He'll live. The question is, when will he be able to play football again?

Curtis Brinkley, 23, former star running back at West Catholic High School and newly signed free agent with the San Diego Chargers, narrowly survived an attempt on his life early yesterday while he sat in a car on a leafy suburban street.

As Brinkley idled at a curb, waiting to pick up his sister after her work shift at an adult-care center in Elkins Park, a gunman walked across the intersection of Ashbourne Road and Spring Avenue.

The man shot three times at Brinkley with a handgun, apparently from close range, Cheltenham Township police said.

Hit at least once, Brinkley slammed his car into reverse and raced backward along Spring Avenue, trying to escape. He backed through a wooden fence, rolled over two bushes, and rear-ended a Volvo SUV parked in a driveway. He then shifted into forward and sped off.

Police found him some blocks away, badly wounded, and took him to Albert Einstein Medical Center in North Philadelphia, where he initially was put in the intensive-care unit.

The gunman - police said they didn't know a motive for the shooting - melted away. He apparently got into a car parked nearby and drove off. Detectives said they had no immediate suspects.

Upgraded from stable to good condition yesterday afternoon, Brinkley was quoted by one of his old coaches as worrying aloud that he would miss his big chance to make the Chargers' roster when the team goes to training camp this month. "He's going to be OK - that was the first thing," said Brian Fluck, athletic director and football coach at West Catholic. "What is this going to do to his football career? That's the next question."

Fluck, who had been in contact with Brinkley and the grandmother who helped raise him, said that Brinkley had been shot in the shoulder and that "fragments" had lodged in his back.

The hospital declined to comment on the wounds.

In his schoolboy career, first at Roxborough High and then at West Catholic, Brinkley became the city's all-time rusher and was honored as a statewide "offensive player of the year."

He went on to Syracuse University, where he had some rough years. His father died of illness while he was a freshman, and he suffered knee injuries. But in his senior season, Brinkley gained 1,164 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry, and scored seven touchdowns. He was named to the All-Big East second team.

Brinkley, who graduated in May, hoped to be drafted by an NFL team, but was not. After the draft, Fluck said, he received interest from the Chargers and the Eagles. The Chargers "gave him a little better deal," Fluck said.

The shooting occurred just outside a care center run by Special People in Northeast Inc., a social-service group based in Northeast Philadelphia. A spokesman said three people lived in the house.

Brinkley's sister was getting off at midnight. One of the workers on the next shift said in an interview that she saw a shadowy figure approach the Brinkley car as she waited in her car for a parking spot to open. She then heard shots.

The area of old sycamores and stone houses was quiet and dappled with sunlight before noon yesterday. Shattered window glass indicated the spot where Brinkley's car had sat.

Neighbor Jeff Jones, whose Volvo was damaged, said the vehicle had just been towed away. Pieces of Brinkley's rear bumper and tail lights still lay in his driveway.

Jones had been up late, making his twin boys' lunch for day care. He had heard the shots and then the loud "bang" of the collision.

"It was scary," he said.

Contact staff writer Tom Infield
at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.