Last summer Erik Kramer purchased a gun at a store in Simi Valley, Calif., a SIG Sauer 9mm that he received after filling out some paperwork and waiting the required 10 days. He’d enjoyed fishing, but had never hunted. He was so unsure of his marksmanship that he showed up at a range near his home in Agoura Hills, Calif., just to practice. He recognized the irony: Here I am squinting to shoot at targets far away, when I’m really preparing to close my eyes and use this gun for the shortest distance possible.
On Aug. 18, 2015, Kramer left home carrying his gun. Smirking at the name, he checked into a $74-a-night second floor room at the nearby Good Nite Inn in Calabasas, a joint he’d passed countless times before when driving on and off Ventura Freeway. He had written a suicide note—several, in fact—but they were more pragmatic than emotional. A quarterback till the end—he was an NFL signal-caller for 10 seasons before retiring in 1999—Kramer had game-planned everything, explaining that he’d paid various bills and dealt with assorted paperwork, set aside one check to someday pay for the wedding of his 17-year-old son Dylan.
Once he had eaten dinner and was confident his affairs were order, he climbed into bed. As the sun was setting, he raised his right hand, the same one that had propelled a football more than 15,000 yards in the NFL. At age 50, in what he assumed would be his final act, he squeezed the trigger.
And misfired. It was—happily, he’s quick to point out—the equivalent of an incompletion. The bullet rocketed through Kramer’s chin, cleaved his tongue and sinus cavities before exiting through the top of his head, managing to miss most of his brain. Kramer would spend months in hospitals, addressing his traumatic brain injury and recovering from various cranial surgeries. He still speaks haltingly on account of the hole in his tongue. But he survived.
Once he was out of surgery, one of his first calls was to a longtime friend—“Really almost more big brother,” Kramer calls him. For years, this friend has been with Kramer through the wilderness of depression. The two share so many parallels, so many interlacing coincidences, so many of the same rhythms, that it’s almost paranormal, at once cinematic and uncanny.
But now, as Kramer explained his suicide attempt, his friend on the other end of the call just sat and listened. Though trained in mental health and usually given to speaking in both the calming cadences and the thoughtful language of a clinician, the friend found words slow in coming.
“So,” the friend finally asked through stifled tears, “what does all this tell you? What’s your takeaway, Erik?”
Kramer paused a beat and then, said flatly: “I guess I’m supposed to be alive.”
Kramer led the Lions to their only playoff win in the past 60 years in 1992, but Detroit’s run came up short in the postseason.
Eric Hipple reached for a napkin and a pen. His wife was driving him to the Detroit Airport that day in the spring of 1998. From the passenger seat, Hipple unfurled the napkin and scrawled, “I’m sorry I can’t take this anymore.”
This was hard to isolate and define. It was a combination of an emotional vacancy and a lack of purpose. For the entirety of the 1980s, Hipple had been an NFL quarterback, a leader of men.
By the looks of it, he’d made a graceful transition to career 2.0, running a successful insurance business and serving as a Fox commentator for NFL games. But pivoting to a life without football was traumatic. “You think about loss of identity, you think about loss of income, you think about changing relationships, loss of your doctors, the support system. This came and hit me out of nowhere,” he says. “It’s very painful when you’re ostracized and removed from the thing you’ve done since you were, like, eight years old.”
Hipple and his first wife divorced. The former college star at Utah State got his pilot’s license, and when that wasn’t a sufficient thrill, he flew like an ace. He would head to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and fly at 500 feet or lower, clipping trees and rotating sideways. He now knows that it was an exercise in self-medication, a way to trigger a rush of dopamine and adrenaline and other hormones to offset his state of blah. “Clearly,” he says, “I was depressed.”
If Erik Kramer’s attempt at suicide was strikingly well-planned, Eric Hipple’s was strikingly impulsive. After handing his one-sentence note to his wife, Hipple lifted his right arm—the same one that had propelled a football more than 10,000 yards in the NFL—and squeezed opened the car door. Though Shelly Hipple was doing 70 miles an hour, she looked over and read the message. Before she could say a word, her husband acted, flinging himself out of the car and onto the Interstate.
He careened awkwardly on the pavement—“just like in the movies”—scraping his face and beating up his body worse than every sack he’d ever endured. But there were no other cars or trucks immediately behind him and, like tumbleweed, he rolled off the side of the road. He survived. Well, he reasoned, I guess I’m supposed to be alive.
Hipple started 57 games at QB over nine seasons with the Lions from 1980 to ’89.
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
In 1990, calling the Lions a train wreck would have shortchanged the railroad transportation sector. The franchise hadn’t won a playoff game since 1957. Mediocrity was an aspiration. Games seldom sold out. The team’s venue, the Pontiac Silverdome, was where energy went to die.
Erik Kramer didn’t much care. He was thrilled to have been signed to a contract, happy to play the role of backup quarterback in the NFL. He carried no delusions of grandeur. He didn’t ever start on his high school team in California. He spent two seasons at junior college before getting a scholarship offer at North Carolina State, where he endured all manner of injuries. He was overlooked in the NFL draft and made the league only as a replacement player for the Falcons during the 1987 strike. Once that ended, he headed north to play for the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL.
Kramer inherited Detroit’s backup QB duties from Eric Hipple, who’d alternated with Gary Danielson between starter and sub for the Lions during most the of the ’80s. A popular player with an incurably outgoing personality, Hipple stayed close to the franchise after his retirement in ’89. He was working locally and often showed up at games and practices. He and Kramer—his follower in the Lions’ QB lineage—became kindred spirits. They played similar styles, cut similar figures and even had the same damn name. It was defensive lineman Eric Williams whom Kramer credits with nicknaming Hipple “Big E” and Kramer “Little E.” Erik and Eric also bonded over the uncertain fate of the backup quarterback. “I just remember him as a good guy, someone who was easy to talk to,” says Kramer. “And that’s obviously before I knew of all the common denominators.”
Says Hipple, “His preparation and work ethic was great, but the thing I liked about him initially was that something would go wrong—an interception or whatever—and the next play was a brand new play. That’s over. Let’s start a new series. Things from before didn’t bother him.”
When Peete tore up his knee in 1991, Kramer became the starter, and more than one teammate tried to inspire Kramer by telling the story of Eric Hipple. In October ’81, Hipple made his first NFL start in a Monday night game against the Bears and was so nervous he spent the day in his hotel kneeling in prayer, “Please, help me get through this.” He threw for 336 yards and four touchdowns and ran for two more as the Lions won 48–17, one of the great opening nights for a quarterback in NFL history.
In an uncharacteristic bit of good fortune for Detroit, Kramer would become a surprise success. He piloted the team to the playoffs, throwing for 341 yards against the Cowboys, the Lions’ only postseason win in the past 60 years. In 1994, Kramer signed an $8.1 million contract with the Bears to replace a swashbuckler named Jim Harbaugh. Kramer injured his shoulder that season, but in ’95 he threw for 3,838 yards and 29 touchdowns, both of which endure as Bears team records.
Kramer wasn’t going to win many footraces. There were quarterbacks with stronger arms. But his toughness was unrivaled. He was Indiana Jones in the pocket. No longer Little E, Kramer was conferred a new, sanitized nickname—”Brass”—by lineman Ken Dallafior, who on the bus after a game remarked, “This guy’s got brass balls.”
Internally, Kramer was anything but brass. Starting that first season with the Bears, Kramer began to feel . . . well, what? One of the great frustrations of mental illness: It resists easy characterization. It was Winston Churchill who wryly referred to his depression as “my black dog,” an unwanted companion that seldom left his side. Kramer can relate. Even today, he struggles to describe it. It was this impenetrable fog that enveloped him. This state that turns kaleidoscopic color into a smear of gray. This heavy blanket of blah that would make him feel, unaccountably, low on energy and joy. He was a mountain climber who had fallen into a crevasse.
His millions didn’t console him. Neither did his good looks. Neither did his position as one of society’s ultimate alphas, the quarterback of an NFL team. “Nothing mattered that much,” he says.
Like so many athletes, Kramer knew that in the Republic of Sports, injuries to body parts are perceived differently from injuries to psyches. Wrench a knee or smash up a shoulder and you’re provided with a rehab plan. Suffer a spasm of mental illness and teams are often less sympathetic, prone to questioning toughness—or, worse, declaring the subject a “head case,” a label as damning as it is irreversible. This was especially so in the mid 1990s. Kramer worked with a psychologist but concealed his struggles from his bosses and his teammates.
Looking back, he’s amazed that he was able to function as a top NFL quarterback. “The game is hard enough,” he says. “That extra hurdle, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.” But he also reckons that, in a perverse way, the sport was preparation. “Being a pro football player, you are just conditioned from early on in youth ball and high school, then college, ultimately in the pros, where if you’re dealt a bad hand, you figure out how to play that hand. You can’t just throw in your cards and wait for the next hand. So you have to figure out a way to play what you’re dealt.”
Kramer retired in 1999 and, on the surface anyway, made a seamless transition to life after football. Like Hipple, he started working for Fox, where his good looks, good hair and effortless twinning of polish and plainspeak were ideal for television. Like Hipple, he entertained business interests and the trappings of celebrity. Like Hipple, deep unhappiness was coursing through him, The Darkness inhabiting his thoughts.
After bottoming out, Hipple threw himself into the academic side of depression and mental illness.
David P. Gilkey/Detroit Free Press/AP
Back in Detroit, Hipple survived his suicide attempt, and explained it away as a cartoonish accident. But the darkness still kept its grip on him. And—depression having a strong genetic component—it also kept its grip on Jeff Hipple, Eric’s oldest son. On April 9, 2000, Jeff, then 15, ended his life. After that, Eric says, “I was just numb, nonexistent. Every maladaptive tool I had in my pocket, I was using.”
The inevitable bottom came in 2002 when Eric was arrested for a DUI and spent 58 days incarcerated. “I came to the realization of, O.K., what is going on? I don’t want to be this guy. Here I was at the top of something that was unique and wonderful and great. And now I’m sitting here?” He also wanted some answers. What the hell was the Darkness all about? Why did it attach itself to him and to Jeff?
After his release, Hipple enrolled in an eight-week program at the University of Michigan Depression Center. It was like a mini-med school. In a series of workshops, Hipple learned about neuroscience and behavioral science and psychology. He was a star student, talking to the instructors after classes and asking for additional reading. He began speaking in the vocabulary of a mental health professional. “Everything started making sense,” he says. “My own behavior. My son’s. My family history. The transition after sports that traumatizes so many athletes.”
He learned that mental illness impacts hundreds of millions of people worldwide. That suicide usually ranks among the top 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. That 3% of the population entertains serious thoughts of ending their lives. That there’s no cure for depression per se, but there are advances all the time. (One example he cites today: Genetic testing can now determine which medications metabolize most effectively, which in turn helps patients with the often vexing challenge of finding an effective course of treatment.)
One of Hipple’s early realizations: His depression didn’t begin with his retirement from the NFL. He thought back to moments in college and with the Lions when he didn’t want to get out of bed or “didn’t feel right.” He simply attributed it to the stress of losing seasons or the doubts that worm their way into your head when you’re getting pulled in and out of games. “You know, when the stigma of something is so strong,” he says, “you don’t talk about it.”
With a combination of therapy and medication, Hipple began dealing with his depression, specifically. But the thermodynamics of mental illness in general remained a source of bottomless fascination—more interesting and meaningful than his insurance work. Soon enough, the UM Depression Center created a position for Hipple, naming him as its director of outreach programs.
Thanks largely to Hipple, in 2007 the center developed a partnership with the NFL Players Association. With funding from the NFLPA, Hipple and a team of researchers helped put together the first comprehensive mental health survey for current and former NFL players. The study concluded: “Retired professional football players experience levels of depressive symptoms similar to those of the general population, but the impact of these symptoms is compounded by high levels of difficulty with pain.”
“Basically,” says Hipple, “I found out there are actually a lot of guys going through this stuff.”
Engrossed in the culture of mental health, he came to see parallels between veterans and former athletes. “You train all the time, then you have a purpose and a mission. When that ends, you’re on the other side,” he says. “And just like players, not all the skill sets that they practice and work on are transferrable into, you know, the public life.” A few years ago, Hipple switched jobs and became outreach director for the Eisenhower Center, a “residential wellness facility” situated on a ranch outside Ann Arbor. There, Hipple helped start a program called After the Impact, designed specifically for former military personnel and athletes, mostly retired players.
Now 58, Hipple estimates he’s worked firsthand with upwards of 100 former athletes. Most are former NFL players but they come from all sports, including women’s soccer. He has also spent much of the last decade touring the country—visiting military bases, locker rooms, churches and even minor league hockey arenas—talking up the virtues of improved mental health. He also wrote a memoir titled Real Men Do Cry.
His message varies, but there are talking points. One of them is to seek treatment: “Ninety percent of all suicides are due to some type of untreated or undiagnosed mental illness, depression being one of those,” he says. “If someone suffers from depression and does not get treatment, the chance of them taking their own life is greater than for someone who is treated.”
What does he tell those harboring thoughts of suicide? “First of all, you’re not alone. Second of all, people are not better off when you’re dead—you just pass that pain on to them. Third, there’s treatment available. “There’s always a solution,” he says, “And death isn’t one of them.”
Hipple and Kramer were both pushed to their emotional limits by the deaths of their sons Jeff Hipple (left) and Griffin Kramer (right).
David P. Gilkey/Detroit Free Press/AP; Dan Hillard
Neither Kramer nor Hipple can pinpoint the first time they talked about depression or, in Hipple’s words, “engaged over brain health.” Kramer knew that his old buddy had not just survived a suicide attempt, but had become “kind of a big deal” in mental health circles. Hipple had heard through NFL backchannels that Kramer was going through a difficult period; that his marriage was breaking up, that his depression was imperiling his television work.
They spoke often through the year. Sometimes, depression and their shared experiences and deeper excavations figured prominently in their conversations; sometimes not at all.
Talk of concussions and brain trauma and CTE was starting to enter the national conversation. Hipple calls it “a multiplier that’s thrown into the mix of this transitional stuff, loss, and everything else.” But it didn’t come up much when they spoke. Neither will rule out the role of brain trauma in their mental illness but they balk at blaming football. “Chances are I probably did have some concussions. But I was never knocked out, never lost consciousness,” says Kramer. “I never had instant headaches, you know, kind of forgot who I was, that I was married, that I was a father. I never had that.” Adds Hipple, “Cognitively, the thing I blame most is lack of information. At the time there was nothing, so you were left to your own coping mechanisms, some of them maladaptive.”
In 2011, Kramer’s son Griffen, an 18-year-old quarterback on his high school team, died of a heroin overdose. Having himself been through the hell of losing a son, Hipple was on the case. He recruited Kramer to join him and speak at workshops, reasoning that if Kramer talked about preventing suicide and destructive behavior he would, in effect, practice what he preached. Through Bryce Lefever, a Navy captain and special warfare psychologist that Hipple had met while doing suicide prevention workshops, Hipple and Kramer appeared together, talking with Spec Warfare groups in San Diego and Stennis Beach, Fla.
Then last summer, Kramer reached out again, complaining that he felt “trapped.” He was still grieving for Griffen, and also dealing with the death of his mother to cancer and with a recent romantic breakup. On top of that, his father had terminal esophageal cancer and was being moved to hospice. Kramer had lost weight and was despondent.
At Hipple’s behest, Kramer flew to Michigan for a 30-day stint at the After the Impact center. Kramer admits that he was low on energy and “wasn’t feeling anything.” Hipple recalls that Kramer felt isolated at first and struggled to fit into the group therapy sessions with the veterans and other athletes. Hipple talked frequently with Kramer one-on-one, taking him out for meals and for walks around the rural complex. After a few days, Kramer, “made a breakthrough with one of the therapists,” Hipple recalls. “He was a little more interactive, a little more engaging.”
After the 30 days, Hipple felt Kramer wasn’t ready to leave and lined up funding to extend the stay. Kramer headed home to California, though, recalling that he felt that the group therapy wasn’t meeting his needs. They both agree that he departed with a regimen—“a game plan,” Hipple calls it—that had been arranged, including therapy sessions in California. And they both agree that it wasn’t enough.
Last August, Hipple was leading suicide prevention workshops at naval bases in the Seattle area when he decided to take a rare night off and see a movie, absently turning off his phone before entering the theater. When he turned on his phone the next morning, there was a backlog of missed calls and texts from Kramer’s sister, Kelley. When he finally connected with Kelley, she explained that her brother had given in to his darkest instincts. “Eric shot himself.” Hipple began to cry.
When he learned that Kramer was still alive, here’s what Hipple told Kelly: “I went through this. I came out the other side a much better person because I went and did something about it. So there’s a possibility he might come out of this thing O.K. If he does, then maybe he’ll get through it, and maybe he’ll have a story to tell, and maybe he’ll be a positive force.”
Kramer’s recollections from that night are, not surprisingly, something other than vivid. A motel guest in a nearby room heard the gunshot and called 9-1-1. Police and paramedics found Kramer with “a non-life threatening gunshot wound” and airlifted him to a local hospital, where he was put in a medically induced coma. Once stabilized, Kramer spent the rest of the year at the Centre for Neuro Skills (CNS) in Encino, where he received treatment for his brain trauma and counseling for his depression. He then relocated to Las Vegas, where he lived with Kelley and was an outpatient with the Nevada Community Enrichment Program. “If you spend any time at these clinics,” he says, “It’s amazing to me what little I have to deal with compared to other people.”
At one point, Kramer received a DVD featuring two-dozen or so of his former Lions teammates appearing and offering good cheer. Kramer’s sister was intensively protective of letting people see Erik—not because of the potential embarrassment but because she didn’t want any interaction to interfere with his treatment. She made an exception for Hipple. “I fly out there, we see each other and what’s there to say?” says Hipple. “It was like ‘What’s up?’” Hipple cried again.
A small scar, almost imperceptible, dots the underside of Kramer’s chin. Until he recovers from the oral surgery he underwent last month to realign his jaw, he speaks in a slow, low rumble. Otherwise, it’s hard to discern the legacy of Aug. 18, 2015. Kramer looks younger than his 52 years, and while his body lost shape while he was in the hospitals, he’s now not far off his NFL playing weight of 204 pounds. He reports no real memory issues. He drives. When he passes the Good Nite Inn, which is often, he doesn’t think much of it.
And here’s both the happiest and strangest part of the story: Kramer says the darkness has lifted. The depression that would incapacitate him? The feeling that his self-worth had been totally eroded? “Really, since that night, after all this, I’ve not had one bad day. I haven’t been consumed with any negative thoughts or depression or anything.” He speaks quickly enough to preempt the obvious follow-up and volunteers that he’s as mystified as anyone. “I can’t tell you how lucky I feel,” says Kramer, who still avails himself of therapy but is not currently taking antidepressants. “The fact that there’s none of that cloud hanging over me has been just amazing.”
He’s back in a relationship with an old girlfriend. He relishes spending time with Dillon, a rising high school senior. He’s skiing, fishing and playing plenty of golf. He’s looking to revive what had once been a successful business offering private quarterback coaching. “It gives me a feeling like I’ve got, you know, some skin in the game, some part of me that is staying active in the current game. That makes me feel good, so. . . .”
Kramer and Hipple are back in their fraternal rhythms. Hipple will call and leave a voicemail. Kramer will text that he’s at the gym and eventually call back. Kramer will try to balance between trying to be independent without appearing ungrateful. Hipple tries to balance between being solicitous and being overbearing. He’s thrilled for his friend. He’s also aware that mental health is seldom this tidy and stories rarely break this clearly. With little provocation or predictability, the darkness can return.
Kramer knows this, too. “I think the hard stuff is over. I hope it is,” he says, before sighing contemplatively. “But if it’s not, if it comes back, then I will have to make some phone calls.” He’s recounting this from his home in Agoura Hills. He’s looking out a window and, on this day anyway, it’s a rectangle of blue, no clouds in the sky.