Schonbrun: Goodbye, Curtis
During the summer, in the month or so between spring practice and July workouts, Curtis Brinkley would go home to Philadelphia and stick his head into various local youth football camps at his former high school or in the area. He’d just talk to the kids, often about nothing, sometimes about life, sometimes about Syracuse, sometimes about football, sometimes about…
The kids know who he is because almost everybody in Philadelphia knows who he is: ‘Boonah’ Brinkley, perhaps the greatest high school football player ever to come out of a city that loves its football. They still follow him around his neighborhood, kicking at his heels, blissfully ignorant of the adversity Brinkley’s met since he left town five years ago.
No, adversity means nothing anymore to Curtis Brinkley, which is why he can stand in front of the cameras and not appear cocky when asked last week if he thought the applause he would receive on Senior Day in the Carrier Dome will be particularly loud.
‘I deserve it,’ he said. ‘I earned it.’
Brinkley has been quick all season long to compliment Syracuse’s offensive line; they’re the ones, he has said, that paved the way and opened the holes to his breakout senior year, already eclipsing 1,000 yards and setting a school record with five consecutive 100-yard games.
But a blind fool can see beyond that. The story has never been about the offensive line. It’s been about the 5-foot-9 running back crashing through the barriers of self-doubt and disrespect, sprinting past the gaping jaws of those who never saw it coming.
It’s why soon there will be a documentary released chronicling the last four years of his life. Made by a Philadelphia filmmaker, it’s titled ‘Against All Odds.’
Perhaps what makes Brinkley’s season so compelling is that it gives a vibrant reaffirmation of an archetypical sports success story: the overlooked, thought-to-be-washed-up ex-star emerges with a surprising last hurrah, carried off into the sunset as a nod to cliché lovers everywhere. Championships (and other spoils) to be followed.
Of course, Brinkley’s season will end without any championship, and he will walk off the field to a soft applause in Cincinnati, Ohio.
He never really walked into Syracuse though, rather, he floated in as paradigm of the 19-year-old celebrity, high-stepping past the learning curve that would soon derail his future. He would quickly have to discover his virtues.
For his whole life Brinkley’s been good at football. When he was in Pop Warner, people used to line up to watch him play. When he was six he told his grandmother he was going to break the Philadelphia high school city rushing record. He had his first newspaper article written about him before he even touched a football in high school. And on a Saturday afternoon in October 2003, he rushed for 399 yards in front of a packed stadium to give him the city’s career rushing crown.
That was when football came so easily to him – even though he played his entire senior season (rushing for more than 2,800 yards) on a torn meniscus in his knee.
He came to Syracuse (the first in his family to go to college) after passing up Iowa and Virginia Tech, and after spending a prep year at Hargrave Academy (Va.). He didn’t play much his freshman year. He split carries his sophomore year. He broke his leg in October of his junior year.
In the meantime, there were off-the-field issues. He sparred with head coach Greg Robinson in 2005, upset he wasn’t receiving carries as a highly touted recruit. That November, his father, Curtis Sr., passed away after a long battle with leukemia. After his sophomore season, he heavily contemplated transferring closer to home.
Last fall, Brinkley seemed ready to rediscover his promise as a feature back, after starter Delone Carter dislocated his hip in spring practice. Despite two knee surgeries in eight months, he was poised to seize the spotlight for the first time since high school. But offensive line struggles precluded him; he finished with only 371 yards in eight games.
It’s a terrifying notion, for a former high school star, to be faced with the idea that you can’t live up to your adolescent hype, that the ensuing years will undoubtedly feel like anticlimax.
The thought may have crossed Brinkley’s mind, or maybe not, even as he sat in training rooms and stood on crutches, counting the seconds tick by, unable to prove his fabled high school career was no fluke.
He has a jealousy issue, which is understandable, considering where he once thought he could be and who he’s seen get there. Even last week, asked about facing Connecticut running back Donald Brown, his envy involuntarily flared up.
‘When I go up against any running back that’s getting national attention, I kind of take it personally,’ Brinkley said. ‘It just boosts me up to play my A-game.’
He bristles at the thought of some of his former high school opponents – Steve Slaton, Darrelle Revis, Ted Ginn Jr. – now in the NFL. Back in the day, he used to torch those guys.
It’s a natural reaction, because Brinkley will never play in a bowl game, will never move out of last place in the conference, has never won a game on national television. Like the other seniors on Syracuse, he has slogged through a career in relative irrelevance, numb to the stage of postseason play. He will be remembered as the starting running back during the worst stretch in SU football history.
For Brinkley, this is particularly painful, because of the high hopes and promise he arrived with as saddlebags to the immense talent locked within his 200-pound frame. It’s taken three years to ripen and drop.
He’s carried Syracuse this year, for whatever it’s worth, turning heads and making headlines and drawing fans from all over.
‘I love him,’ South Florida head coach Jim Leavitt said in a teleconference. ‘I think he’s a really good player. I think he’s done a really good job. He’s certainly been a key.’
‘You can’t say enough about what he’s done,’ SU offensive coordinator Mitch Browning said. ‘He’s had a tremendous attitude, he’s worked extremely hard, he’s paid his dues, been a team player.’
SU senior defensive end Vincenzo Girruzzi’s noticed a definite change in Brinkley the last two years. He’d be in the weight room more, watch film longer, practice harder, train better. Finally, it seems, the extra effort has paid off.
‘He’s had a lot of setbacks,’ SU head coach Greg Robinson said. ‘And I really do think that he has really grown and learned how to deal with them. … It’s great to see. And also it’s great to see how he has excelled as an athlete, through his hard work.’
There are two games left in Curtis Brinkley’s college career. It has flown by with ferocious speed. He hasn’t had much time to reflect.
‘Back in high school, everything came easy to me,’ Brinkley said. ‘I didn’t respect football as much as I do now, just because I’ve had to work for everything I’ve earned. Everything just came easy to me back in high school – I really didn’t have to work, or lift weights, or anything like that. And right now, with all the injuries and the downs in my career, I respect it and I have a different love for the game.’
How great has it been to shove success right into the face of the skeptics? How delightful to cap a career with such flourish?
Actually, Brinkley is a bit more subdued in his introspection. He shakes his head and sighs under his breath to the question of what could have been.
‘It’s unfortunate, but that’s how it is,’ Brinkley said. ‘That’s how it ended: my last year is obviously my best year.’
He has two games left, and he wants to capture one goal: SU’s single-season rushing record (1,372 yards). Few know his goal was to rush for 1200 yards going into this season. Those that did probably laughed at him.
But that’s been Brinkley, overcoming adversity one Superman leap at a time. Two buses full of fans pulled up to the Carrier Dome last Saturday for Brinkley’s last home game, all family and friends from Philadelphia and the Abbotsford neighborhood. Some games, as many as 100 have come up to watch him play.
They are his support group, his motivation – and his connection to the past, the only ones who really know who he was five years ago and where this documentary-like life has taken him since. It all could have easily just unraveled.
The death of his father could have made him quit. Splitting time could have made him quit. Injuries could have made him quit.To say this season has been redemption would be understating it. To say the scars have been healed would be misinterpreting it.
In Philadelphia, the kids will nip at his heels for years and years, but in Syracuse he will walk off the football field a hardened and different person, and he will be just waiting for the next person to say he can’t do it.
Zach Schonbrun is the sports columnist for The Daily Orange, where his columns appear every Tuesday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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