing but a mattress to sleep on, a bike he got at a pawn shop and an NFL dream that had people laughing in his face. He retraces that journey—from Penn State, to the CFL, to Miami—and fires back at critics of the Dolphins’ locker room culture
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Now in his fifth NFL season, Cameron Wake has 49.5 career sacks. (MSA/Icon SMI)

words tk (MSA/Icon SMI)

Considered a subpar NFL linebacker by at least six teams that took a close look at him, Cameron Wake spent the 2007 and 2008 seasons in the CFL and thereupon transformed into a world-class defensive end who garnered a four-year, $33.2 million contract in 2012. Now the rock of the Dolphins’ defense, he is eight years removed from a rocky Penn State career and yet to see an NFL playoff game. With Miami mired in controversy over hazing, the 31-year-old fires back at those who questioned his leadership, and reminds us of one important fact: Despite being 5-6 following a narrow loss to the Panthers on Sunday, the Dolphins remain in the playoff hunt.

On getting cut by the Giants as an undrafted free agent in 2005 ...

It was just like what you see on Hard Knocks. I got called into [Tom] Coughlin’s office and he gave the typical speech: We’re gonna go in another direction, things aren’t working out. I remember they signed another linebacker that day. You grab your stuff and get out of the door. I got in my car, and at one point I just pulled over into a parking lot. I can laugh about it now, but it was hard. I remember not really having anywhere to go, not knowing what to do. I reclined my seat, looked up through the sunroof and just reflected. I eventually grabbed my things from the hotel and drove back home to Maryland. It wasn’t fun. I remember Coughlin saying, “Don’t let this stop you,” which I’m sure they tell 60 or 70 guys every year. I guess in my case it turned out to be reality.

On shifting his career goals ...

I’m definitely thinking more about how to win a championship. At first in your career, you don’t know which way is up. Your head is spinning. Then you build a body of work. Financially, you get a good deal. I’m set. I have the Pro Bowl and All-Pro accolades. Going into my fifth year, I’ve never seen a playoff game. That’s what drives you. At this point you’re not playing for the money. It’s comforting, but you play this game to play late into January. You have to consider that in your decisions that you make.

Wake earned All-Pro honors last season after recording a career-high 15.0 sacks. (Tom DiPace/AP)

words tk (Tom DiPace/AP)

Will it happen in Miami?

I definitely think so.  So much changes every year in the NFL. This is my fifth year and currently there are only two defensive players who have been here before me. Coaches come in, regimes change, they overhaul and revamp. You see the coaches try to tailor the team to the way they want it. The entire organization is being renovated right now, and I think it’s going in the right direction. Of course, some things aren’t going as we had hoped, but I don’t think since I’ve been here we’ve had close to an even record in November, which we do right now. Is everything great? No. We still let some games slip and we have other things we’d rather not have going on.

On the Incognito-Martin saga ...

Even now, with this craziness going on, the question crosses your mind: Could I have done something to avoid this? At the end of the day, when you look in the mirror, it’s kind of like football; games go your way sometimes and sometimes they don’t, but if at the end of the day you can look in the mirror and say, “On that play I gave every bit of energy I had.” Then you can be OK with yourself.

People in the media are questioning the Dolphins’ leadership, including you ...

It’s funny. I put that in the same box with any other Monday morning quarterback or coach. They’re always out there—people who aren’t in the locker room who have something to say. They will never be able to comment on what happens in the locker room. That’s very simple. There’s no way I can comment on what kind of father or brother Robert Klemko is, because I’ve never seen you with your son or your family. If there was somebody in this organization who said Cameron Wake is not a leader, I would listen to that. But someone who’s never stepped foot in this locker room? I don’t even listen to that. I don’t care. I don’t even care if the commissioner has an opinion. He doesn’t have the access.

Will you change anything about the way you lead as a result of all this?

Not one thing.

On Joe Paterno, his time at Penn State and being upstaged by a freshman  ...

When Dan Connor came in, we were splitting time. For me, it was obviously the time when you want to be making your mark. But when you’re at Penn State, there’s always going to be that caliber of guy waiting in the wings. Also senior year, coach was limiting our availability to the NFL. Scouts would want to come in and talk to us, but he wasn’t letting that happen because the football we were playing wasn’t up to his standards. Then you’ve got a guy coming in splitting your playing time. I just went out and played and hoped the rest of that stuff would take care of itself. There was a lot going on that year. That might have been Penn State’s worst span of football ever.

On going pro ...

When I signed a letter of intent to play at Penn State, there was no part of me that thought about being an NFL player. I thought about getting a degree and a great education and getting a good job. I never looked at myself as an NFL player. But then you see the guys around you getting an opportunity and you say, “Hey, I’m just as big, just as fast, as strong, as intelligent. I can do this.”

On waiting for a phone call after being cut by the Giants ...

I stayed in shape and waited. I got about five workouts with different teams over seven weeks of that season and nobody signed me. I went to Arizona, Oakland, Jacksonville, Washington, Baltimore. I could’ve said, “Hey, I tried. Let me get my résumé together and go out here in the work force.” But I decided to take a chance. I didn’t care what my girlfriend said, or that guy at the gym or my aunts and uncles. I had people literally laugh in my face, like, “You really think you’re going to the NFL?” I was working as a trainer at Bally and telling people I was going to the NFL. They were looking at me like I was on drugs.

Asked what he would change about his leadership following the Incognito-Martin saga, Wake said, "Not one thing." (Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

words tk (Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Are you still with the girl?

We went our separate ways.

On living in Canada ...

I lived bare bones. I lived in the basement apartment of someone else’s house. I bought a mattress, no box spring. I bought some sheets, and that was it. I didn’t have a table. I bought a bike from the pawn shop for 40 bucks, and that was how I got around. I didn’t have cable, Internet, video games. I was nervous about allowing myself to get comfortable. I didn’t want to get my hopes up; they could cut me any minute. In my mind, this was my last chance. There was no NFL Europe. I was also thinking, If I didn’t make it there, I was out of the game. So I was there to play ball, not to beat my high score in Madden or go party. I figured, I’m here to dominate. If it’s not something that’s going to help me on Saturday, it’s a waste of my time.

On being discovered as a defensive end ...

My old head coach, Wally Buono of the British Columbia Lions, was the first guy who told me to put my hand in the dirt. Canada is a different game: The field is bigger, the defensive players are smaller, and there’s much more passing. You had safety-sized guys playing linebacker and linebackers playing end. Sideline to sideline is 70 yards, so you can't have a 300-pound guy on the field. It ended up being perfect.

The NFL seems to be shifting that way, no?

When I started playing end I was a “hybrid,” and now you look across the league and lots of defensive ends are now 260 pounds, strong enough to take on the run, with the speed to rush the pass. Now the hybrid guy is the norm and the 300-pound guy is the rarity. That’s the direction the game’s going now that teams are going to try to spread the field. I actually started out playing defensive end in high school. When I signed to Penn State I wasn’t even 200 pounds. Coming into the old-school Big 10, trying to play end at 190, it wasn’t happening. And I had only played 18 months of football in my entire life. There was Courtney Brown playing defensive end, compared to me?

I think you were born five years too early ...  

Yea I think so too. If I was in college now and playing traditional defensive end with the same skill set I would have been successful. Maybe I missed the boat in one aspect, but that whole process of going through that, getting cut, that made me, me. I have no idea if I had been a first-round pick, All-American, would I be as angry, as resilient, as aggressive? I don’t know. I had to kick my way in the door.

Wake was given a look by the Giants and a handful of other teams in 2005, but couldn't cut it as a linebacker. During his two seasons in the CFL, he learned how to play defensive end and has transformed the position in the NFL. (John Ulan/AP)

words tk (John Ulan/AP)