SAN DIEGO - After years of football, Curtis Brinkley was as much at home in a locker room as he was in his living room.
That changed when the former Syracuse running back - the leading rusher in Southeastern Pennsylvania history at West Catholic High - returned to workouts with the San Diego Chargers this spring, less than a year after being shot in Elkins Park, Montgomery County.
Police say a boyfriend of his sister's mistook him for another man.
"I was uncomfortable at first, taking my shirt off," Brinkley said recently. "People want to know what happened. They want to see the scars, where you got shot at, how many times."
Brinkley would work out with the Chargers and then slip away, still wearing his shirt, to go home and shower alone.
Sitting in the sauna one day, San Diego running back Darren Sproles carefully brought up the subject.
"He said, 'You know, you're going to have to deal with that the rest of your life, or as long as your career is going, anyway,' " Brinkley said. "Once he told me that, I looked at it even more as, 'I've just got to deal with it. It's something that happened. I've got to be here and perform to the best of my abilities.'
"Now, I don't think about it."
Signed in 2009 after going undrafted out of Syracuse, where he capped an injury-marred career by rushing for 1,164 yards his senior season, Brinkley is trying to make the San Diego roster as the third running back.
He made an impression during off-season training last year. But back in Philadelphia last summer before returning for training camp, he was shot as he waited July 10 to pick up his sister, Niveka Cason, from her job as a caregiver shortly after midnight.
Police and court documents allege that Anthony Peterson Jr., a boyfriend of Cason's who was angry she was seeing someone else, mistook Brinkley as the potential romantic rival and fired three rounds from a .357 Magnum, hitting him in the shoulder.
"I was reaching to clear the front seat out for her, putting the things in the back, and put my hand on the steering wheel, and someone just ran up behind me and shot me," Brinkley said. "I just felt my shoulder drop, and I heard the noise and I ducked my head down, put the car in reverse and I just was crashing into a lot of things, trying to get away.
"I had my head down, trying to prevent getting shot in the head, and when I didn't hear no more shots, I lifted my head up. I had, I think, two or three flat tires. I didn't see my sister and I just pulled up, called the cops and told them I was shot multiple times. Next thing, I pulled up to the gas station, and I don't remember nothing that happened after that."
Peterson, who according to an arrest warrant affidavit told Brinkley's mother, Tawanda Cason, he was angry his girlfriend was seeing another man and would "kill someone for Niveka," surrendered to authorities and is being held at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility on charges that include attempted murder. Cason, according to the affadavit, called Peterson after the shooting and said, "You shot my son, you owe me an explanation why." According to a letter from his lawyer to the judge, Peterson is expected to plead guilty.
Brinkley spent a week at Albert Einstein Medical Center, where doctors ultimately decided a bullet that entered through his shoulder was too close to his heart to be removed. Doctors have assured him and the Chargers the fragment poses no risk.
Brinkley said he no longer spends much time rethinking the events of that night.
"I don't think I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, by no means. I think if anybody's sister called them to go pick them up, they're going to go pick them up," he said.
"I know I did a lot of damage to people's houses and cars. After my therapy and things like that, I just went up to the people's house and apologized. They forgive me. They know I was trying to get away, dodge bullets and things like that. They were like, 'No problem.' "
Still, his recovery was difficult.
"It was tough, mentally and physically," he said. "More mentally. I would dream about me being shot, and from time to time I would hear, just the shots. It just messes with you mentally. But I'm strong. Nothing messed with me more than me losing my father. I lost my father, Curtis Brinkley Sr., in '05. November 19."
Memories of his father, who died of lymphoma, made Brinkley's close call more poignant. His son, Elijah, was born in February and lives in Philadelphia with his mother.
"Just knowing I was in a position where my son, it was a possibility he would grow up without a father," Brinkley said. "It's beautiful to have a chance to be with him."
With his own father gone, Brinkley has become increasingly close to one of his uncles, Shaheed Brinkley.
"He told me, day in and day out, after my dad passed, when I broke my ankle, when I messed my knee up, when I got shot, that I was going to make it," Brinkley said.
Shaheed Brinkley, who lives in New Castle, Del., said his nephew's shooting is "just another blow he has been dealt."
"To me it's a blessing he stepped on the field, period, after what he's been through. But it's the first step in a long journey," he said.
Even the night of the shooting, football was on Brinkley's mind. Months later, he ran into one of the hospital workers who helped him.
"I was coming down the steps and this guy looked so familiar. We looked at each other and he was like, 'You don't even remember me, do you?'
"I said, 'I apologize for not recognizing you. I'm thankful that you helped me out.' And I asked him, 'What was I like?' And he said, 'You just kept asking if you could still play football.' "
Brinkley can still play, but his career might be approaching a turning point. As Ryan Brumfield of Owen J. Roberts High prepares to try to close in on Brinkley's Southeastern Pennsylvania rushing record of 7,429 yards this fall, Brinkley heads into Chargers training camp next month trying to become the third running back behind Sproles and first-round pick Ryan Mathews.
"I don't know how it's all going to work out," Chargers running backs coach Ollie Wilson said. "But I do know this, that wherever he ends up, whether it be football or somewhere else, he's going to be successful, just because of the way he attacks it.
"He said to me, 'This time last year, I didn't know whether I was going to be alive. Now I've got an opportunity to do something. I better take advantage of it. Because I have first-hand knowledge that you never know what's going to happen.'"
Inquirer staff writer Julia Terruso contributed to this report.