When the Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins square off on Sunday, each defense will feature a former Canadian Football League All-Star who is successfully making the transition to NFL success. While the CFL is often viewed as an outpost for players who couldn't make it in the NFL, Cameron Wake's and Jerrell Freeman's success coming to the NFL is hardly a new phenomenon.
Wake went undrafted out of Penn State in 2005. The New York Giants invited him to camp, but he was cut. That sent him north where he signed with the British Columbia Lions. The Lions moved Wake from outside linebacker to defensive end and a star was born.
Wake recorded 16 sacks his rookie year in BC, becoming the first CFL player ever to be named the CFL's Rookie of the Year and Outstanding Defensive Player in the same season. He would repeat the honor of Most Outstanding Defensive Player in his second season and was named to the CFL's All Decade team for the 2000's despite only playing two seasons.
Wake cashed in on his CFL success when he signed with the Dolphins in 2009. In his three seasons in Miami, Wake has racked up 144 tackles and 34.5 sacks thus far. He was a 2010 Pro Bowl selection.
Jerrell Freeman hopes to emulate Wake's success. Colts GM Ryan Grigson made Freeman one of his first free agent signees this past off season. While Freeman didn't have Wake's CFL resume, he was named an All-Star last season, his third with the Saskatchewan Rough Riders, when he recorded 105 tackles.
When Pat Angerer went down in preseason with an injury, Freeman got his opportunity to show what he could do in the NFL. He hasn't disappointed. Through seven games, Freeman has 69 tackles, good for fourth overall in the NFL. In the season's first possession, he intercepted a Jay Cutler pass for a touchdown.
With Angerer's return, the Colts now have a trio of outstanding inside linebackers with him, Freeman and Kavell Connor. Their strength has been evident with the Colts' improved performance against the run in the past two weeks.
Wake and Freeman, along with WR Andrew Hawkins of the Cincinnati Bengals, are just most recent players who have successfully made the jump from the CFL to the NFL. The list of players who enjoyed NFL stardom after starting their careers in the CFL is impressive, including Jeff Garcia, Joe Horn, "Rocket" Ismail, Joe Theismann and Doug Flutie. Warren Moon is the only player enshrined in both the CFL and NFL Halls of Fame. Moon won five consecutive Grey Cup championships with the Edmonton Eskimos and then enjoyed nine Pro Bowl seasons as an NFL quarterback.
Wake knows he wasn't the first player to successfully migrate south to the NFL, and he knows enough of the talent in his former league that he won't be the last either:
"It’s a long line of guys who have played in both leagues, a lot of athletes. And even as we speak there are guys up there right now that have the ability to have a lot of success in this league."
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