Former Bears quarterback Erik Kramer checked into the Good Nite Inn in Calabasas, California, on Aug. 18, 2015. He brought the SIG Sauer 9mm handgun he had purchased specifically for the occasion.
Kramer had spent weeks planning his death. He got his finances in order so his son Dillon would be comfortable. He never had fired a handgun before, so he took it to the range to practice.
During a five-year span, Kramer divorced, struggled to connect with Dillon (who decided to live with his mom) and split with his girlfriend. And then death took those closest to him, one by one.
In 2011, Kramer’s son Griffen, an 18-year-old quarterback at Thousand Oaks High School, died of a heroin overdose. He had injected the drug, foamed at the mouth and passed out. His friends didn’t take him for medical care. Instead, they put him in a bedroom, where he was found dead the next day.
In 2012, Kramer’s mother, Eileen, died of uterine cancer. The two had grown close only a short time before. Kramer mourned not only her death but never knowing where the relationship was headed. His father, Karl — with whom he wasn’t particularly close — had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer that later would kill him. It surprised Kramer how much it affected him.
‘‘People aren’t coming,’’ he thought. ‘‘They’re going.’’
He figured he’d go, too. He put the gun under his chin and fired.
• • •
Some part of Kramer didn’t want to die that night.
He knew what depression felt like, having taken his first antidepressants during his five-year stint quarterbacking the Bears. But this was different.
‘‘When Griffen died, I’d never been that sad in my life,’’ Kramer said. ‘‘It had the feeling of, when it’s here, it doesn’t go away. Even for a second.’’
Kramer’s first suicidal thought came in 1994, his first season with the Bears. He wasn’t used to the weight of a franchise’s expectations.
Kramer wasn’t a starter in high school. He eventually got the nod in junior college before transferring to North Carolina State. He was undrafted out of college and left the NFL for the Canadian Football League.
‘‘I was a nobody from nowhere,’’ he said.
After he hurt his knee, Kramer said, only one team returned his phone calls: the Lions. Kramer thrived there. His playoff victory against the Cowboys after the 1991 season remains the Lions’ last postseason victory. He was part of the Lions’ last division-title team in 1993 and became a free agent during the offseason. The Bears signed him to a three-year, $8.1 million deal in 1994.
‘‘Chicago tabbed me to be their guy,’’ he said. ‘‘That hadn’t happened in my life — ever.’’
Kramer suffered a separated right shoulder in the Bears’ third game of 1994 and started only three more times all season.
‘‘That’s what sent me into my first depression,’’ he said. ‘‘Getting paid like a starter but not being one. I remember thinking that people must be looking at me a little funny.’’
Every morning, Kramer debated whether he wanted to make the turn into Halas Hall. When he did, he wondered whether he would get out of the car.
“It was a dark, heavy, black internal cloud,’’ he said. ‘‘Nothing felt good. Breathing didn’t feel good. Being awake didn’t feel good. Making eye contact was out of the question.’’
Kramer sought help. He spoke to a psychologist and began taking antidepressants. The next season, he threw for 3,838 yards, which remains the most prolific passing season in Bears history.
His depression returned often, but it never again came because of football.
Kramer doesn’t know whether taking blows to the head during a 13-year pro career contributed to his mental state and admitted it’s ‘‘certainly not outside the realm of possibility.’’ Some of his closest family members think it did.
After Griffen died, Kramer again sought help. He connected with another former Lions quarterback, Eric Hipple. Like Kramer, Hipple had lost a teenage son. Like Kramer, Hipple had tried to kill himself, throwing himself out of a van traveling 70 mph, only to live. In Michigan, Hipple ran a center to help former athletes and service members battling depression. He invited Kramer out in June 2015.
‘‘It was the right place for me, but I got there too late,’’ he said.
Kramer stayed for 30 days and still doesn’t remember how he got home. When he did, the gun was waiting for him at the store. He had passed a background check.
Kramer left suicide notes for his loved ones. But in the minutes before he pulled the trigger, he began sending text messages. One was to his sister. Another was to Chris Germann, a high school friend who eventually would retire from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department after 34 years.
Germann was in New Orleans, getting ready to check his son into his first year of college. At dinner, his phone pinged. He didn’t look at the message until 10 minutes later.
It was a text from Kramer asking Germann to help look after his son. Kramer also told him what he was about to do — and in which hotel he was staying.
‘‘When someone does that, they’re screaming,’’ Germann said. ‘‘They’re trying to talk themselves out of it.’’
Germann ran to his hotel room and began dialing — from his cellphone, his son’s phone and the landline. He tried Kramer’s cellphone, but he didn’t answer. He called his old sheriff’s station and learned a friend was on patrol that night. He tried the lobby at the hotel, a spot he knew from his old neighborhood patrols. He called the paramedics.
When the officers and paramedics arrived at the Good Nite Inn, Germann was patched through to Kramer’s hotel room, which he had checked into under his own name. The phone rang. Germann figured he was too late.
‘‘I’ll be damned if he didn’t answer,’’ Germann said. ‘‘He was moaning.’’
Kramer had shot himself. The bullet traveled from under his chin through his tongue and sinus cavity and out the top of his head.
But Kramer was alive.
‘‘I told him he needed to drop whatever’s in his hand,’’ Germann said.
The gun hit the floor.
He told Kramer to walk to the door, which he had propped open with bloody towels, to greet the officer. He did.
With a hole in his head, Kramer walked outside, down a flight of stairs and into a waiting ambulance.
Kramer was put in a medically induced coma for six weeks and spent about nine months receiving medical care. He remembers none of it. It wasn’t until three years later that he found out he had sent the text messages, that a small part of him was fighting to live.
‘‘There’s a period of my life that goes back before I shot myself, and then a good year afterward where I don’t have a lot of recollections of stuff,’’ he said. ‘‘What I know of my own life was told to me. And that includes the part about the theft.’’
• • •
One of the doctors treating Kramer after he shot himself told him he was so lucky that he should play the lottery every week for the rest of his life.
The doctor couldn’t have been more wrong. Kramer’s skull was rebuilt and his brain began the long process of healing, but his life was thrown into chaos.
It left him fighting what he called a sham marriage, alleged theft by his wife and a push to change the California conservatorship system that he said helped make both possible.
Kramer and Cortney Baird had dated off and on for three years. About six months after he shot himself, Kramer said she reappeared in his life as though she never had left. The two resumed dating, and she eventually moved into his home with her daughter.
Kramer was deemed incapacitated by a neuropsychologist when he shot himself. Looking back, he wonders whether Baird was assessing his cognition.
Kramer was able to perform basic functions and even flew to Chicago to attend Bears minicamp practice 10 months after his suicide attempt.
‘‘But upper-level thinking was something I couldn’t do,’’ he said.
That’s typical in recovering patients, said Dr. Andrew Dorsch, a neurologist at Rush University Medical Center who specializes in traumatic brain injuries and rehabilitation after them.
‘‘Decision-making is always on a spectrum,’’ said Dorsch, who doesn’t treat Kramer. ‘‘More complex decisions can become a little bit more dicey.’’
One complex decision Kramer said he couldn’t have made for himself was getting married. On Dec. 22, 2016, Kramer wed Baird at the Santa Barbara (California) Courthouse. She booked the wedding around the same time Kramer had signed over conservatorship of his decision-making to his sister.
Because of his brain injury, Kramer said he would have said yes to anything if someone else had suggested it strongly.
He didn’t tell anyone at first. When Anna Dergan, his lifelong friend, saw he had purchased a ring, she grew suspicious.
Four months earlier, Kramer’s money had started to go missing. Dergan first grew suspicious that Baird was stealing his money. She first reported the alleged thefts to detectives on Oct. 19, 2016. Kramer told detectives a few days later he didn’t recognize the charges.
While Kramer recovered from his brain injury, his trust fund paid his bills and afforded him spending money once a month. He wasn’t one to spend wildly, either before or after his injury. But by the middle of 2016 — less than a year after his suicide attempt — Kramer said his checking account would become overdrawn. His credit card was being used to give cash advances.
It didn’t take long for Dergan to become outraged.
‘‘That’s who I am,’’ she said. ‘‘I right a wrong.’’
The marriage, however, ground the theft investigation to a standstill. In a hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court a month after the wedding, Baird said, ‘‘I admit to the wrong I did before [and] will do whatever the court sees fit to show that I’m no longer a threat to him,’’ according to court transcripts.
She was told she couldn’t open credit cards or withdraw from his account. Still, it would be three years before she was arrested. Saying he was unable to make complicated decisions, Kramer grew increasingly concerned that Baird was draining his finances, but they remained together.
In May 2018, Kramer put an offer in on a home in Southern California that he planned to share with Baird. The sellers accepted, he said, but the deal stalled. Kramer’s financial conservator — who had been put in place because of concerns that Baird was spending Kramer’s money — blocked the sale. Kramer, whose brain was recovering, said that moment gave him clarity. The next month, Kramer flew to Chicago for a Bears alumni golf tournament. During dinner with a former Bears team priest, Kramer finally vocalized it: He was going to go home and tell Baird he wanted a divorce.
When he arrived back in Agoura Hills, California, he told Baird he wanted a divorce and went to bed. The next morning, Kramer said, he made coffee and went outside to read the paper. Baird, he said, told him she wasn’t getting a divorce and insisted she wasn’t stealing from him. At the time, Kramer couldn’t account for about a quarter-million dollars, including, he said, $10,000 from a memorial fund set up after Griffen’s death.
‘‘I go to put my hand on the back of her shoulder, asking her to go back inside,’’ he said. ‘‘She shrugs my hand off the back of her shoulder and walks back in. Nothing really happened.’’
Kramer said he began walking around the house, collecting photos of Baird and her daughter ‘‘as a reminder that she was going to be out soon.’’ When she put them back up, he set them outside the front door.
Then the police arrived.
Kramer said the officer asked him if he had put his hands on Baird. He said yes but didn’t offer any context. He was arrested.
‘‘They don’t know about my brain injury,’’ he said. ‘‘They just know I’m a guy who got called for domestic violence.’’
Kramer had the $50,000 needed to bail himself out, but it took a day to cut a cashier’s check from his account, which was based in Florida. He spent the night in jail, unable to sleep on a 1-inch mattress on top of a concrete bench.
‘‘I knew what happened,’’ he said. ‘‘But I also knew what didn’t happen.’’
When Kramer got out of jail, he couldn’t go home; Baird had a restraining order. It took Kramer four days to retrieve his wallet from his house. During those four days, Baird stayed at the Four Seasons, an expenditure she later defended in court documents.
The two split. Kramer’s friends and family rallied around him, helping him try to untangle years of his life. In January 2019, his marriage was annulled. On Feb. 7, 2020, Baird was charged with 12 felonies for, among other things, suspicion of grand theft from an elder or dependent adult, forgery and identity theft. A pretrial hearing is scheduled for June 29.
Kramer claimed Baird took about $300,000. He said he spent more than that on legal fees dating to his conservatorship, annulment and defense.
‘‘I’d like for her to go to jail forever,’’ Kramer said.
Kramer can’t put a price on his reputation. His arrest on suspicion of corporal injury to a spouse was national news. He later was charged with misdemeanor battery. Last year, though, Los Angeles County dropped all charges against him.
‘‘When you’re born, your reputation is the one thing you have that no one can take away,’’ Kramer said. ‘‘In this case, I did nothing wrong. It was forgery, identity theft, grand theft, but none of those things would have been possible had there not been a medical condition first. That medical condition is what cleared the path for her to do what she did.
‘‘There was no domestic violence. The day I was arrested, I was incapacitated — and not just on the date of marriage but the days and months that followed.’’
• • •
Kramer laughs when it’s suggested that the public’s knowledge of the conservatorship court system — in which a guardian manages finances and decisions for someone deemed incapacitated — starts and ends with Britney Spears.
‘‘Most people don’t know about the conservatorship court system until they’re in it,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m the only person I know that at one time has been in but am now out. Typically, you never come out.’’
Kramer thinks the system failed him. His aunt and sister went through the system to try to gain conservatorship of his estate and of Kramer’s personal decisions. Kramer said his own court-appointed lawyer argued against it because he sided with Baird.
Had Kramer been broke, the state would have had to pay for his professional conservator. Because he wasn’t, Kramer suspects the system was incentivized to complicate matters to increase their billable hours.
‘‘This is a legal system that’s akin to a fox in a henhouse,’’ he said.
Dergan said Kramer’s experience ‘‘unveiled not only the dysfunctional, failed criminal-court system but also this conservatorship.’’ Protecting him from Baird’s alleged theft and getting his marriage annulled should have been a slam dunk, she said.
‘‘You don’t ignore the family,’’ Dergan said. ‘‘You don’t ignore the friends that have been in the person’s life for 40 years and appoint a complete stranger, and whatever that stranger says, goes.’’
Kramer and Dergan are trying to change the system. In April, they met virtually with California state Sen. Robert Hertzberg to discuss Kramer’s experience and hope to help craft legislation next year.
One change Kramer and Dergan want to make is that when there’s an active police investigation, an incapacitated person immediately should be put into conservatorship, making something such as a wedding decision legally invalid.
We all could be vulnerable and in the conservatorship court system one day, Kramer said.
‘‘I want to tell the world because this is where we’re all headed,’’ he said. ‘‘And it won’t take a gunshot to the head.’’
• • •
Kramer, who is 56, coached the running game at Chaminade High School in West Hills, California, during the spring. The players have talked to him about his NFL career but not about the suicide attempt.
‘‘If they’re old enough to read newspapers or go online, they know,’’ he said.
Kramer, who invested well and doesn’t have to work again, would like to be a high school head coach one day. He thinks reports of his domestic-violence arrest cost him at least two opportunities.
In June 2020, he had a re-evaluation of the same neuropsychology test he took after he shot himself. His doctor gave him an official letter of capacity.
‘‘The brain does heal,’’ Kramer said.
Kramer’s memory has returned, which is a blessing and a curse. He never will get over losing Griffen.
‘He’s a big, kind-hearted guy,’’ said Germann, his high school friend. ‘‘He’s got a long way to go. . . . He’s come so far and, recently, even farther.’’
Through the years, Germann has had the same response whenever Kramer asked how he was. He always would say he was ‘‘better than I deserve.’’
Recently, Kramer said the same thing back to him.
‘‘I went from life being so dark that I thought the best option was to not be here,’’ Kramer said. ‘‘Now I’m the most grateful guy walking the planet.’’