Erik Kramer was back in town for the 49ers-Bears game Sunday at Soldier Field, and he slogged out to midfield with a host of other former Bears players who were honored at halftime.
The day was beyond wet, with the signature photo being Bears players hydroplaning through the end-zone swamp after a 19-10 upset victory.
Kramer didn’t partake, of course. None of the old Bears did.
But a lot of things went through the former quarterback’s mind as he watched. Prime among them was how happy he was to be witnessing such a joyful display. Indeed, he’s happy to be witnessing anything at all these days.
As football fans might recall, Kramer — the Bears’ single-season leader in passing yardage and touchdowns (3,838 yards, 29 TDs in 1995) — tried to kill himself in 2015 with a shot below his chin from a handgun purchased for the sole purpose of ending his life.
But the bullet passed through his tongue, his sinus cavity, his frontal lobe and out the top of his head without killing him. It was a one-in-a-million card draw, a pull of a nickel slot machine with gold coins pouring onto the floor.
That is, if he still wanted to live. And he knows now that he did — and does.
As we sat and talked over lunch Saturday, Kramer explained there was a force back then that overwhelmed him in a way that vicious blitzing linebackers never could.
It hit him when he was most vulnerable. It crushed him.
His teenage son Griffen recently had died of an accidental drug overdose, his mother had died not long after of uterine cancer, his father had been diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer and his marriage had come apart. Of the gunshot not killing him immediately, he shakes his head and says, ”I don’t know how it is possible.”
But it was. And now during Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, Kramer’s story is one people hopefully can learn from. He went to the brink, then over it, and he came back. And that almost never happens.
He recently finished a book manuscript about his nightmarish journey, written with author Bill Croyle, called ”The Ultimate Comeback: Surviving Suicide, Conquering Depression, and Living with a Purpose.”
In it, he writes: ”I regret that I tried to kill myself. I do not regret surviving, and I do not shy away from ever telling my story. I am not ashamed of it. I was sick beyond my control.”
The sickness was depression, a huge, dark beast.
Kramer had battled it off and on for years, including in 1994, his first season with the Bears. The cause was complex and defies simple explanation, like the functioning of the brain itself. But his father’s constant pushing of him to excel in sports as a boy (he made Erik change high schools four times for better quarterbacking opportunities), his mother’s emotional distance, his lack of friends as a youth and his own sensitivity were contributing factors.
”The thing is, killing myself made sense to me at the time,” he says. ”That’s how lost you are.”
He mentions former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw and his public statements about his own depression, a darkness that once caused Bradshaw to cry in the middle of a game.
Kramer seems normal. He might slur a word here or there, but it’s nothing much. He worries about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which he’s afraid he might have, because who knows how many concussions and subconcussive hits a 10-year NFL quarterback receives. He takes anti-seizure medication and deals with impulse control and anger issues.
But the brain is resilient, and here, after all, is living proof.
Amazingly, you can’t see any evidence of the entrance or exit wounds of the gunshot, other than a dot under Kramer’s chin. His shattered skull from the bullet’s departure expertly was replaced with, as he says, ”high-tech plastic.”
There’s a lesson about the randomness of depression when one considers that Eric Hipple, the Lions’ quarterback not long before Kramer arrived in Detroit in 1991, also suffered from depression badly enough that he tried to kill himself by jumping out of a moving car.
Both men now work with young athletes and their mental health.
Before he left town, Kramer went with several other former Bears to visit Steve McMichael, the once-ferocious defensive lineman now immobilized by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
”It was tough,” Kramer says of the visit.
And the irony and mental-health message was manifest. The paralyzed McMichael has whispered often to wife Misty, ”I want to live,” and not that long ago a seemingly healthy Kramer said with a gunshot that he wanted to die.
It’s good they’re both here.