Chargers tailback turns shooting into blessing

SportsFootballShootingsSan Diego ChargersHealthMike TolbertPhiladelphia Eagles

The bullet is still an inch from Curtis Brinkley's heart.

It survived hours of emergency surgery. It was lodged there during months of rehab. And three years after the early-morning shooting nearly killed Brinkley, it remains inside of him as he lives out his NFL dream — one that had looked as if it would never be realized —by playing for the San Diego Chargers.

And like Brinkley, that bullet isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

"I know what it's like being on that bed, not knowing if you're going to live," he said. "I use that as motivation. There's a bullet an inch away from my heart, but I'm living my dream. That's big."

Brinkley, a 26-year-old running back from Philadelphia, played 10 games in 2011 as San Diego's No. 3 running back, scored his first NFL touchdown and started the team's season finale. After flipping the script of his career from tragedy to triumph in a span of three seasons, his Chargers teammates voted him as the team's 2011 Ed Block Courage Award recipient during the season.

Brinkley is one of 32 players —one representative from each NFL team —who will be honored at the 34th annual Ed Block Courage Award banquet on Tuesday night at Martin's West. Ravens long snapper Morgan Cox, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham are among the recipients who also are scheduled to attend the event.

"We vote for it every year and I knew it was a big deal, so I'm honored that the team thought I deserved the award, especially with the names that have won it before," Brinkley said. "I'm blessed."

Each recipient has overcome a unique struggle. For Cox and Romo, it was bouncing back from a season-ending injury in 2010. For Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Mike Patterson, it was starting 15 games after a tangle of blood vessels in his brain caused him to have a seizure during training camp. And for Brinkley, it was persevering after three .357-caliber bullets ripped into his flesh.

On July 10, 2009, Brinkley, was a few miles outside Philadelphia between Chargers minicamps and his first NFL training camp. That day he waited to pick up his sister outside the adult-care facility where she worked.

As he reached over to move some items off the passenger seat, he heard the first shot ring out.

"The first time I was shot, I didn't really know I was shot," he said. "I just heard a loud noise."

His head already down, Brinkley punched the gearshift into reverse and stomped the gas pedal to evade the gunman, whom he didn't get a glimpse of. He was shot three times — twice in the shoulder and another bullet in his back — but he escaped, crashing through bushes and a fence before losing consciousness and backing into an SUV in a driveway a few blocks from the scene.

"The next thing I know I was waking up in the hospital," he said in a phone interview last week.

Doctors deemed it too dangerous to remove the bullet wedged deep in tissue near his heart, but he survived the shooting and surgery. As he lay in a hospital, he wondered if the bullet had shattered his NFL dream. At least he would get to see his son, Elijah, who hadn't been born yet.

"I didn't know what the reason was for me being shot," said Brinkley, who had signed with the Chargers that spring as an undrafted rookie free agent. "I was in critical condition and I was like, 'I'm just going to focus on trying to get back healthy so I can pursue my dream.' I just tried to forget about who did it and why, and put myself in a position to get back to the NFL."

Brinkley, who the Chargers placed on the non-football injury list, fiercely rehabbed his splintered shoulder and 10 months after the shooting was back for mini-camps. Stepping on an NFL field for the first time as a player before a preseason game against the Chicago Bears, Brinkley broke down. He later said he didn't know where the tears that rolled down his face came from.

He made his official NFL debut in 2010, saw his carries increase from two to 30 last season, and Brinkley, a restricted free agent who has rushed for 112 yards and a touchdown in 13 career games, may get a chance to back up Ryan Mathews in 2012 if Mike Tolbert bolts in free agency.

That opportunity would be one that Brinkley believes he would have never gotten if he hadnot been shot.

"We had [LaDainian Tomlinson]. We had Darren Sproles. We had Mike Tolbert. We drafted a guy named Gartrell Johnson. We had Michael Bennett. There were six of us," he said. "When I go back and think about it … if I didn't get shot, I don't think I would have made that team."

A month after the shooting, Brinkley was shocked to find out that he was fired upon in a case of mistaken identity. Anthony Peterson Jr., a high school classmate and the ex-boyfriend of his sister, was charged. Peterson admitted at his trial that he mistook Brinkley as a man that he thought Brinkley's sister was seeing. A judge sentenced him to seven to 14 years in state prison.

Brinkley is still coming to grips with the misdirected act of violence that nearly took his life, but he continues to overcome. He lost his father when he was a sophomore in college. He also fought through injuries at Syracuse (where played with Ravens, Jameel McClain and Arthur Jones). His grandmother, whom he says raised him in a Philadelphia project, died of cancer last year.

But Brinkley will have plenty of support at Tuesday night's Ed Block Courage Awards banquet. He is bringing eight family members and friends, including Eagles running back LeSean McCoy.

"That means a lot to me knowing a lot of people care," he said. "LeSean, my family, these are the people who were pushing for me to make it — and knowing that I could be a player in the NFL."

For ticket information, visit edblock.org.

matt.vensel@baltsun.com

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