FOXBOROUGH -- The little boy, about 6 years old, held his prize above his head as if he had the winning ticket for a 100-1 long shot.
In his hand was an autograph.
Asked if he knew who had signed the piece of paper, the kid smiled and said, ``No, but he's a Patriot."
Eric Alexander, the player who provided the signature, has to be wearing his jersey and leaving the field for someone to want his autograph.
He practices hard every day, just like fellow linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Rosevelt Colvin, but Alexander can walk down Newbury Street anonymously. Even if someone supposes he is a Patriot -- after all, he is 6 feet 2 inches and 240 pounds -- they likely wouldn't know his name.
Alexander hopes to do something about that in the coming weeks. He had better if he wants to continue signing autographs as a Patriot.
A good motto for Alexander at training camp is ``Now or Never," a theme for several players who have been on the team for years but have yet to make significant contributions. (See: Tully Banta-Cain and Dan Klecko.)
``This definitely has to be the best camp I've had so far," said Alexander, a third-year inside linebacker. ``It's kind of like the point of no return. I have to perform. I have to make the team, because there are no other options for me."
That desperation brings intrigue. For top stars and veterans, camp is about finding a groove and avoiding injury. For players like Alexander, it's about survival.
An undrafted free agent out of LSU, Alexander has spent most of his career on the practice squad, earning just $4,700 a week during the regular season. By league rule, a player can't spend three seasons on the practice squad, so this summer it's roster or bust.
That's a feeling Larry Izzo knows all too well.
Also an undrafted free agent, Izzo has carved out a successful career as a special teamer but he is closer to the day his career will end than the day it began. The special teams captain has been holding off the end for a decade.
``Basically, I feel I'm on the fringe every year," said Izzo, who is entering his sixth season with the Patriots, and 11th overall. ``Whether that's the case or not, I have to take the same approach I took as a rookie trying to make the team. Every training camp, that's my approach.
``Because I came in a certain way, I have the same mentality. It's not like, `Oh, this year I'm fighting for a job.' I'm fighting for a job every year -- from Day 1 to this year."
Banta-Cain is thinking he needs to show he belongs on the field in regular defensive sets. He never broke into the lineup last season, even after Vrabel was moved inside. With Banta-Cain bothered by injuries throughout the year, the Patriots wore down veteran Willie McGinest by playing him almost every down.
The team doesn't have that option this year. McGinest was released and signed with Cleveland in the offseason.
``It's my time," Banta-Cain said. ``I've been here three years, going on my fourth. I've had plenty of time to develop. Opportunities are going to come this year, so I'd better take advantage where I can.
``I saw what some of the offseason changes were with free agency, the draft, the release of Willie, and that kind of put things in perspective for me to know that I'm going to be expected to do some things this year and contribute more than I did last year. Hopefully a lot more.
``It's now or never. It should be that way all the time, but I definitely feel like this year should be the year I break out and do what I've been hoping to do throughout my career. Since college, I've been waiting for a breakout year."
There is no better time than now. Banta-Cain is engaged, with a child due in October, and he is in the final year of his contract. He bulked up to be better equipped to hold the edge, but he has lost some of that weight in the training camp heat.
``I've taken this offseason seriously, and I've been probably the most focused that I've been since the year I came into the league," Banta-Cain said.
``The coaches say games are where most of the decisions are made, but they watch practice, too, and they take it all into account," Klecko said.
Klecko, who got married in March, feels he is hitting his stride at nose tackle, but he is unsure whether he'll make the team.
``We'll see," he said. ``The best thing I can do is come out here and work hard like the last couple of years and hopefully things will work out like they did the last couple of years."
In his first three seasons, Klecko moved around the defense -- from lineman to linebacker, back to lineman -- but despite his versatility (he has played defensive end and fullback as well), the numbers seem to be against him this year.
Vince Wilfork is the starter in the middle, and second-year man Mike Wright was the primary backup last year. One would think Klecko noticed the Patriots adding players at his position in the offseason -- Johnathan Sullivan (trade), Le Kevin Smith (draft) -- and figured his time was running out.
``You start looking at it that way, you'll kill yourself. You'll kill yourself before you even get out there on the field," Klecko said. ``You just have to go out there and do what you can do. You can't keep them from bringing other players in. You can only do so much. Bill [Belichick] is going to make the decision."
If Belichick has to release Klecko, Banta-Cain, or Alexander, it won't be easy.
``Well, releasing players is the toughest part of this job and of course it's always harder to release a player that you have a history with, a guy who has played for you, a guy that has won for you and won championships for you," Belichick said. ``But unfortunately, that's one of those things that usually happens at some point every year, sometimes more than once.
``That is difficult, and it is also difficult any time you have to release a player where you think it's really a close call. Maybe you have two or three guys, and it's not necessarily that one is better than the other, it's just based on the makeup of your team, and you keep one over the other. But if things were just a little bit different, that decision could have easily gone the other way."
Belichick admits there isn't always room for someone like Klecko.
``The ideal player on your team who is not a starter is a young player who in a year or two would be able to take on a significant role offensively or defensively, and in the meantime, would be a major contributor in the kicking game," Belichick said. ``It's just sometimes those players are hard to find and you get into the younger players with more talent versus the older players with more experience and more savvy and more know-how who can maybe go out there and play better on a shorter-term basis and you start getting those trade-offs."
``Sometimes you end up losing an older player because you have too many other ones and you just feel like you need some kind of balance on your team age-wise." That can mean the difference between signing autographs at NFL games and looking around the league for a job. The first cut comes Aug. 29, when rosters have to be down to 75 players. On Sept. 2, the final 53-man roster must be submitted to the league.
``We have a lot of guys out there fighting for spots," Izzo said. ``The competition definitely keeps you on your toes."
Knowing he would enter camp on the bubble, Alexander worked harder this offseason to ``fine-tune" a few things. He lowered his body fat by cutting out all fast food, eating more protein, and staying away from sugar.
One byproduct is that he did better on the team's precamp conditioning run than before. He appears to be running third-team alongside Izzo, behind Bruschi and Monty Beisel, and Don Davis and Barry Gardner, but the Patriots do a lot of mixing and matching. Bruschi is hurt, and Beisel has missed a couple of practices, giving Alexander more opportunities to shine.
Alexander has been getting a fair share of instruction from Belichick and defensive coordinator Dean Pees, something he didn't get much of at this time last year.
``It's no secret. They know I've spent two years on the practice squad, so there's nowhere else for me to go but up," Alexander said. ``They all want to see me do well, and I don't want to disappoint them. But most of all, I want to do it for me. I'm not worried about anybody else. My goal is to make the roster.
``I have to go out and perform every day. That's the only way I can make the team. It's now or never."