Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL Nation [Print without images]

Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Wake's NFL arrival might help you place the name


 
  AP Photo/John Ulan
  After proving himself in the CFL, Cameron Wake (91) hopes to capitalize on an opportunity with the Miami Dolphins.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

He had been somebody, the best linebacker from a place that cranks them out with such assembly line efficiency it's known as Linebacker U. He was a captain. He was important.

Then -- poof -- Derek Wake vanished. No NFL team drafted the freakish athlete who both thrilled and irritated Penn State coach Joe Paterno.

The New York Giants signed Wake as a rookie free agent in 2005. They cut him in June, having seen enough not to bother with a look-see at training camp.

And that, apparently, was that. Wake disappeared into an office here, a fitness center there. He wasn't famous anymore. The Big Man on Campus was shuffling bank papers, and they weren't even his. Bank advisors don't receive signing bonuses, and when he quit that job to become a personal trainer, the move didn't make the transaction wires.

One season came and went. Then another.

Wake slipped out of football's consciousness and into everyman oblivion. He stopped being somebody.

Yet he was somewhere, turning himself into somebody else.

"Everybody has their past," Wake said last week from his parents' home in suburban Washington, D.C. "I guess mine was a little more unorthodox than most."

Derek Wake had humbly gone about his life since the Giants axed him. But defensive end Cameron Wake popped up in the Canadian Football League in 2007 with about as much subtlety as a karate chop to the throat.

Cameron Wake was a whipsaw pass rusher with an insatiable craving for quarterbacks. Helpless tackles would've preferred trying to split an atom with a spork to blocking him. His sack totals for the BC Lions were obnoxious: 16 as a rookie, 23 last season. The CFL honored him as its best defensive player both seasons.

NFL scouts broke out their passports to spy Cameron Wake in person. He was a marvel to behold. But when his agent, Paul Sheehy, contacted teams to gauge their interest, some had no idea who Cameron Wake was. He didn't turn up in their scouting files.

Derek Cameron Wake had reinvented himself, all right. The former NFL washout, now playing under his middle name, became a hot commodity. Seventeen NFL clubs showed interest, and each of the eight teams that worked him out offered a contract.

The Miami Dolphins outbid the Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos with the richest contract in CFL-to-NFL history, a four-year deal potentially worth almost $5 million with nearly $1 million in guarantees.

He turned 27 last week and hasn't participated in an NFL training camp.

"From the first day I played football to signing the letter of intent to play at Penn State to sitting on the couch to signing a multimillion dollar deal," Wake said, "it's a crazy, crazy road. My head's still spinning."

The Dolphins project Wake as an outside linebacker in their 3-4 defense. If he can make the conversion and handle dropping back into pass coverage, he would start opposite Joey Porter.

"There's nothing you see on tape that tells you he can't do this. Nothing," said Montreal Alouettes head coach and former Dolphins offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. "Everything I've seen would indicate he can be very good outside linebacker in the NFL."

 
  Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
  Cameron Wake, then known as Derek Wake (94), had his ups and downs at Penn State.

Since Wake entered the CFL, he has added 20 pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame and now weighs 260. Oh, he also can run the 40-yard dash in about 4.55 seconds and has a 46-inch vertical jump. A YouTube video shows him swiping money off the ceiling -- purportedly 11 feet, 8 inches high -- in the BC Lions' locker room.

Those eye-popping measurements add to Wake's folk hero mystique. He's the same player as the Penn State kid in body only -- and barely at that.

He's part Paul Bunyan, part Roy Hobbs.

Where did this guy go, and where did he come from?

"His story does have mystique about it," Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson said. "It's a great testimony for Derek how he reinvented himself. You have to give him a lot of credit for his perseverance and fortitude.

"So I'm really intrigued by the fact, when I watch this stuff on the Internet, it's just scary that this guy was that dominating in that league. Now, it'll all change when you get to the NFL. It'll be better players. But what he's done numbers-wise is just absolutely shocking."

If Johnson is amazed by Wake's accomplishments in Canada, then that's saying something. Johnson recruited him out of DeMatha Catholic, the prep powerhouse in Hyattsville, Md.

Wake grew up dreaming of a college basketball scholarship, and might have been good enough. But DeMatha is nationally ranked every year. He couldn't crack a lineup that featured future NBA players Joseph Forte and Keith Bogans.

"One of my coaches said 'There's no point in you sitting on the bench. You're big. You're tall. You can jump. You can run. But there's only five spots on a basketball team,' " Wake said. "Only so many scholarships go out.' "

Wake reluctantly switched to football, a game he never had played, not in Pop Warner or even the backyard. But at least there were 22 positions.

"I was a complete mess when I got onto the field," Wake said. "I didn't know how to put on the pads or lace up my cleats. I came to practice in my And-1 basketball shirt and some regular turf tennis shoes I figured would work.

"I had to take the shirt off my back, put my pads on over my bare skin. My coach took his moldy coaching cleats off, gave them to me and wore my tennis shoes."

Coach Dennis Golden's hand-me-down size-13 Nike cleats are in a trophy case at Wake's boyhood home.

The cleats offer a reminder of how far Wake came in a short period, for 17 months later Maryland offered Wake his first full-ride scholarship.

In between those seminal moments came several honors. He was named all-state in his first year of organized football. As a senior, the Washington Post selected him its defensive player of the year. He wa
s MVP of Washington's Super 44 all-star game.

Despite Wake's phenomenal prep advancements, his marginal football background limited his development at Penn State.

"He looks like he's built out of stone," said Buffalo Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny, who succeeded Wake as Penn State's defensive captain. "He moved well. He was big and strong, just such an imposing figure. He was our big-time guy on defense. He was a physical specimen.

"But he hadn't played growing up all through childhood. He relied on his athletic ability because the number of years he played organized football were small."

Wake enchanted Penn State fans early. He played as a true freshman in 2000, and in one October game he knifed past Purdue's punt protection so swiftly he twice forced Travis Dorsch to tuck the ball and run. Wake nearly reached the punter as he caught the shotgun snap. Twice.

The moments of greatness, however, were tinged with frustration.

He suffered a season-ending left knee injury when he hurdled chop-blocking Miami running back Willis McGahee and landed awkwardly on opening night 2001. In Wake's junior year, Paterno called him "a big disappointment."

"I am trying to get Derek to turn it up just a little bit more," Paterno said at the time. "I think he is a good, solid football player. I keep hoping that he may go beyond that.

"He has the same kind of athletic ability that some other people we have had who have turned out to be great players later on in the pros. I think he just has to get a little bit more intense consistently."

Wake finished his collegiate career with so-so numbers. He recorded 118 solo tackles, 73 assists, two forced fumbles, 8.5 sacks and 24 tackles for losses. His most staggering stat: seven blocked kicks.

He was passed over in the draft. So was every other eligible Penn State player, the first time since 1951 a Nittany Lion wasn't selected.

Wake's problem was his size. He was 236 pounds when he graduated, the classic tweener. He was too undeveloped for outside linebacker in the NFL, yet too small for defensive end.

"To be great, I think you really need to settle into the position and be comfortable with it and understand all the things that go into playing it," Posluszny said. "What should we do with him? That's a tough situation with anything."

The Giants signed Wake, but aside from being saddled with the nickname Baby Strahan -- Wake has a gap in his front teeth like defensive end Michael Strahan -- his two-month tenure was forgettable.

"That was pretty hard," Wake said of his quick stint. "That was the first time I'd ever been cut. I didn't even make it to training camp, and that made it hard because I didn't get a chance to show what I could do. To get cut was, like, 'Well, now what? Do I get picked up by another team?'"

No other NFL club offered a contract. He tried out here and there. He stayed in shape throughout 2005 in case somebody wanted to give him a shot, but when 2006 rolled around he needed to land a real job.

He worked as a mortgage advisor, but he left after a few months for a lower-paying gig at a gym. He merely wanted to be near the weights and make a few bucks while desperately trying to get back into the game.

Wake claims that was where he name change came in. He said the gym printed up an ID tag for him and mistakenly used his middle name. He also has been quoted in Canadian newspaper stories as saying he changed his name because he thought it might sound better to potential fitness clients.

Johnson, who still calls his recruit Derek, laughed at those explanations.

"He went through the ups and downs," Johnson said. "I think that's the reason why he changed his name, just to reinvent himself, to say 'This isn't the Derek Wake of old. This is a new Derek Wake.'"

The BC Lions eventually offered Wake a tryout in 2007. He was supposed to meet a Lions scout at Hampton University, a historically black college in Virginia. Wake's former agent allegedly instructed him to show up at Howard, a historically black college in D.C. -- about three hours away from Hampton.

"I thought that was an opportunity come undone," Wake said. "They extended an invitation, and I mixed it up. I figured they were probably moving on. But they ended up seeing my film from Penn State and invited me to camp anyway.

"That was pretty crazy, but that shot was all I needed."

True enough. Wake was an instant smash even though it took a while for some to figure out who this whirlwind was.

"I remember seeing one stat sheet after a game," Wake said, "where Derek Wake had two sacks and three tackles, and Cameron Wake had two tackles and a sack."

In addition to Cameron/Derek Wake's 16 sacks as a rookie, he (they?) led the Lions with 72 tackles. He played like two men when he recorded a CFL playoff-record five sacks in a West Division final loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Wake's follow-up campaign was nuclear. His 23 sacks were more than twice the output from the next-best player. He had 65 tackles, forced five fumbles and recovered three fumbles.

"We always game planned for Wake to make sure our tackles had help with a back or a tight end, or we slid protection over to his side," Trestman said. "We had to account for him. We viewed him as a difference-maker."

CFL defenders must line up a yard off the ball, creating a significant advantage for offensive linemen. The 1-yard cushion provides time and space and improves blocking angles, especially in pass protection.

"Being a yard off the ball, it does say a lot about his ability," said Trestman, a former offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach for seven NFL teams. "He's a relentless player."

Since Wake is headed back to four-down, 100-yard football, might he consider changing his name back to Derek?

The Dolphins announced they had signed Cameron, but if he ever was looking for an opportunity to switch back to the player most Americans remember, now would be the time to do it.

"I don't know," Wake said. "Cameron might be a little bit more of a football player than Derek."