Fred Wakefield hadn’t played offensive line in nine years when the Cardinals asked him to switch positions from the defensive line. He needed to put on weight. He had to relearn the game on the NFL level. Yet Wakefield had no problem giving it a shot.
"When it comes to feeding your family," Wakefield said, "your mentality changes in a hurry." Not only did Wakefield make the team as a reserve tackle, but he started his first game on the right side last Sunday in Mexico City for the injured Oliver Ross. He’ll start again this week against Carolina, and may be another personnel success story for coach Dennis Green.
"We’re quite proud of Fred," vice president of football operations Rod Graves said. "Dennis deserves all of the credit. He’d had success doing that, and I didn’t think it was that far-fetched."
Green had moved David Dixon, who played defensive line at Arizona State, to the offensive side of the line in Minnesota, where Dixon played for a decade.
Graves was in Chicago when Mike Ditka took a young defensive lineman from Cheney State whom the Bears were going to cut and put him at tackle. James "Big Cat" Williams also had a long career.
Wakefield’s career had already exceeded expectations. The Cards brought him in as an undrafted defensive end in 2001, and he ended up starting 32 games in his first three seasons.
But when Green arrived in 2004, he was looking for sleek, quick pass-rushing defensive ends, guys like Bertrand Berry and Calvin Pace. The 6-foot-7, 290-pound Wakefield did not fit the mold.
"I mean, I knew as well as most people, if I stayed on defense, I probably wouldn’t have lasted much longer," Wakefield said.
Wakefield probably would have been cut, except he broke his foot and was put on injured reserve. With a year on the sideline, Green decided it was the perfect time for Wakefield to make the transition to offense.
He added 27 pounds. He attended meetings every day with the linemen. And he tried to re-invent himself.
Offensive line coach Everett Lindsay, a long-time teammate of Dixon in Minnesota, said Dixon took longer to develop than Wakefield has. Part of that was the year off, because Wakefield could concentrate on learning the job. But part of that has been Wakefield’s attention to detail and willingness to watch film.
"During the offseason, he was in my office and out here all the time," Lindsay said. "It was, ‘Help me with my footwork,’ ‘Help me with my hands,’ every day."
He also meshed well with the rest of the linemen, historically a close-knit group.
"We raz him a little bit, but Fred is such a great guy and works so hard and cares so much about his job," center Alex Stepanovich said. "He came in with an open mind, fits right in, joked around with everybody and took the ribbing. It made the transition easier."
Lindsay said Wakefield had his struggles in his first start but that he came away with a good performance considering a lack of experience.
He goes against star Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers Sunday, although Wakefield refuses to worry about the matchup.
"I can’t be a player I’m not," he said.
It’s an interesting choice of words, since Wakefield once wasn’t even an offensive lineman. Now he’s a rarity, a man who has started in the NFL on both sides of the ball.
"There was never a point," Wakefield said, "where I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ "