Miami Dolphins DE Cameron Wake explains what it takes to be elite

Cameron Wake knows as well as anyone what it takes to enjoy a long NFL career. (Getty Images)

DAVIE — Cameron Wake is used to being asked the same questions about how he has stunningly maintained his physique at age 36 and given the Dolphins two straight double-digit sack seasons this late in his career.

He gets it everywhere. Young players in Miami’s locker room want to know how they can get there. He’s the most recognizable Dolphins player in public. The media is always curious.

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But the one question he’s tired of is when people want to know whether he ever takes a cheat day. Not only is that an indulgence he doesn’t take part in, he’s past the point of even wanting it.

“It’s a lifestyle,” he said this week. “I’ve decided many years ago that this is going to be my life if I want to be successful. To me, every week off that I’m taking is a week that some other guy is not, or a week that I’m stepping back or a sack that I’m going to miss or a play that I’m not going to get. It all comes down to what it’s worth.

“If I told a rookie, ‘Listen, if you never drink a drink of alcohol throughout your entire career, you’ll have 15 more sacks for the years you’re playing. Is that worth it to you?’ Some guys say yes; some guys say no. ‘Never have fried food for your 10 years and you’ll make X more money.’ Some guys say yes, some guys say no.

“To me, even if it’s one sack, one play, it’s worth it. Because 10 years from now when I’m not playing, I can have all the cheeseburgers, all the beaches, all the everything, because I put the time in now to put myself in a position that I can have all those things. But if you try to do it the other way around, you won’t be in that position to even enjoy the stuff that you’re working towards… It’s 24/7. It’s just a lifestyle. It’s my life and it won’t change until I stop playing.”

Wake talked extensively this week after his final day of Organized Team Activities, and it was the first time he had spoken with the media since December.

A lot has changed around him since then, most notably the departure of Ndamukong Suh and the arrival of Robert Quinn, but Wake’s the same. He’s still incredibly fit, still set on being one of the league’s most feared pass rushers and looks poised for another big year.

Two seasons ago, coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon, Wake was shifted into a reduced role of coming in exclusively on passing downs. He quickly proved he was capable of much more, and coach Adam Gase restored him to full-time work. That paid off with 11.5 sacks, then Wake followed with another 10.5 last year.

There’s no reason to expect a drop off this season.

“I feel as good as I’ve ever felt,” Wake said. “As you get closer and closer to tapping out that battle with Father Time, I think you have to do whatever you can as far as the wisdom of the game. You maybe can’t physically work as hard, but you can definitely work smarter.

“There are more things I know now that I didn’t know when I was 25 years old, when I was out there running around with whatever God gave me. To be able to be as physically able as possible at 36, and still have that wisdom to put those two things together, I think you can still be successful. With a little bit of sacrifice, if it’s worth it, then I think the fruits of your labor will come to bear.”

That approach has served him well over his 10-year NFL career. Wake is a five-time Pro Bowl selection (all-pro in 2012) despite going undrafted and not making it into the league until he was 27. He is second in Dolphins history with 92 career sacks and could crack the NFL’s top 30 all-time by the end of this year.

If that’s somehow not convincing enough, consider that the upcoming season will push his career earnings to nearly $53 million.

As Wake alluded, a big part of the equation is preserving what he has left physically as much as he can. That’s why he’s so careful about what he eats and how he lives year-round.

He was asked specifically whether he calculates in the offseason whether one beer today might cost him a sack during the season, for example, and while he said beer isn’t a draw for him, he used it to illustrate his point.

“I said in 2005 that I’m not going to have beer, because it will make the days that come where it’s third-and-10 and (the opponent is) hurting or he’s tired or he didn’t recover — I know I have a step ahead of him no matter what it is. It could be one millisecond,” Wake said. “Even if it’s 10 years (of clean diet) for that one millisecond, that’s worth it for me… Beer is not going to change. Beer is going to taste the same in 10 years as it tastes tomorrow, yesterday. And that sack won’t. That opportunity won’t be there 10 years from now. So, I can get it now. I’ll have the beer later.”

He added, “Take it from me that whatever is pulling you on the outside of football — I don’t care if it’s the South Florida sun, fishing, golfing, girls, party — whatever that thing is, sacrifice now and put everything you can into this game, and it’ll reward you tenfold. A lot of guys who listen, you’ll hear their name someday. Some guys you won’t.”

Wake embraces the chance to share that wisdom with other players, particularly rookies like Charles Harris was last year, and he’s given this talk many times.

“This is not exclusive to me or to football or to anything — What is it worth to you?” Wake said. “Is one more sack worth five years of a clean diet? Some people are like, ‘That’s crazy. I love cheeseburgers.’ Some people would say, ‘Yes, I’ll do anything I can to have one more sack.’

“Like I said before, cheeseburgers aren’t going anywhere. Video games, women, partying — All of that stuff will be there, trust me. But you’re only going to have one Monday Night Football game. You’ll never get it again.

“I’ve had guys — veterans, rookies, people who work 9 to 5 — all come to me like, ‘You’re crazy.’ But I’ve also have people who’ve said, ‘You know what? I’m going to do whatever I can to make myself better.’ It’s a universal thing for anybody. What is it worth to you? Are you willing to pay the cost? Some are. Some aren’t.”

Wake had a unique answer when asked what motivates him to stay so disciplined. “Freedom is my ultimate goal,” he said. For him, the reward for everything he’s sacrificing while he’s in the NFL is the luxury of doing whatever he wants when he’s done.

Wake intends to walk away from this — not anytime soon, it seems — in position to live however he pleases. That will make it all worth it.

“Probably no different than most of the guys in here, whether it’s the newspaper business or football, you want to have freedom,” he said. “I want to say in 10 years I will be able to do whatever I want. If it’s skiing all year round in the Swiss Alps, I sacrificed so that I could do that. Or if it’s teaching boys and girls how to pass rush, I can make that choice.

“But like I said earlier, if I’ve been drinking beers for the last 10 years, I might have to go do something for the next 40 years. I couldn’t go skiing and drink beer all day and sit on the beach, whatever it may be. To me, freedom is happiness and that’s what my direction is.”

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