The low point came in November 2012, when Ravens wide receiver Kamar Aiken was informed by the Chicago Bears he was being released after less than a full month in the organization.
When he called his family with the disheartening news, Aiken had already come to grips with the fact he might never play in the NFL again.
"In my mind, I was just like, 'I'm done. I can't do this anymore.' I couldn't take the business part of it. It wasn't fun to me at the time," Aiken recalled Wednesday. "I was just emotionally drained how everything was and knowing that you're not doing anything wrong, but you're just not in the favor of their numbers and what they wanted. I was like, 'I have nothing left in me to carry it on.'"
Aiken wasn't drafted, was released six times in a 23-month span and played in four different organizations in as many NFL seasons. But he feels like he's finally found a home in Baltimore, where he's emerged as a potential key player in the team's playoff push.
If Torrey Smith is sidelined by a right knee injury Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Aiken would likely step in as the starter opposite Steve Smith.
"Every year, whether I was on the practice squad or not, I've always approached it like I was a guy that had to do something to help the team win," Aiken said. "It happening now is not going to make me feel like I have more pressure on myself or anything like that. This is what I've trained for."
Aiken, 25, has 22 catches for 254 yards and two touchdowns, and he's been a mainstay on the Ravens' special teams units. He's also coming off the best game of his career.
Playing about five minutes from where he grew up in Hollywood, Fla., and in front of about 100 family members and friends, Aiken stepped in for Torrey Smith and caught six passes for 65 yards.
His 13-yard touchdown reception about midway through the third quarter gave the Ravens a lead that they never relinquished.
"It was more important for me, just because of everything that I went through," Aiken said. "That's where it all started for me, as far as football."
What Aiken's gone through is a football odyssey that's tested his patience and challenged his commitment. He was a highly-recruited player out of talent-rich South Florida, but the state's top schools, such as Florida State and Florida, wanted him as a safety and he wanted to play wide receiver. So Aiken went to Central Florida and played one season with Jaguars starting quarterback Blake Bortles.
Aiken caught 121 passes for 1,924 yards and 17 touchdowns over four seasons for the Knights, but he went undrafted in 2011, and signed with the Buffalo Bills as a free agent. In 13 months, he was released by the Bills three times, signed to their practice squad twice and elevated to their active roster once, appearing in two games on special teams.
He then spent about a month on the Bears' practice squad before landing with the New England Patriots. He had two stints with the Patriots and was on the active roster for four games before he was released just before the start of the 2013 regular season. It took him two more months, but he finally landed in a place where he felt comfortable from the very beginning.
"We were trying to get here for a long time. It just never worked out. My agent felt like this was a better organization that fit my personality and my style of play," said Aiken who was initially signed to the Ravens' practice squad last October and then inked a reserves-future contract with the organization following the season.
"When I first got here, it felt more family-oriented, more so than anywhere else that I had been. That alone made me feel comfortable to be able to just come in and play. How they operate around here, if you can play, you're going to play. Just seeing that, it made me want to work even harder."
Still, when training camp started back in late July, Aiken seemingly faced long odds to make the team. The Ravens had 11 receivers on their 90-man roster and the top four spots at the position were all but set with Torrey Smith, Steve Smith, Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown.
The Ravens traded a 2015 draft pick to select Michael Campanaro in the seventh round, so he too was all but assured of a spot. Aiken had to beat other receivers such as Deonte Thompson, LaQuan Williams and Gerrard Sheppard, who all had been in the organization longer than him.
"When I first saw him, I thought he was a rookie," said Ravens left guard Kelechi Osemele. "I knew he had the ability to play, but I kind of wondered if we'd able to keep him around. But just looking at his body of work and the way that he practices and catches the ball, he's a phenomenal player. I wasn't aware that he been dropped by so many teams."
Aiken said he's always considered himself overlooked, chalking that up to his quiet and easygoing demeanor. But he made himself impossible to ignore in the preseason, both in games, where he led the Ravens with 103 receiving yards, and in practice, where he caught everything in sight. He doesn't have top-end speed, but the organization liked his physicality and how he used his body, and the strength of his hands led some teammates to compare him to Anquan Boldin.
"It goes to how much hard work he has put in," Steve Smith said. "He's fought his way; he's practiced well; he's put a lot of pressure on himself. He earned his spot in training camp, like everybody else. He's just been waiting, and he got his opportunity and he shined."
With the Ravens trailing by 10 and badly needing points before halftime last week against the Dolphins, quarterback Joe Flacco threw to Aiken four different times on a 12-play scoring drive. This Sunday against the Jaguars, he could be in line for even more opportunities, which is all Aiken has ever wanted.
"It's not just the opportunity. It's an opportunity where you're able to be successful, where you're put in the right situations and not just thrown out there," Aiken said. "They've been doing a really good job at putting me in winning situations and I don't have any choice but to win."
A long road
Veteran wide receiver Kamar Aiken, who could start Sunday if Torrey Smith is sidelined by his knee injury, has taken a well-traveled path to the Ravens.
July 28, 2011: Signed with the Buffalo Bills as a rookie free agent
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Oct. 3, 2012: Released by Bills for third time in 13 months after being on and off practice squad and active roster
Oct. 9, 2012: Signed to Chicago Bears' practice squad
Nov. 6, 2012: Released by Bears
Nov. 19, 2012: Signed to New England Patriots practice squad
Aug. 26, 2013: Released by the Patriots for the second time in eight months
Oct. 30, 2013: Signed to Ravens practice squad
Dec. 30, 2013: Signed to a reserve/future contract with Ravens