DAVIE, Fla. — The persistence that helped Cameron Wake make the transition from mortgage broker and frustrated couch potato to AFC sack co-leader is evident every time he chases a quarterback.
For example, there was a critical play last week that left the Miami Dolphins linebacker on his back, buried under a 315-pound Green Bay tackle. So he reached out, snared quarterback Aaron Rodgers by the shoe and yanked him down.
“Game on the line, you know?” Wake said. “I saw that shoe and grabbed hold.”
The sack set up the Dolphins’ winning field goal in overtime. It was Wake’s sack of the game and sixth this season — pretty good for someone who spent a year out of football after going undrafted.
That was in 2006, when Wake embarked on a corporate career. But watching NFL games on TV only reinforced his conviction he belonged on the field.
So he mounted a comeback, played two brilliant seasons with the CFL’s B.C. Lions, signed as a free agent with the Dolphins and became a starting outside linebacker this year at age 28.
When Wake describes his path to the NFL as “unorthodox,” he knows that’s an understatement.
“I didn’t take the highway here,” he said.
“I came the back way, the roundabout route. But at the end of the day I’m sitting in the locker room with the guys who did take the highway. I enjoyed the path I took. I wouldn’t change anything.”
CFL quarterbacks are certainly breathing a huge sigh of relief that Wake is no longer in Canada.
The former Penn State star registered 39 sacks while with B.C., twice was named the league’s top defensive player and its outstanding rookie in 2007.
The Dolphins are happy with the way things turned out, too. Wake has helped fill the void created by the departures of Jason Taylor and Joey Porter, both Pro Bowl pass rushers.
Going into Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh, Wake is on pace for 19 sacks, which would break the 37-year-old franchise record of 18 1/2 set by Bill Stanfill and tied by Taylor.
Teammates say they expected such productivity from Wake. He had 5 1/2 sacks as a backup last season, even though he was used for only a handful of plays in each game.
“We all knew what he had,” safety Yeremiah Bell said.
“He just didn’t get the opportunity he has now. Last year when he got in the game and rushed the passer, he made things happen. With more snaps this year, we knew he was going to do big things.”
Wake has at least one sack in four of Miami’s first five games. Against Minnesota, his strip sack of Brett Favre produced a fumble that was recovered for a touchdown.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger concedes he knew little about Wake before the season. And now?
“I think everybody in the NFL knows who he is,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s causing a huge stir and doing some great things.
“He’s a very physical rusher. It doesn’t seem to matter whether he’s being blocked — he seems to find a way to throw guys off him or run through them. He’s making plays left and right like it’s nothing.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin agreed.
“Cameron Wake is having a Pro Bowl-calibre year,” Tomlin said.
The knock on the six-foot-three, 260-pound Wake has been that he struggles to hold his ground against the run. Even so, the Dolphins are allowing fewer yards rushing per play and per game than last season.
Inside linebacker Channing Crowder conceded he had his doubts when Wake first joined the Dolphins.
“I thought he was soft, like a metrosexual-type dude,” Crowder said. “He was always dressed in matching stuff and real quiet. And he was from Canada, so you have that preconceived notion he can’t play.
“But the last guy I saw who got off the ball like that was Jason Taylor, and you see what he’s done. And Cameron’s strong as an ox.”
Derek Cameron Wake went by his first name when he played end and linebacker at Penn State. After managing only one sack his senior season, he went undrafted.
He signed with the Giants but was cut before training camp.
The former sociology major then spent time out of work, tried the mortgage broker business and stewed whenever he watched the NFL.
Determined to give the game another try, he went to Canada and thrived, earning a contract with the Dolphins in 2009.
And the teams that never gave him a chance? He uses them as motivation every week, transforming his personality when he steps on the field.
“I’m a quiet guy. The guy you see on Sunday is at home locked in a cage,” he said. “Being out of football and on the couch watching guys play, and knowing in your heart you can be that guy — the moment I cross that white line, the passion comes out from all the people who said, ’No, you can’t.”’