RB Curtis Brinkley was on the bubble before RB Ryan Mathews broke his clavicle in the preseason opener against the Packers. Now, after three years of perseverance, Brinkley may be a starter come opening day.

The Chargers acquired Brinkley as an undrafted free agent in 2009. After completing OTAs and minicamp he returned home to Philadelphia. Brinkley almost did not come back.

“I was with my sister,” Brinkley recalled the night he nearly lost his life. “[Niveka] asked me to come pick her up from work. While she was getting in the car, I was reaching in the passenger seat to clear the seat off for her. Someone came up and shot me multiple (three) times.”

The assailant turned out to be an ex-boyfriend of Niveka and mistook Brinkley as a date. “He turned himself in,” Brinkley said. “He was my nephews father.”

Brinkley was put on the physically unable to perform list. “[The Chargers] told me just to get healthy,” Brinkley said. “When I got healthy it was about time for OTAs and minicamp [in 2010] and they invited me back”

One of the bullets lodged an inch away from Brinkley’s heart and surgeons determined it was unsafe to remove. Brinkley continues to play with the bullet still in his body.  

As tragic as the shooting was, Brinkley believes it may have been a blessing. In 2009, the Chargers had RB LaDainian Tomlinson, Gartrell Johnson, Darren Sproles, Michael Bennett and Mike Tolbert. Brinkley acknowledged he probably would not have even made the practice squad that season.

The landscaped changed going into 2010 and Brinkley made the practice squad, a major accomplishment in itself. He then made the active roster for six games.

The Chargers were leading Denver 35-14 late in the 4th quarter in week 11 when Brinkley’s number was finally called to enter an offensive huddle. Coach Norv Turner called for a FB dive which would have given Jacob Hester the ball. QB Philip Rivers ignored the call and instead handed it off to Brinkley, he rushed for 9 yards on the play.

Brinkley began the 2011 season back on the practice squad. He was called up in week 7 and did not contribute. Then the moment he had been working so hard for finally arrived in week 8 against the Chiefs on Monday Night Football.

With less than five minutes to play in the fourth quarter, Brinkley leaped over the line for a 2-yard TD, the first of his career. He then caught a 2-point conversion to tie the game. The Chargers would have likely won the game because of Brinkley if Rivers had not fumbled a snap deep in Chiefs territory on San Diego’s next possession.

“It was big for me,” Brinkley said of that night. “Just always wanting to play. Knowing that I could play on this level an compete with anything and anybody. Coach [Turner] says, ‘It’s all about getting an opportunity,’ and I got my opportunity. It was what I was preparing for.”

Brinkley’s next big opportunity came against the Raiders. On the final game of the season, injuries to Ryan Mathews and Tolbert, led to his first career start. He rushed for 52 yards on 16 attempts.

Brinkley showed he can produce and hold on to the football. He now has no fumbles on 32 career carries for 112 yards. Mathews (10 fumbles) and Tolbert (7 fumbles) had trouble holding on to the ball for San Diego in the last two seasons. “As a running back, you are not perfect,” Brinkley said. “So far, I have not had trouble with that.”

Tolbert (Panthers) departed San Diego as a free agent this past offseason and it appeared Brinkley may be in line to be the second-string RB. General manager A.J. Smith, however, was more active than normal in free agency and signed Ronnie Brown (Eagles) and Jackie Battle (Chiefs).

Brinkley found himself back on the bubble. Brown is a diverse talent and is set to replace Tolbert as the second-string third down back. Battle is a special teams standout and that may give him the edge over Brinkley.

This year Brinkley does not have the safety net of the practice squad. “It’s always make-or-break,” Brinkley said. “Whether I had practice squad eligibility or if I didn’t”

The prospects for Brinkley making this year’s squad dramatically changed with the injury to Mathews who will miss the next four to six weeks. Turner will now carry at least four RBs on the 53-man roster and Brinkley could be the starter against the Raiders for the season opener.

In the meantime, Brinkley will continue to work hard. “I am not sure,” Brinkley said of his chances to be the starter or even make the roster. “I will just go continue to go out there and do my job and work hard. If the opportunity comes then I will make the best out of it.”

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