THE NIGHT IT happened, Margie Cason had just seen her grandson, Curtis Brinkley. He had left her house to pick up his sister from work. But what happened then was so strange: There she was, typing away at her computer, when suddenly she broke out in a deep sweat. She became dizzy, feeling as if she was going to pass out, and called upstairs to her son to bring her a glass of water. Her son said she should go lay down. But as she went to do just that, the telephone rang: A hysterical voice on the phone told her that Curtis had been shot.
It occurred on a dark street in Elkins Park at 12:02 a.m. July 10, as Brinkley sat behind the wheel of a parked car waiting for his sister, Niveka Cason, to come out of the adult-care center where she worked. Someone approached him and began firing a .357 Magnum revolver. Three rounds were discharged, but Brinkley later remembered it seemed as if there were more. Two of the bullets slammed into his shoulder - one became lodged inside of him and another went through him. The third round grazed his side. "It was the noise that scared me," Brinkley says now. "That and knowing that the bullets were intended to hit me."
As that inexplicable anxiety swept through his grandmother, Brinkley became engulfed in a struggle for his life. He ducked out of the line of fire, and let the car roll backward until the shooting stopped. Oddly, he says he was not in any pain at that point - that would come later. But as he called the police on his cell phone and drove to a nearby gas station, he could feel himself slipping in and out of consciousness. He would remember later: "I tried to stay as calm as possible. But there was so much blood."
Philadelphia police took him to Albert Einstein Medical Center, where Brinkley remembers asking the nurses: "Am I going to be able to play football again?" A 2004 West Catholic High graduate who still holds the city-league record for season and career rushing yardage, Brinkley had been signed last spring by the San Diego Chargers as a rookie free agent. The 5-10, 213-pound running back from Syracuse had impressed the Chargers during his offseason workouts with them. On the very day of the shooting, he had been scheduled to leave for a vacation in Miami before reporting to preseason camp on July 26. Suddenly, everything had changed.
"The only thing I thought about was football," says Brinkley, who has stopped by to say hello to his grandmother at her place in the Abbottsford Homes in East Falls. "Would I play again? All the nurses would say is, 'We're not sure right now.' But even if I could, I just kept thinking: 'The Chargers are going to release me.' I was 99 percent sure they would do that."
He looks up from his seat on the sofa and says, "So yeah, the Lord blessed me."
Thanksgiving will have a special meaning this year for Curtis Brinkley, who 10 days ago sat in that same room watching the Eagles play the Chargers on a sunny day in San Diego. Growing up, he was an Eagles fan and always hoped he would play for them. But as he relaxed on that Sunday, he smiled and said: "Hey, I have to stick with the guys that are paying me." The Chargers have stuck with him and assured him that he still had a place with the club when he healed. It is something he said that he is truly thankful for - that and the knowledge that when his son is born in February, the boy will have a father.
"You know, I have always loved kids," says Brinkley, who expects to rejoin the Chargers for workouts in March. "Man, I think, 'My son could have been growing up without his dad.' Like so many kids you see."
On a big lot near where his grandmother lives, the kids are playing a pickup football game, filling the twilight with shouts and laughter. With time to spare these days, he gets out there and plays with them occasionally, just as he used to do as a youngster. Less interested then in watching football than in playing it, he remembers "roughing it up" with kids far older than him. Some of them have since been picked off by the violence in the streets, young men who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fear of that happening always stirred inside Margie Cason, from the very day that her daughter placed the boy she would call "Boonah" in her hands to raise. While Brinkley says he remained close to his parents - his dad died of cancer at age 40 a few years ago - Brinkley calls his grandmother "my baby."
The grandmother sighs. "All you can do is wrap them up in prayer," says Cason, who is battling lung cancer. "Even the innocent ones can lose their lives, or whatever they have going for them, you know? I am just grateful that God spared him."
While Brinkley says he did not see who shot him, he was apparently the victim of a case of mistaken identity. Anthony Peterson, then 23, of the 3600 block of North 19th Street in Tioga, has been arraigned on charges of criminal intent to murder, aggravated assault and possession of a weapon. According to Cheltenham Township police, Peterson was Niveka Cason's boyfriend (and the father of her 1-year-old child), and the couple had quarreled over another man Cason was seeing. Police said Peterson waited for Cason to leave work and when Brinkley drove up and parked, Peterson mistook him for the other man and shot him. Peterson is being held in the Montgomery County Correctional Facility awaiting trial.
Until he learned the identity of his alleged assailant about a month after the shooting when Peterson turned himself in - and Brinkley says he never had a previous problem with him, so he is still not sure what to think - Brinkley says he kept thinking: "Who could have done this to me?" Although he has never been one to get in trouble, or anywhere near it, Brinkley knew that being a star athlete could lead to problems. Certain people in the old neighborhood are happy that you succeeded, but as Brinkley says, "Some people look at you with a squint eye," as if to say: Who do you think you are? But Brinkley says he was always cool with both, those who wanted to protect him because of who he was and those who were less than supportive. He shrugs and says, "Some people are just haters."
On some days the pain would be so intense that he could hardly bear it. "Every kind of pain you can think of," says Brinkley, who still has a bullet lodged in his chest that surgeons chose not to remove. Sleeping became impossible, largely because he could not situate himself in bed in a comfortable position. His girlfriend, Jeanette Haines, cleaned his wounds and changed his bandages, and tried not to let him see how his ordeal was affecting her. "I would go in the other room and cry," says Haines, who remembers with the horror the phone call she received from Brinkley as he waited for the police to come. "All he kept saying was that 'It burns, it burns.' " Brinkley says that his pain level is a "2 on a scale of 10," but that he occasionally feels a phantom sensation from the bullet still buried in his chest.
"When you have a bullet in your chest, your mind makes you feel like you are feeling stuff," says Brinkley, 23. "So I went to the doctor a month ago, because I thought I felt the bullet in there. But the doctor said, 'No, that's just tightness. Trust me.' "
Still not cleared to lift weights, Brinkley is deep into the rehabilitation process. Senior physical therapist Mark Greenwood works with Brinkley at the NovaCare Rehabilitation City Line Center and says, "Curtis has progressed quite well . . . he has excelled through each phase of the process." Brinkley also works out under the supervision of trainer Tony Fulton, who has worked with a number of pro athletes. Fulton - or as he is known, "Coach Tone" - says he received a phone call some weeks ago from the recuperating Brinkley saying he was "bored." Since then, Brinkley has been working out with Fulton 6 days a week at the LA Fitness Club on City Avenue. Club general manager Robert Sargent says of Brinkley: "He looks to be back where he was."
Fulton has been encouraged by what he has seen. "We started doing the stuff we could - working on his core, working on his flexibility and doing some running," Fulton says. "But a part of what we also do is build him back up mentally. Sometimes you can be physically fine, but mentally way off. So we have to get him beyond the incident."
That is exactly what Brinkley would like to do. Were it not for the dreams he occasionally has that remind of his ordeal, he has moved on from the shooting in Elkins Park in an effort to pick up where he left off with Chargers. Head coach Norv Turner and running-backs coach Ollie Wilson both had been impressed with him. He became friendly with some of his new teammates, drew from the knowledge of star running back LaDainian Tomlinson and well . . . pinched himself. Even since he was a boy on that big lot he had dreamed of becoming an NFL player.
Brinkley smiles and says, "When I saw my locker in San Diego, I felt like a big kid."
The plan is to move everyone to California: Jeanette, the baby, his mother, even his grandmother if she would like to come. Once, Brinkley spoke to her about one day buying her a new home, but the 69-year-old woman told him that "the only way I am ever leaving here is in a box." She has had her place in Abbottsford Homes since 1977.
It is her home.
And wherever he goes it also will be his.
"Of any place in the world, this is where I am safe," says Brinkley, who looks over at the window ledge decorated with some of his high school trophies. In the window beyond it, some kids run by in football jerseys.
Hearing that, his grandmother smiles and says: "God has a purpose for us, and we are not leaving here until it is complete." *