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The Chicago Tribune
By DAVE BIRKETT, DETROIT FREE PRESS
MAY 25, 2016 AT 9:16 AM
Erik Kramer flew home to California last July, after finishing a month-long stay at the Eisenhower Center rehabilitation facility in Ann Arbor, and almost immediately began planning his death.
Kramer, who quarterbacked the Detroit Lions in 1990-93 and led the team to its only playoff victory since 1957, sat down at his computer and started typing out a suicide to-do list.
Known for his meticulous preparation and diligent work habits as a player, Kramer wrote, in order, everything he wanted to accomplish before alleviating the unbearable mental and emotional pain he had been dealing with, off and on, for almost two decades.
He had to redo his will and tidy up some business ventures. He had bills to pay and chores to do around the house. He had suicide letters to write to the eight or 10 people closest to him: his son, his ex-wife, his sister and a few friends and business partners.
And he had to buy a gun.
One day, Kramer drove to a gun store in Simi Valley, Calif., about 30 minutes from his home in Agoura Hills, northwest of Los Angeles.
He made small talk with a clerk at the store, said he was in need of a handgun, and when the clerk recommended a SIG Sauer 9mm, he filled out the paperwork and waited 10 days before he was cleared for purchase.
Finally, with everything checked off his to-do list and a few practice rounds under his belt at a local gun range, Kramer took what he planned to be his last day on Earth for himself.
On Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015, with his son Dillon a day away from starting his junior year of high school, Kramer printed the suicide notes from his computer and put them in personalized envelopes on his desk. He picked up Dillon for lunch and dropped him off at his ex-wife’s house. He had dinner at a local place he can’t remember. And he checked into a second-floor room at the Good Nite Inn on Agoura Road in Calabasas, Calif., where, around 8 p.m., he tried to take his own life.
“All of that came to sort of an end, and it was time to either do it or not do it,” Kramer said. “I think I hung out for a little bit. I think I may have gone to eat some dinner somewhere and then came back and, I don’t know what time, but sort of took the gun, crawled into bed and pulled the trigger.”
That Kramer is alive today to tell his story — one of hope built from despair, and one that he wants to serve as a life preserver for others dealing with depression — is nothing short of a miracle.
Kramer, in a series of phone interviews with the Free Press over the past 11 days, described in detail both his suicide attempt that made headlines last August and his recovery, spurred on by family and former teammates, in the months since.
The bullet traveled through his chin, left a hole in his tongue, went up through his sinus cavities and out the top of his head.
He spent most of the past nine months in two California hospitals, where he underwent surgery to repair his tongue and replace a chunk of his skull, and two brain-rehabilitation clinics before returning home last month.
He’s back living a normal life that includes golfing, driving and dating. And most important, he said that the suicidal thoughts that have come and gone since his playing days — and intensified early last year — have subsided completely.
“I don’t want to tempt fate but, at this point, I feel very good,” Kramer said. “And so my hope is to just keep living life and keep contributing and keep all that going.”
‘Fall from grace’
Erik Kramer throws off the pressure from Cardinals tackle Eric Swann during a game on Oct. 14, 1998. (JOHN KRINGAS / Chicago Tribune)
When the Lions signed Kramer as a free agent on March 21, 1990, he was little more than a footnote on the transaction report.
The team was a month away from drafting Andre Ware in the first round, and with Rodney Peete returning as starter, no one expected much from the Canadian Football League refugee.
Kramer, the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year as a senior at North Carolina State, always had to fight for his keep on the field.
He was a backup quarterback and starting safety in high school who spent 2 ½ years in junior college before moving on to N.C. State. His first taste of the NFL came as a replacement player for the Atlanta Falcons during the short-lived 1987 strike, and when he was cut during training camp the next fall, he headed off to play for the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL.
In 1989, Kramer tore a ligament in his knee during an intrasquad scrimmage. Not wanting to return to Canada the next year, he sent out feelers to all 30 NFL teams after the season and got one response — from the Lions.
Kramer worked out for the Lions in the winter of 1990 and signed with the team soon afterward. He suffered a shoulder injury that August that knocked him out for the season, then spent the next three years splitting time with Ware and Peete.
When Peete tore his Achilles tendon in October 1991, Kramer finished out the season as starter and led the Lions to their only NFC championship game appearance. He threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns in a divisional playoff win over the Dallas Cowboys that he still ranks as the proudest moment of his NFL career.
The Lions have been to the playoffs just seven times since, without a victory.
“They never really got out of their base defense, which was kind of strange,” Kramer said of the Cowboys game. “We just kept throwing the same two or three routes all game.”
It wasn’t long after Kramer’s breakout 1991 season that he first remembers having suicidal thoughts.
Note: Since he was on anti-depressants for
He signed a three-year, $8.1-million free agent contract with the Chicago Bears in 1994 to replace Jim Harbaugh as starter, but separated his shoulder early in the season and spent most of the year on the bench.
“I think it was the fall from grace (that first brought on the depression),” Kramer said. “Coming in as the starter and the free agent and then getting hurt, feeling better after a few weeks, like I could play, but then not getting an opportunity to. And I think that all played a part in it.”
Kramer said he never told the team about his mental state but did confide in a psychotherapist and family members.
He started taking anti-depressant medication around that time and was “off and on (the medicine for) probably 10 or 15 years.”
In 1995, Kramer had the best individual season of his career. He threw for 3,838 yards and 29 touchdowns, still Bears records, but, the following spring, battled depression again.
“The high, I guess, that I was on from playing and playing well, it did not last throughout, say, the next full offseason,” Kramer said. “So, yeah, I began to, I guess, question things and feel — I think some depression crept in before the start of the next season, in ’96.”
While injuries eventually ended his career — San Diego Chargers team doctors ordered him to retire midway through the 1999 season because of a serious neck injury — Kramer said he did not experience the post-playing depression that strikes many in the NFL.
He coached high school football, started a quarterback-mentoring camp and got into TV, and it was only when a series of personal tragedies struck that Kramer’s world began to spin out of control again.
Loss and loneliness
Suicide was the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S. last year, according to an annual report by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Among adults age 50 and over — Kramer turns 52 in November — some 2.9 million people (2.7%) reported having serious thoughts of suicide in 2014, the last year for which data is available, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Despite increasing awareness about the problem, Dr. Jane Pearson, chair of the National Institute of Mental Health’s suicide-research consortium, said there’s no easy answer for what drives people to attempt suicide.
“People get to that point for lots of different reasons,” said Pearson, who has not worked with Kramer. “It’s usually not just one reason. It’s often an accumulation of things.”
Kramer’s ex-wife, Marshawn, hinted in an interview with NBC and in a post on her Facebook page after Kramer’s suicide attempt that football was partly to blame for his condition.
“He is a very amazing man, a beautiful soul, but he has suffered depression since he was with the Bears,” Marshawn Kramer said last August. She did not respond to the Free Press for this report. “I can promise you he is not the same man I married.”
Kramer said he never was diagnosed with a concussion during his playing days in college nor the pros, and he wrestles with how much, if anything, the sport had to do with “the state of being that I was in.”
“I’ve thought about that often, but nothing really stands out as connecting football to the sort of feeling I’ve had with depression,” Kramer said. “It very well may be linked. It doesn’t feel like it to me.”
Instead, Kramer points to a series of losses he endured that left him feeling isolated and alone.
[His son Griffen died of a heroin overdose in October 2011. His mother, Eileen, passed away from uterine cancer in July 2012. His father, Karl, was terminally ill with esophageal cancer at the time of his suicide attempt and died weeks later, while Kramer was still in the hospital. He went through a difficult breakup with a girlfriend late in 2014. And his relationship with his son Dillon was fraying at this time last year.
“I would say there was an emptiness,” Kramer said. “And getting older. I’m 51 now and I know that doesn’t sound really old, but you’re definitely on the other side of the halfway point. And I think, just as all these people that have meant a great deal to me, all of a sudden were either gone already or on their way out. So I think the loneliness that comes with that and, at the point of life I’m in now, all played a role. It’s too late to start over.”
Last June, with his depression bottoming out and thoughts of suicide paralyzing his brain, Kramer reached out to a handful of friends, including ex-Lions quarterback Eric Hipple and Dr. Bryce Lefever, a former Navy psychologist who was then clinical director at Brightwater Landing, a Pennsylvania mental-health and addiction recovery center…
At one point, Kramer started to explain how hard it was to plan his own death.
“He told me all that in the car and he said, ‘And here I am, I’m still alive,'” Hipple recalled. “And I asked him, I said, ‘So what does that mean to you?’ And he said, ‘That I should be alive.’
“And so, for me, that was the biggest positive thing of somebody coming to the realization that life is worth living and that maybe make steps and recover rather than seeing it as a botched suicide attempt. More looking at it like, ‘I was very lucky,’ and almost a miracle the way he made it through all this, and that this is something he should be doing.”
Nine months after his failed suicide attempt, that’s exactly how Kramer said he sees things.
His relationship with Dillon is improving. He has resumed dating his former girlfriend. And his will to live is apparent.
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“It is definitely a miracle and a gift at a second chance,” Kelley said. “I think he’s got an amazing heart and can help a lot of people with his experiences that he’s been through.”
Kramer said he doesn’t take any medication for his depression and isn’t seeing a psychologist, though he’s about to resume therapy through CNS.
He plays golf several days a week at North Ranch Country Club in Thousand Oaks, where his “frustrating” 5 or 6 handicap usually plays more like a 10.
And if his story hadn’t made headlines last year, no one would know that he once tried to take his own life by the looks of him.
“During the course of all that treatment, I was around a lot of people who (suffered brain injuries),” Kramer said. “Through all of that, I can’t help but think that I should have been the worst, the most worse off than anybody, but I just was extremely lucky. And after talking to the doctors, after talking to the staff at these places, I don’t know how that happened. I guess I’m just one of the lucky ones. There’s no real reason other than that, I think.”
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