The problem with watching a great player, year after year, is you often forget what made him great. Sometimes he does, too. That's why Cameron Wake reaches into his locker on the day he's named to the Pro Bowl and pulls out a small piece of wood.
"This is the chip I'll always have on my shoulder," he says.
His jersey number "91" is painted in orange on it.
"I made it to remember how I got here," he says. "I keep it right here in my locker where I'll see it every day before practice. Then, after practice."
Wake opens a drawer at the bottom of his locker. Inside are an assortment of cleats, sneakers and other footwear. He grabs a pair of black sandals.
"I wear these every day to the shower and make sure I look at them," he says. "See why?"
He points down at the red letters stamped on them: "CFL." Wake got them during his Canadian Football League days, back when few believed in him and no NFL team wanted him.
This is just part of the collection of motivation the Dolphins' one elite player keeps as personal touchstones. There is more. He laminated a letter he received from a high school coach in Maryland saying, "I'd never amount to anything," Wake remembers.
He keeps a photo of the basement room where he lived his first CFL season in 2006. He made $40,000 that year, less than what Dolphins practice players make. He rode a bike the couple of miles to work each day.
"That photo is a memory of the path I've taken to get here, just like these sandals are," he says.
But perhaps the best piece in the motivational collection is simply what people call him these days. His given name, Derek Wake, is what anyone who knew him before 2006 still knows him as.
Derek went undrafted out of Penn State. Derek signed with and was released by the New York Giants before training camp. Derek took a job as a broker in 2005 to pay the bills while keeping the football flame alive on the side.
"My mom told me then, 'If you're splitting yourself up, you're not giving it your all,' " Wake said. " 'Your dream is going to suffer.' My parents told me to chase this. Had they said something different, who knows what I'd be doing today?"
So Derek took a job at a Bally's gym near his Maryland home to work out religiously and apply himself fully to football. There, he was mistakenly given a name tag to wear with his middle name — "Cameron."
It became symbolic of a new start to him. Even that appeared short-lived, however, when his agent said the British Columbia team would work him out at Howard University. The team, he later learned, had said Hampton College.
"Two hours apart," he said. "I thought my chance was gone."
By 2006, however, he was starring for British Columbia on the field and surviving off it. By 2007, a few NFL teams came calling. Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland gave him the best deal and, with a new team in '08, the best chance.
All this might seem far away from the Wake of today. He was named a Pro Bowl pick on Wednesday for the second time. He is fourth in the league in sacks (15), tied for first in quarterback hits and also notably seventh among defensive ends against the run, according to Pro Football Focus.
"I'm the best at what I do," Wake says, flatly, knowing his Sunday portfolio over the past four years confirms it. Then he says, equally as directly, "I'm the same person I was on the couch trying to make it."
As proof, Wake has missed no games and just two practices (from a minor car accident) in his five Dolphins years. He follows a highly regimented diet and says he hasn't had a drop of alcohol since his sophomore year in college. Teammates know this. They send him over "shots of water whenever we go out," he says.
"I can eat cheeseburgers and play video games the rest of my life," Wake says. "But for these years, I'm taking nothing for granted."
Even when he goes to Hawaii, he'll take tokens to keep him rooted. The "CFL" sandals went with him to the Pro Bowl his first trip.
"They're going with me again," he says.