GRANDMA KNEW the secret to why her beloved but not-so-big linebacker hit like a giant, confounding so many opposing coaches and making the name Chris Spence a source of pride in Frankford.

"He had a great, big golden heart," Shirley Phelps-Pollard said yesterday, sitting by her grandson's trophies. "He was my baby. He would say, 'I like to hit 'em hard, Grandma.' "

The thought of Spence, 20, brought a smile to his adoring grandmother's face, but his Griscom Street rowhouse was filled with other faces that were silent and bleary-eyed, and a hysterical mother whose voice had grown hoarse from crying out to the heavens.

"They took my son!" said Javese Phelps-Washington, her palms raised in front of her. "Help me, Lord, they took my son!"

Police said that Spence, a first-team Daily News All-City linebacker and the paper's choice for Public League Player of the Year in 2007, was shot once in the chest about 1:38 a.m. Saturday inside the T & T Lounge, at Hawthorne and Margaret streets, in Frankford, after an altercation.

He was taken to Aria Health's Frankford hospital, where his mother hoped that the same heart that fueled his fury in football would pull him through the chaos in the emergency room. She said that hospital workers had removed his shirt, revealing his football uniform No. 45 tattooed on his chest.

"They told me to talk to my son," Phelps-Washington said, "and I said, 'I'm here for you. I see you fighting, son, keep fighting.' "

But, later, after he was transferred to Aria's Torresdale hospital, Phelps-Washington heard the words that still made her flinch on her living-room couch.

"They said, 'Your son has passed,' " she recalled, before breaking out in a wailing cry.

Phelps-Washington said that police captured a suspect shortly afterward, but police last night did not confirm an arrest.

Family members said that Spence was too health-conscious to take even a sip of alcohol, and friends told them that he had spent his evening at the lounge cracking jokes, drawing attention and possibly some jealousy. His mother said that the fight started over a female.

"I always taught my son not to let anyone hurt him, to always protect himself," his mother said.

A man stood at the door of the T & T Lounge yesterday afternoon and said that the bar was closed.

"My son was 20, he shouldn't have been in there," Phelps-Washington said.

When Spence's friends yelled out from the street and banged on her door Saturday morning, she said, her longtime fears and premonitions about gritty Frankford came frighteningly true.

"You see people getting killed and dealing with this all the time," she said. "I used to sit in bed and wonder when it would happen to me."

Mike Capriotti, Spence's coach at Frankford, said he remembered the day that the little sophomore came to football practice with an already-formidable reputation.

"He was playing for the local team and he was killing them," said Capriotti, now retired as a coach. "No one wanted to play with him anymore."

A week later, Spence was a starter.

"He was the best football player I ever had," Capriotti said. "Tough as nails."

He played linebacker, running back, or anywhere else he was needed.

"He was like a genius on the football field," Capriotti said. "He was completely at home and in his element playing football."

Former coaches and players for the Frankford Chargers youth program gave Spence the nickname "Waterboy," after the Adam Sandler film about a linebacker who hit like dynamite. On a Facebook memorial page, some called him "Monster" for his football prowess.

Often, players would intentionally step out of bounds when Spence, a 5-foot-8, 165-pound terror as a senior, angled toward them.

"I've got it in my head that I can't get hurt," Spence told the Daily News before a 2007 Thanksgiving game. "I also believe I can't get run over, and I always go as hard as I can."

But to his grandmother he was "Cwistopher." She said it with an intentional, loving sort of baby talk.

"I used to give him a little bite on the cheek when I kissed him," she said yesterday, drawing some smiles from those in the house.

Capriotti, the former coach, cried when he recalled how Spence had helped rally the players in '07, after the Pioneers were forced to forfeit four games for using an ineligible player.

"He helped me out so much," he said. "He took over with the kids. They respected him so much."

Spence worked in security, and briefly attended a community college in New York state, Capriotti said, but struggled academically and returned home. Spence had visited with Capriotti just a few days ago, and the coach was hoping to get him enrolled at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, in Lancaster.

On Griscom Street, everyone believed that Spence had the potential to play in the NFL, possibly as a cornerback. Capriotti had simply hoped for his prized player to be successful in whatever he did, and maybe someday to come back to coach at Frankford High.

Spence probably would have done that, his mother said, because he loved the neighborhood folks who cheered his name from the stands.

"My son was loved and embraced by the people of Frankford," she said. "He became a positive force for others around here."

Staff writer Stephanie Farr contributed to this report.