He got a shot at the pros with the San Diego Chargers, but the odds were against him - he was the seventh running back on the depth chart behind the future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson, which is about three too many.
Then he came home to Philly, where his odds skyrocketed even more. Shot, in a case of mistaken identity, while picking up his sister, Niveka Cason, from work.
But that was three years ago, and a lot has happened, most of it good. Cason has graduated from Villanova with a degree in nursing and is studying for the boards. And after a year and a half of grueling rehab, Brinkley, 26, has fully recovered and made the Chargers as a backup running back and a valued member of special teams.
Nobody can question whether he belongs. "When I walk on the field, I got a chip on my shoulder," he says, "because ain't nobody been through what I been through."
Now that Brinkley's place on the Chargers is secure, he's in a position to give back. Saturday, he'll host the second annual Curtis Brinkley Community Day at Abbotsford Homes in East Falls, the housing project where his grandmother, Margie Cason, raised him. Cason died last August of lung cancer, but Brinkley still considers Abbotsford Homes, well, home.
Brinkley has called in all of his pro-athlete buddies: The Baltimore Ravens' Jameel McClain (George Washington High), former Prep Charter standouts Marcus (Houston Rockets) and Markieff (Phoenix Suns) Morris, and one of his best friends, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy.
"I just want to give a message to the kids. That's my main thing. Just to get a positive message to them that there's more things out there," says Brinkley as we sit in his grandmother's apartment, where he fields calls from the water-slide guy and the bouncy-house folks.
He knows all too well how important it is for kids to think beyond the projects, to avoid getting caught up in the gun violence that consumes their environment.
Brinkley is willing to talk about his own brush with death, albeit reluctantly. He wants to put it behind him, at the same time realizing that it defines him - but in a positive way, he says.
"Up until that point, I was taking my career for granted. . . . I was taking my life for granted."
Around midnight on July 10, 2009, Brinkley sat in his parked car in front of an Elkins Park adult-care facility where Cason worked. He was looking forward to going to Miami for vacation the next day before reporting to San Diego for training camp.
He saw Cason walking to the car. He had moved some things to the back seat to make room for his sister when he heard big booming noises.
"I looked up at the hood of the car," he says. "I thought it was falling in on me." But then he felt a burning sensation, and he knew he had been shot.
Brinkley backed up, crashed into the car parked behind him, and roared off. He pulled into a gas station and had the presence of mind to call police - the last thing he remembered before passing out.
Meanwhile, Cason, frantically realizing that someone was shooting at her brother, took cover in nearby bushes "and just prayed" because she thought the assailant was trying to get at her, too.
Neither Brinkley nor Cason had any idea who the attacker could be, until days later, when he turned himself in. Shockingly, he was Anthony Peterson, Cason's ex-boyfriend and father of their 1-year-old son. Peterson used a .357 Magnum to show how upset he was that Cason was seeing someone else. He is now serving seven to 15 years in state prison.
The family has slowly mended. Cason worries what she will tell Mikkah, now 4, about his father.
Still, she says she and Brinkley are "blessed, we really are blessed. For my brother to be playing in the NFL. . . . Nobody knows what we've gone through."
As I leave, I walk past a group of women and children looking across the courtyard into a vacant field, where some young men appear to be arguing.
One mother spots something. "Is that a gun?" she asks, and then in the next breath yells to the children, "Get in the house!"
Everyone scatters. I pick up my pace. My car is only a halfblock away, but it feels like miles. I jump in and pull away.
Blessed that violence isn't at my doorstep every day.
Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com or on Twitter @Annettejh.