FOXBOROUGH — It’s been one of the surprises of training camp: when Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots’ first-team offense is on the field in seven-on-seven or full-team work, Kamar Aiken has been one of the receivers getting a good number of snaps.
If you’re asking yourself who that is, you can be forgiven — even the most ardent Patriots fan might be unfamiliar with Aiken.
Listed at 6 feet 2 inches and 215 pounds, he is one of the taller receivers on the roster. A standout at Chaminade-Madonna High in Hollywood, Fla., and the University of Central Florida, Aiken was undrafted in 2011 but signed by Buffalo at the start of training camp that year.
His NFL experience since has been a series of roster transactions: six with the Bills, shuffling between the practice squad and active roster; two with the Bears, who had him on their practice squad for a month last year, and now five with New England.
Aiken came to New England in November, and was promoted to the 53-man roster for the Jacksonville game, playing special teams and getting three snaps on offense. He went back down to the practice squad for a few days but then was promoted before the finale against Miami and remained on the 53-man roster through the postseason, though he was a game-day inactive for both playoff games.
The uncertainty that comes with ping-ponging between the practice squad and 53-man roster, of employment and unemployment, has frustrated Aiken.
“You have to start all over. You go from being one of ‘the guys’ in college and then coming in and starting all over,” he said.
“For me, all my years of playing football, I was able to come in and get thrown in there right away, so for me to take a back-door approach to it kind of bothered me a little bit. But I was able to get through it — my support system behind me is very good.”
But it’s a new season and it’s a completely new receiving group in New England, and it looks like Aiken might be getting his first chance to be a Sunday regular.
“I have an opportunity,” he said Sunday. “I think I’m just going to make the best of it. All the opportunities they do give me and the reps, just make the best of them and go from there.”
As a practice-squadder, it wasn’t likely that Aiken would be lining up with Brady last year. The fact that he is now doesn’t faze him much.
“I don’t really look at it like that,” he said. “Just being around it, I’ve seen guys take reps with the ‘ones’ and then they still get cut at the end of camp. So I just go in there and take whatever reps they do give me and try to make the best of them.”
Aiken’s roll-with-the-punches attitude isn’t uncommon among players who have bounced around, hopeful that their big chance is on the horizon. But his is also borne of a difficult family past.
When he was around 5, Aiken and his older brother, Leon Woodstock, and younger sister, Shakoiya Aiken, were placed in foster care after their mother was arrested on New Year’s Day 1994. According to Miami-Dade County (Fla.) court records, Juliet Wint was charged with second-degree murder and aggravated child abuse; she was sentenced to five years but Aiken said she served three. Aiken said Sunday that his mother took the fall after a baby-sitter beat one of his cousins to death, and that Wint was at work at the time of the incident.
Though he is now 24, Aiken remembers the time he spent in foster care vividly.
“You just don’t get some of the perks that you get with your family,” he said of what has stuck with him from those years. “The love isn’t the same and you take your kids to theme parks and things like that, but they don’t get that in the system. That’s just what it is.”
It has also led him to start his own foundation, dedicated to helping foster children.
In June, he held a free football camp at Tufts University. He knows that he isn’t the typical big-name athlete who has a foundation, but he feels that he has access to the resources and wants to help children who are in the same situation he once found himself in.
Coach Bill Belichick acknowledged that Aiken has a bit of an edge over some of the other receivers because he has been with the team for a few months and has NFL experience that others don’t.
Aiken confidently said he doesn’t have much trouble picking up plays, impressive given how often it’s noted that the Patriots’ playbook is fairly complex.
He looks to other players, such as new teammate and fellow wide receiver Danny Amendola, who have had success after living on the practice squad for a couple of years and knows patience and hard work can pay off.
“That’s one thing: If you work hard, things will fall into place,” Aiken said.
“It might not come as soon as you want it to, but eventually, if you work hard, it always pays off. If I’m remembered as a hard worker, I’m good with that.”