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Chargers’ Curtis Brinkley is a survivor in more ways than one

Doug Farrar
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San Diego Chargers running back Curtis Brinkley couldn't have been happy with his team's heartbreaking 23-20 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday night, but in the grand scheme of things, you'd forgive him if he's got his priorities in perspective past just one loss — he should be happy just to be on the field. Brinkley's 10-carry, 43-yard evening, in which he scored a touchdown and kept the Chargers in the game after starting halfback Ryan Mathews got hurt, was just gravy.

Not because Brinkley was an undrafted free agent out of Syracuse, not because he was the 34th-ranked running back of the 2009 class, according to NFLDraftScout.com, and not because it took an injury to several other Chargers running backs to give him a feature role in Monday's game. Nope. Curtis Brinkley was lucky to be on the field at all.

Signed by the Chargers in 2009, Brinkley went back to his home in Philadelphia after minicamps and before training camp in his rookie season. And that's where a gunman put three bullets in his body while Brinkley was picking up his sister, Niveka, from her job at a local medical center. Brinkley was a victim of mistaken identity and another's jealousy — the man who shot him had been dating his sister.

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The location of the shooting may have saved Brinkley's life, as he was rushed into the medical center and received immediate care. "It just wasn't my time," Brinkley recently told Sandiego.com. "God has me here for more reasons. I know what it is like to be in that bed and to think that my career is over. I used to take a lot of things for granted. I know how to appreciate things when I didn't before."

And in an odd way, that shooting may have given his a career — he spent 2009 on the Chargers' Non-Football-Injury list and waited for the team's depth chart at running back to thin down.

"This why I think everything happens for a reason and there is some stuff you just can't question," Brinkley said. "When I first came here we had LaDainian Tomlinson, Gartrell Johnson, Darren Sproles, Michael Bennett, and Mike Tolbert. Where would I have fit in? Before the shooting, I wasn't getting any reps at all. When I went home it was mentally messing with me. How am I going to get my shot? After the shooting happened I was extra motivated. I knew people were counting me out."

Some may have had reasons to count him out — Brinkley's wounds were so severe that one of the bullets that hit him is still in his body — it landed just an inch away from his heart, and doctors determined that it would be unsafe to remove the slug. However, it was decided that it was still safe for him to play football. He's been released and re-signed several times by the Chargers since coming off the injury list, but he never gave up, and injuries to Mathews and running back Mike Tolbert gave him a shot off the practice squad.

Brinkley performed well against the Chiefs, showing good power up the middle, speed on the edge, and an ability to make jump cuts in traffic that seemed to confound the Chiefs' defense. On the drive that tied the Monday night game at 20 near the end of regulation, Brinkley gained 26 yards on three plays (a pass and two runs), scored the team's only touchdown of the night, and added a two-point conversion for good measure. He was also a battering ram on San Diego's drive that ended with Philip Rivers' fumbled snap, gaining a total of 21 yards on four straight carries and putting the Chargers in position for what would have been a chip-shot field goal had Rivers not given the ball away.

Brinkley suffered a concussion in the game, so it is unknown whether he'll be able to play against the Green Bay Packers next Sunday. Counting him out would be unwise, as he's more than proven that nothing will stop him from playing the game he loves.

"It is tough staying on the right path, but what else am I going to do?" Brinkley asked a day before the Chiefs game. "Football is all I know."

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