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Cameron Wake, Fred Jackson enjoy offseason of the underdog

Each new day last season, when the salt from his sweat layered his skin following another sun-soaked workout, Miami Dolphins linebacker Cameron Wake slid on those sandals in front of his locker and headed for the showers.

He was an NFL player now. Three years deep into his NFL career. On the brink of stardom with a 14-sack season and a Pro Bowl to show for it. And yet those black sandals -- the ones with a logo that read "CFL" -- still served as his daily reminder.

Where did he come from? Where was he going? The sandals, a nostalgic token from his two-year stint in the Canadian Football League, have always helped to answer the former. On Saturday, a four-year contract worth $49 million helped with the latter.

"It's kind of like taking things to another level -- kind of like when I came down here from the CFL," Wake said Sunday evening. "You always try to get better."

When Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson ponders those very questions -- with the past and the future in mind -- he needs only to dig back two years deeper into his own history. Like Wake, Jackson was undrafted. Like Wake, his NFL journey included unlikely stops.

And like Wake, he was rewarded Monday with a contract extension of his own, this one in the form of two added years and $9 million.

Call it the Offseason of the Underdog, a year filled with one motivating story after another, each one providing the type of inspiration that could and should fuel any unlikely athlete at any level shooting for stars of any height.

Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson, a seventh-round pick in 2008, landed a five-year deal in March worth $36.25 million. That same month, Cleveland Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, whose career was in jeopardy after missing 26 consecutive games with back-to-back pectoral injuries, also signed with his team for five years and $42.5 million.

You don't believe anything is possible? Don't tell these guys.

"You can't settle for anything," Fred Jackson said Monday at a news conference to announce his deal. "I won't settle. I'll continue to keep working and hopefully continue to make plays for my team."

The Bills running back is among the most impressive stories of all. And not simply because of his extension.

Years before he rushed for 934 yards in less than 10 games last season, Jackson was making $200 per week as a running back on an indoor football team. To supplement his paycheck, he had to work part-time as a youth counselor. But he clawed and clawed, all the way from a tiny Division III school called Coe College to a stint in NFL Europe to a successful tryout for the Bills.

"I'm here to prove to myself that this is where I belong," Jackson said. "I'm looking forward to it. It'll be another challenge, and I love challenges."

If there's one common thread between all of these players, regardless of the position they play, it has been that very mentality: Everything is done with the past in mind. Everything is another step toward validation, even if, no matter the accomplishment, validation remains something none of them ever feel they've actually yet achieved.

"You always want to reach the next level, and I've been trying to do that since the moment I stepped on the football field at Penn State," Wake said. "Having a situation like this, it's all about going through the journey."

It's also apparently about doing so by modest means.

For the three years since he arrived in the NFL, Wake has been driving an Acura that last year eclipsed 100,000 miles -- one that he purchased in 2005 when he first was signed (and cut shortly after) by the Giants. Wake doesn't wear flashy jewelry. He doesn't really live an elaborate lifestyle in any way. And he doesn't plan to start now.

"I think my journey, where I've come from, I want to stay humble with it," Wake said. "I am not looking at a helicopter or diamonds or a big tiger or anything like that.

"Like they said, 'Wine money with beer tastes.' I keep it pretty simple."

It was the proverbial chip on his shoulder that got him to this point. After he was released by the Giants before the '05 season's start, Wake was forced to spend his days on his couch, where he'd watch others play a game he knew he could succeed playing. The frustration mounted until he finally decided to give it a shot.

So he signed with the BC Lions in 2007 -- and he quickly emerged as the CFL's Most Outstanding Defensive Player two years in a row. The Dolphins were among a few teams that decided to give him a look in the NFL, where his athleticism earned him a roster spot -- and later, a starting role as Joey Porter's replacement.

"It's been an amazing, amazing journey," Wake said. "It's definitely been an amazing ride."

But it's not over yet. Not for Wake. Not for any of these players who just signed their big contracts. Now, the expectations are raised -- as if they haven't already proven capable of overcoming any level of expectations. These underdogs now also face have unique challenges ahead.

Fred Jackson, for instance, broke his right leg in the season's 10th game last season. He's also 31 years old, facing a dreaded decade for most of the NFL's running backs. Wake is now 30. And after a 2010 season with 14 sacks, his number reduced to 8.5 in 2011, as offensive linemen seemed to do a better job understanding his ability.

Now, though, it will be Jackson's turn to bounce back and Wake's turn to make his own adjustments to counter the blocks and schemes he faced last year. If the past is any indication at all, there's no reason to wonder whether either player will be up to the task.

They've each come this far. Now, it's time for them to push forward, to continue to inspire and motivate in ways they successfully accomplish by nothing more than their relentless actions.

"I don't feel like I'm slowing down," Jackson said. "The goal for me is to continue to play at a high level. I don't feel like I'm slowing down or have tiring in mind at any point. I can't even conceive it right now."

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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