Tick. Tick. Tick.
Just because Cameron Wake chooses not to hear it, doesn’t mean The Clock doesn’t make noise.
Not any clock, mind you. But The Clock. The one that doesn’t stop just because he forgets to wind it or change its battery.
The Clock keeps time for everyone. A person only has so many breaths, so many mornings and so many nights.
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And pro athletes only have so many snaps, so many hits. And in Wake’s case, so many sacks.
He turns 33 in a month. In football terms, he’s practically a senior citizen. He’s younger than just 7 percent of the league.
And he has yet to put “one cleat” on a playoff football field. A decade out of college but just six years into his NFL career, Wake still doesn’t even know what it’s like to have a winning season at this level.
Which makes Sunday an awfully important game in his career. His Dolphins play host to the Ravens, two of six teams tied at 7-5. The winner will be the odds-on favorite to claim the AFC’s sixth and final wild-card spot. For the loser, it will probably be on to 2015.
“The reality is, you can’t play forever,” Wake told the Miami Herald last week. “That’s just the reality of football. You try to tell guys from the minute they get here, ‘Listen, I know you came from — insert huge school here — Alabama or LSU or Michigan State. And you guys probably went to a bowl game every year. You won all the time. You never had a losing season. Don’t even know. You might have lost one or two games in your entire season.’”
Wake continued: “But every NFL team is full of that. There’s no, ‘Oh, I play for this team, I’m going to win.’ No. You’ve got to go out there and fight, scratch, claw, whatever you can, just to get a three-point win in this league. It doesn’t happen. It’s not just LSU playing Western Northern Eastern State where they’re 60-point favorites. It doesn’t happen.
“We have a lot of guys who may not necessarily know that because they might not necessarily have the wisdom. But you’ve got guys like me, Randy [Starks], [Brandon] Fields, whoever has been in this, ‘Listen, there is nothing guaranteed. You have to work for every yard, every touchdown, every sack. There’s no homecoming game in the NFL.’ Yeah, every day, every year, it’s more and more pressing. You want everybody to have that same mentality.”
For that reason alone, Wake acknowledges that there’s a greater urgency than ever to finally break through, finally make the postseason, finally make the Dolphins relevant.
Perhaps that’s why, after practice Thursday, he was one of a handful of players to stay late and run sprints. It’s certainly why he watches his diet like a lingerie model, why he sleeps instead of parties. Wake, a three-time Pro Bowler, is as close to a national superstar as this franchise has. But he doesn’t enjoy the late-night trappings that come with celebrity. His mentality is, you can have all the fun you want when you retire.
And he is determined to push that inevitability as far into the future as possible.
Wake’s strange path to stardom — out of football altogether, then through the CFL — delayed the start of his NFL career. Wake is considered one of the best defenders in football, but he is unlikely to put up the career numbers needed for Hall of Fame consideration.
He has 61 sacks in just 89 games. That’s good for fifth in franchise history. No.1 on that list? Jason Taylor, who needed 100 games to record his 61st sack.
Taylor’s team record (131 sacks) appears safe. Wake would need to continue playing at this level past his 39th birthday to catch him.
But 100 career sacks? That doesn’t seem too farfetched. And it would verify his greatness. Fewer than three dozen NFL players have ever reached that benchmark.
“That’d be, what, four more years?” Wake said. “If you ask me now, I’ll say yes.”
Yet he doesn’t seem to care. He would gladly trade it for a ring.
“Honestly, I think I’ve probably beat the odds in terms of personal accomplishments,” Wake said. “I’ve been All-Pro, I’ve been to multiple Pro Bowls, I’ve had four-sack games, player of the week, player of the month. I’ve done a lot of different things. But all those things kind of feel … even when I go to the Pro Bowl, it feels like a consolation almost. ‘Good job. You did good, but the real goal are the guys who can’t come to this. … So-and-so made the Pro Bowl, but he’s not here because he’s playing in the Super Bowl.’ That’s the guy that really won.”
That dream still lives for Wake this year. The Dolphins’ goals are still in front of them. This could be his best chance to finally reach the playoffs. It might also be his last best chance.
Success in the NFL is fleeting. The Bills were once the class of the AFC. They haven’t been back to the playoffs in 15 seasons.
Injuries happen. And age does too. There’s a chance Wake never gets there.
“Let’s not speak about that,” he said. “But it would be tough. … Way, way in back in the head you think about it, because I’m not going to be 50 years old playing this game. But you look around and you’re like, ‘Listen, we’ve got our opportunity.’
“There’s been years where this game, in other years, I was, ‘Hey, let’s go because they’re keeping score, play for pride, rah rah,’” he continued. “I was in some seasons where by the 10th or 11th game, you’re just out there playing because that’s what was scheduled. No disrespect to the Jets, but they were playing just to play. I’ve been on teams like that. But now, we’re playing, here we are, deep in the season, and this game still has meaning. This game still has impact. Real bullets. We’ve got to go out there with that ‘by-any-means’ mentality and do whatever we can to get that ‘W.’”
Tick. Tick. Tick.