The sun was just about to dip behind Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Sugarloaf Mountain when it hit Cameron Wake:
“Wow, we’re here,” an awe-inspired Wake quipped to his travel companions, football buddies from his time spent in Canada. “We’re really doing this.”
It was the summer of 2011, and Wake had arrived in more than ways than one. With his 14 sacks the year before — third-most in the league — the Dolphins’ surprise sensation had become a full-fledged star.
Wake’s off-field passion is traveling, and with an NFL salary, he could finally afford to do so in style. He has been all over Europe, visited Turkey and chilled in the Caribbean.
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But no stamp on his passport could match the experience he shared in Brazil with friends Ricky Foley and Tim Goodwell, former teammates in the Canadian Football League. They met as rookies in Vancouver, and four years later, finally made good on their long-held vacation plans.
“I’m one of those guys who, regardless of what I’m doing, when I put my mind to something, it’s going to get done,” Wake said. “If I had to work shifts at whatever job I was doing to make sure I had the money to go to Brazil or Colombia, that’s just what I’d have to do. I’ve always been that way since I was young guy.
“If I said I was going to do something, I’ll do it,” Wake added.
That’s bad news for the rest of the NFL. Before the season, Wake set his sights on winning the defensive player of the year award. Six games in, he — at the very least — belongs in the conversation.
In fact, Wake might be having his best season.
Entering Sunday’s action, Wake’s 6½ sacks ranked fourth-most in the league. Pro Football Focus, which grades every NFL snap, rated him as by far the best 4-3 defensive end in the game. Not only did the website list Wake as the league’s most effective pass-rusher — eclipsing even Houston’s terrific J.J. Watt — he’s no slouch against the run, either.
“I’d be hard-pressed to find a guy that makes more of an impact in the game than Cam does,” said Kevin Coyle, the Dolphins’ defensive coordinator.
Coyle rattles off Wake’s strengths like a kid reciting a Christmas list.
He’s strong at the point of attack. He slips blocks. He has unbelievable flexibility. He plays with great energy.
And, most important, he can make game-changing plays at any moment.
Just ask Bobby Massie, the Cardinals’ rookie tackle who Wake victimized for 4 1/2 sacks in Week 4.
It was a career high for Wake, whose combination of size (6-4, 260 pounds), speed (he claims to have run a sub-4.5 40) and strength (he’s the most chiseled member of the Dolphins locker room) make him a truly unique talent.
“It’s hard to compare him to anybody,” said teammate Karlos Dansby. “This guy’s a freak. He’s in a league of his own. The things he does on the field and in practice every day separates him from everybody else.”
And his oft-told back story makes it all the more impressive. Wake didn’t play organized football before his 17th birthday, went undrafted out of Penn State and needed a two-year apprenticeship in the CFL before breaking through in the NFL.
But it didn’t take long for his teammates north of the border to figure out he was a special talent. Wake and Foley played the same position for the British Columbia Lions, and the plan was for them to split time in Wake’s rookie season. That changed after the season opener, Foley recalls, when Wake had a monster game and won the job outright.
Then there’s Wake’s infamous leap-for-cash, viewed by more than 250,00 on You Tube.
The video shows Wake soaring through the Lions locker room to snatch $30 someone had stuck to the ceiling — nearly 12 feet off the ground.
“He made it look pretty easy,” Foley said. “The rest of us could barely touch the ceiling, giving everything we had. He went up with one foot and almost hit his elbow.”
These days, money comes to him. Wake showed enough in his first three seasons in Miami to earn a $49 million contract extension last May, including $20 million guaranteed.
That’s a windfall Wake never would have seen had he stuck with his first love: basketball. He was a bruiser in the frontcourt at DeMatha High School in suburban Washington; his shooting range was limited, but his hustle was not.
Had he stayed on that track?
“I’d probably be playing basketball overseas somewhere,” Wake said. “I’d probably be in some no-name, semi-pro league right now.”
Luckily for the Dolphins, who return to practice Monday after a bye-week respite, he gave football a try. He’s a standout player for an improving team in the nation’s most popular sport.
And with the way he has played in 2012, there’s a growing chance that the worldly Wake will visit a place this January even he has never seen before: the NFL playoffs.