Depression almost ended the life of ex-NFL QB Erik Kramer. A sham marriage and alleged theft threatened to break him again.

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
·17 min read
(Paul Rosales/Yahoo Sports)
(Paul Rosales/Yahoo Sports)

Erik Kramer sat on the edge of a Southern California motel room bed, pressed a pistol under his jaw and pulled the trigger.

“I thought that would be the end,” Kramer said. “That was the day I tried to execute myself.”

It didn’t work.

Instead, the former NFL quarterback for the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions was left with a severe bi-frontal lobe injury. He was alive though. That was five years ago, Aug. 18, 2015.

Kramer has no recollection, but was later told that despite the gunshot, he was able to answer the telephone when a friend, whom he had texted prior to the act, frantically dialed the room. The local sheriff’s department had already been called and moments later were banging on Kramer’s door. He managed to get up and open it.

Later, he improbably walked to the ambulance, which whisked him away to a hospital that would save him. He knows he is lucky to live.

“The worst decision of my life,” Kramer, now 55, told Yahoo Sports of his suicide attempt.

Lengthy rehab – neurological and psychological – has allowed him to return what he now calls “pretty much like a normal life.”

This should be a feel-good anniversary story about a former NFL star from the 1990s reclaiming his mental, emotional and physical health to make the most of a second chance. Instead, Kramer said, his long, slow recovery has been a recurring nightmare of deceit, duplicity and depravity. It is, he says, the story of a man who, due to diminished mental capabilities, was easily conned by an ex-girlfriend who claimed to have been helping him.

It includes drained bank accounts, a sham marriage that he wasn’t mentally capable of agreeing to, and the cruel clutches of conservatorships, which is supposed to protect a compromised individual such as Kramer, but in this case further victimized him. It plays to a backdrop of a California probate system that rather than protect, led him to a parade of lawyers that Kramer says failed him legally and exploited him financially.

It ended with an accusation of domestic violence that created national headlines when it was first alleged, but not when the charges were dropped and that same ex-girlfriend was charged with a dozen felonies.

It took years to wake up from and hundreds of thousands of dollars to escape from.

“I survived, only to be stolen from,” Kramer said.

Now comes the hard part: Can Erik Kramer get his reputation back?

TAMPA BAY, FL - NOVEMBER 10, 1991:  Barry Sanders #20 of the Detroit Lions looks to take the hand off from quarterback Erik Kramer #12 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers November 10, 1991 during an NFL football game at Tampa Stadium in Tampa Bay, Florida. The Buccaneers won 30 - 21. Sanders played for the Lions from 1989-98.(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Former NFL QB Erik Kramer, pictured here as a Detroit Lion in 1991 handing off to Barry Sanders against Tampa Bay, played 10 seasons in the league. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Death of a son and mother helped create wave of depression

“The current me in 2020, is not the me of 2015,” Kramer said, trying to explain the thought process that led to the suicide attempt. It’s hard for him to even fathom it now, he says. Explaining it seems empty because, “I don’t really have an association with that anymore. I have very little remembrance.”

Still, he tries.

His playing career, which saw him rise from the high school and junior college fields of California to North Carolina State to the Canadian Football League to eventually becoming a quality NFL starter, was over.

His nickname was “Brass” for his daring style of play. He led Detroit to its only playoff victory since 1957. In Chicago he got a big contract and was a popular starter across four seasons. He threw 92 touchdowns in his career.

Now he was done, dealing with the typical challenges of a former player. His marriage ended in divorce, the thrill of competing was gone and there were two neck injuries that lingered.

Kramer had money from his playing days and a couple of businesses to invest in and oversee. He was back living near his boyhood home in the San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles. He had his two sons.

Then in 2011, his oldest, Griffen, who battled addiction, died at age 18 of a heroin overdose while attending a high school party in Thousand Oaks.

“Losing Griffen was the biggest shock to my system that I ever encountered,” Kramer said. “It’s the only dead body I’ve ever seen.”

As he tried to grieve, his mother fell sick with cancer and was gone within a year. Then his father got it too. Terminal, the doctors said. Nothing seemed right.

“I guess for a while, I had been going through a severe bout of depression,” Kramer said. “Even though I was fairly young [50] I thought the better parts of my life were done, both professionally and personally.

“I was wrong,” Kramer says now. “My thoughts were clearly out of whack. My father was still here. [My younger son] Dillon was still here. And what I personally put [Dillon] through by doing this, I can’t even imagine.”

It seems obvious now. It wasn’t then, as he meticulously planned out his death. He had updated his will. He had rented a room at the Good Night Inn in Calabasas, California, because he didn’t want to die at home and risk Dillon finding him. That night he dined alone at a local restaurant, “a Biblical last supper,” Kramer called it. He even texted a few old friends to tell him where he was and what he was about to do.

After the suicide attempt, a support system rallied around him. Family, friends, his ex-wife, old teammates, old coaches, old everything from a life in football.

It included a former girlfriend, Cortney Baird.

The ex-girlfriend and a drained bank account

Recovery required a medical induced coma. It was followed by months in hospitals and rehab centers in California and Nevada. Kramer needed a lot of help as he healed. There were multiple setbacks and scares.

He had dated Baird off and on from 2011-2014. She reconnected with Kramer in February of 2016, about six months after the suicide attempt. Kramer was unaware, at the time, that two months prior Baird had been charged in Ventura County, California, with two counts related to “obtaining a controlled substance via fraud,” according to court records. Baird eventually pleaded to a single misdemeanor and the case was later dismissed following a payment of restitution.

In the spring of 2016, she drove him back from Las Vegas, where Kramer had been a patient at a neurological therapy center. She ran errands and took him to the doctors. Soon she, along with her daughter, moved into his California home.

“I think she saw an easy target,” Kramer said.

Baird, 47, did not respond to interview requests. Her attorney declined comment on her behalf concerning any part of this story.

Kramer’s condition was a curious one. He could look and sound normal. He was capable of driving a car, hitting a golf ball and having conversations. Yet the part of the brain that handled complex decision-making and risk-aversion lagged behind. He could often do the easy stuff. He couldn’t comprehend or even recognize the hard.

In his state, Kramer made few decisions and almost no purchases. The first unauthorized withdrawal on his Wells Fargo ATM card came April 20, 2016, according to a police report. It was for $55 at a pharmacy. Seems reasonable. By May, Starbucks. Still not a big deal. Soon it was though.

Among his other investments, Kramer had about $4 million in a trust fund that would transfer money on a monthly basis to his checking account. That would automatically pay basic expenses – mortgage, car, etc. It also provided a small amount of spending money he could access with the ATM card, according to an incident report filed with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.

Even before the attempted suicide Kramer was known to be frugal. He lived simply.

Now, however, the checking account was spinning. A charge here. A charge there. At times near daily cash withdrawals of $300 to $500, according to the incident report. An account that had some $14,000 in it at the time of Kramer’s suicide attempt would soon be overdrawn by more than $6,000.

There was more. After Griffen’s death, a small memorial fund was set up to handle donations from well-wishers. It reached $9,984, and sat untouched for years.

It got active starting on June 29, 2016, according to the incident report, with online transfers sending money to Kramer’s regular checking account, which in turn was spent via the ATM card. Kramer said he knew nothing about any of it. By the end of September, the memorial account was overdrawn by $6.24, according to bank records.

Starting Aug. 26, about the time the memorial fund was getting low, a series of cash advancements were made using Kramer’s Wells Fargo credit card, according to the incident report. The total: $13,200. This despite Kramer never previously making cash advancements – he traditionally paid his credit card bill each month, per the incident report.

Kramer said at the time he was unaware of any of the transactions. He alleges Baird spent the money on everything from big stuff to small – her health insurance, a gym membership, the rental of a storage unit, her daughter’s soccer team fees.

A friend of Kramer’s from high school, Anna Dergan, had become suspicious during her visits to Kramer’s house.

“Amazon boxes kept appearing at the front door,” Dergan said. “Erik buys nothing.”

There was more. Kramer was supposed to use his ATM card for little more than gas and food. However, one day, the card was declined due to insufficient funds. Kramer, incapable of understanding it, did nothing. He instead began using a credit card for basic purchases.

“There is no way he should have been overdrawn,” Dergan said.

Dergan and Kramer had been friends for decades, including Kramer serving as godfather to Dergan’s daughter. Suspicious of what was happening, Dergan soon pored through his bank records and discovered the spending. The total: $46,293.83.

Dergan took what she had to the sheriff department. Later, according to an incident report, detective David Lingscheit interviewed Kramer, who said he hadn’t authorized the transactions. Lingscheit wrote that despite being shown nearly $50,000 stolen from his account, “Kramer displayed no emotions.”

“I had no idea this was theft,” Kramer said. “Even as it was laid out in front of me, I couldn’t even see the theft.”

As Lingscheit wrote in his report, “it appears Kramer lacks the capacity to make financial decisions based on his own cognitive abilities and thus meets the requirements of a dependent adult.”

Everyone seemed to agree. The question was what they could do about it.

4 Oct 1998: Quarterback Erik Kramer #12 of the Chicago Bears talks to reporters following a game against the Detroit Lions at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the Lions 31-27.
Erik Kramer, pictured in 1998 as Chicago's starting QB, says a Bears alumni golf outing was when he realized that his marriage 16 months after a suicide attempt was a sham. (AP Photo)

‘It was basically like marrying a 4-year-old’

The Santa Barbara County Courthouse sits on a full block of downtown Santa Barbara, its white facade and red tile roof is a can’t-miss testament to Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. It’s registered as a National Historic Landmark.

It looks like a nice place for a simple wedding ceremony.

On Dec. 22, 2016, just after 10 a.m., such an event was held. This one featured a groom, Erik Kramer, who says he has no recollection of even being asked to get married, let alone agreeing to it.

The bride? None other than Cortney Baird, who 10 days prior had reserved the time, according to emails to and from the court.

“Congratulations on your decision to marry,” said an email from the county clerk to Baird.

That “decision” was one-sided, Kramer said. He doesn’t deny he went along with the ceremony, which didn’t include any family or friends. He even figures he knew he was there to get married, but not really what that entailed. Kramer told none of his family until his son Dillon visited on Christmas, three days later, and noticed a ring on his father's finger. "Oh," Kramer said, "I got married."

“It was basically like marrying a 4-year-old,” Kramer said.

Sixteen months after his head injuries, he couldn’t process it.

“Erik needed time to have his brain heal,” Dergan said. “The doctors had said it would take 2-3 years. He didn’t understand anything. At that time, Erik would do or go wherever you told him. There was never any resistance. It was just, ‘OK, I’ll go.’”

At the time of the wedding, Baird was under criminal investigation by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department for the alleged thefts.

Moreover, Kramer was on the verge of handing over conservatorship to his sister, Kelley, who would then have the power of not just Kramer’s finances and medical treatment, but the ability to throw Baird out of the house.

Once the marriage went through, the situation became muddied. That included detectives, who backed off.

“The day we got married the criminal investigation was over,” Kramer said.

It was indicative of a system completely failing Kramer over the next few years. A person in need of protection instead received a run through a legal process where the only thing that seemed to happen were billable hours and additional strains on the bank account.

During a 2017 hearing in L.A. County Superior Court, Baird acknowledged her unauthorized spending. However she claimed it was to cover living expenses since she had quit her job to care for Kramer.

“I admit to my wrong that I did before,” Baird stated according to court transcripts. “... And I will do whatever the court sees fit to show that I am no longer a threat to him. I never was. I didn’t intend to be.”

Even after that, Baird and Kramer remained together.

“This was a [expletive]-up by everyone who had a professional obligation,” Dergan said.

Bad lawyers, questionable decisions and hundreds of thousands in legal fees left things spinning in circles. Every hearing cost seemingly $7,000 or $8,000 more. Kramer ran through three different attorneys, some of whom the family believe acted against his best interests so they could charge him more.

Dergan says too many people – from private attorneys to public prosecutors – saw him as a wealthy former NFL QB who put himself in a bad spot. He wasn’t a victim, but someone who could be ignored or even exploited. She says everyone minimized the theft against Kramer because he still had millions.

“Theft is theft, though,” Dergan said. “He was stolen from. Then the system isolated Eric from his friends and family. It did the exact opposite of what it was supposed to do, which was protect him.”

Along the way, more and more money was lost. Kramer said he knew things were happening, but couldn’t always process it. He likens it to a walking coma.

Slowly though, Kramer’s brain healed.

Erik Kramer (R), pictured at a game involving his alma mater, N.C. State, says, “I am walking through the wreckage and rubble of my life. But at least I feel normal walking through it.” (Special to Yahoo Sports)
Erik Kramer (R), pictured at a game involving his alma mater, N.C. State, says, “I am walking through the wreckage and rubble of my life. But at least I feel normal walking through it.” (Special to Yahoo Sports)

A humiliating arrest followed by dropped charges

In spring of 2018, Kramer said he put an offer in to buy a house only to learn that he wasn’t legally allowed to make such decisions. “A flickering light bulb went off in my head,” he said. “I was conserved. But it was because of Cortney.”

A few weeks later, in June of 2018, he attended a Chicago Bears alumni golf outing in Illinois. While there he realized he’d never wanted to be married to Baird. Upon returning to California, he told Baird that the marriage was over and she needed to move out.

The next morning he said he was on his back patio reading the newspaper and having coffee. He expected Baird to leave. Instead, he said, she protested his decision. The two had words. He acknowledges grabbing her by the arm, he says lightly, but that’s all.

Baird promptly called the police alleging domestic abuse. Kramer vehemently disputes there was ever any physical violence and cites the timing of the allegation, just as he was about to assert his freedom, as proof. It didn’t matter. Police arrived and he was hauled away, still only slightly aware of what was happening around him.

“I didn’t know how much I didn’t know,” Kramer said. “I’m sitting in the cop car, handcuffed, not realizing how my life is about to be turned upside down. I had no idea why I was in a police car because no domestic violence occurred.”

Within hours the news was splashed on websites and television broadcasts across the country.

“Nationwide news,” he said.

It was humiliating. It did accomplish something – it separated him from Baird. He could finally begin to fight for his freedom. His friends and family sprung to action.

Seven months later, on Jan. 28, 2019, a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles nullified the marriage. Kramer said that alone cost him $125,000 in legal fees.

Then, in February 2020, thanks to relentless pushing by Kramer and his allies, Baird was arrested and charged with 12 felonies. It included counts of elder abuse, identity theft and forgery, each count of which can carry a penalty of three years in prison. Baird’s attorney declined comment on the charges. She has pleaded not guilty to all counts. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Sept. 30.

The day after Baird was booked, Los Angeles County dropped the domestic violence charges against Kramer.

“That news got printed nowhere,” Dergan said. “Literally nowhere.”

Kramer presses for justice, return to a normal life

Kramer isn’t satisfied. He wants Baird to stand trial, rather than reach a plea. That would allow him to prove he was innocent of the domestic assault charges, not merely that they were dropped. Until then, he believes, the negative publicity is standing in the way of coaching youth football or perhaps assisting a local high school team.

The entire ordeal, from the missing money to the legal fees fighting a trick marriage and the conservatorship system, cost him some $600,000. While he is far from broke, that shouldn’t matter, he said.

He also wants his story to serve as a warning for all former NFL players and the NFLPA itself. While his injuries came from a suicide attempt, his impairment is not uncommon in football. Former players with diminished mental capacity and large bank accounts are easy targets and the court system designed to help, can make everything worse.

Mostly though, he wants to get on with his life.

On the fifth anniversary of his worst decision, he is trying to make the best of things, thankful that he no longer suffers from the injuries of that day or the depression that preceded it.

It cost him half a decade. The future, though, is here now.

“I am walking through the wreckage and rubble of my life,” Kramer said. “But at least I feel normal walking through it.”

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

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