KRAMER PROVES METTLE: BRASSHE PERSEVERES TO GET QB JOB

“Which one’s Kramer?”

— Out-of-town journalist in Lions’ locker room this week Is it safe to call 1993 the Year We Appreciated Quarterbacks? After all, Joe Montana went to Kansas City, and now the Chiefs have real Super Bowl chances. Randall Cunningham went kerplunk, and so did the Eagles’ playoff hopes. The thud from Miami was the end of this year’s Dolphins — and it coincided with the thud of Dan Marino. And down in Texas, Warren Moon and Troy Aikman are the two big reasons folks are loudly predicting a Lone Star Super Sunday.

So if now, more than ever before, we appreciate the men who take the snaps, how do we truly appreciate Erik Kramer? Give him a Perseverance of the Decade Award? Or simply shake our heads and laugh? For here is a guy who has gone from unemployed, making calls to NFL teams — sitting in his home, phone to his ear, saying, “I’d like a tryout” — to leading the Lions to the playoffs for the second time in the last three years.

“I don’t want people to think I’m from some rinky-dink background,” Kramer groans when you ask about his past. But thinking that would be unfair. It is true, Kramer, 29, has played in a California junior college and in the Potato Bowl; he has been cut, ignored, overlooked, and left to obscurity in Canada; he has also been signed by NFL teams, played in an NFC championship, been lusted after by the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys, and was once selected
— get this — to the All-Madden team. His Detroit teammates gave him the nickname “Brass.”

You figure it out.

“I haven’t had the ordinary career path,” he admits.

And if his journey hasn’t been weird enough, well, just look at the guy. Floppy hair. Huck Finn smirk. And he never seems to blink. He has this wide-eyed, spacey look, as if lowering his lids, even for a second, risks someone taking all of this away.

“I read a quote from (Bears receiver) Tom Waddle the other day, and he said he felt like he was always ‘a hangnail away’ from being out of the league.

“I can relate to that. I never felt like I was good enough to say, ‘OK, I made it to the NFL, now I can lead the party life.’ I still feel like Waddle does.”

A hangnail away from departure? Even now?

“Oh, yeah,” he says.

And this is the starter talking.

But not just any starter. You look at Kramer, with his average athletic build, his 6-foot-1 height, his dry wit, his recent French artisan haircut, and you figure he must be in the NFL to keep things in perspective.

For example: This weekend’s other playoff quarterbacks are all first-stringers; Kramer was third string when the season began.

The others are mostly under contract for several years; Kramer is free to go as soon as this season ends.

The other quarterbacks entered the league via the NFL draft; Kramer entered with one of those tags: “Hello, my name is . . . “

“I wasn’t drafted (out of N.C. State) and I was cut by the team I tried out for (New Orleans). That was the lowest point. It was the first time anyone had told me I wasn’t good enough. It hurt. I went home.”

What did you do?

“I entered my depression stage.”

People told him to give up football. Get a real job. He considered becoming a physical therapist or even a coach. And — who knows? — he might have done it. But then the NFL strike happened. It was the first of a series of coincidental happenings, what Kramer calls “one door shutting, another opening.”

He joined the Atlanta Falcons and played well in the replacement games. And after the strike ended, he was the only replacement player they kept. Although he would soon be out of the NFL again, he celebrated that moment — making an NFL roster — by driving home in his 1970 yellow Volkswagen beetle, with the backseat floor rusted out.

“I didn’t exactly make any major purchases,” he says.

Still, having made it once had convinced him he was in the right business. Even if he sometimes ended up in the wrong place.

Like Canada.

Where he went next.

He doesn’t talk a lot about the Canada years. But then what is there to say about colorful money, Calgary, wide fields, a knee injury and five productive games, which pretty much sums up his two seasons there?

When he came back to the states, Kramer hit the phones, asking NFL teams for tryouts. Some told him, politely, to forget it. But he was only looking for one yes. He kept dialing.

Stop for a minute. Think about this. The NFL, with all its hype and glory
— and quarterback, the biggest star position of them all. Don’t teams use No. 1 draft picks for quarterbacks? And here’s a guy making phone calls, trying to convince front- office types that he belongs.

Maybe now you understand why they call him “Brass.”

Or maybe not. Kramer takes a philosophical view of what he did for love:
“I’m more passionate about football than anything else in life. It’s like an artist or musician. If that’s their passion, then just because they can’t make a living at it doesn’t mean they have to give it up. . . .

“I’ve lived football since I was 7 years old and a kid in California. I used to love watching the ‘NFL Today,’ when Brent Musburger would say, ‘You are looking live at Soldier Field.’ . . . When I was home by myself, I’d put on music and go in slow motion, catch the ball, get hit by the couch, flip over, score a make-believe touchdown.”

Remember that old poem about what happens to a dream deferred? “Does it dry up sweet like a raisin in the sun, or fester like a sore, and run?”

Or does someone say, “OK, kid, come on and try out.”

Erik Kramer became a Lion.

The more recent stuff you know — the backup role, the 1991 playoffs, the benching in favor of Rodney Peete and Andre Ware — besides, the quarterback situation with this team is worth going into only if you have insomnia. Suffice it to say that since Kramer took over — again — this season, the Lions have been a ship that seems at least to have a compass and a course.

And week by week, Kramer becomes more of the story.

“You know what he’s like?” wide receiver Brett Perriman asks. “He’s like that kid in school, when it’s three o’clock, and you just want to go home, but he has one more question to ask the teacher?

“He does that all the time. He keeps asking the coaches questions in meetings, making suggestions. Other guys are like, ‘Let’s go!’ and he’s still talking.”

Well, he said he was passionate.

And realistic. Kramer had as close to a life-changing experience as he wants last summer, when his newborn son, Griffen, developed a staph infection of the umbilical cord, which ate away the tissue under his skin. Griffen was hospitalized for weeks, and Kramer remembers seeing him once in an incubator, disfigured from the illness, with tubes stuck in his neck, hands and feet. The father’s heart sank.

Kramer had described Griffen’s birth as “the happiest day of my life.” This, then, was the saddest.

From that point on, everything in between, he could handle.

So you understand why, during the ensuing quarterback mess, Kramer either shrugged, smirked or kept quiet. And you also understand why, after fighting this illness that could easily have killed him — “He was hour-to-hour at one point” — young Griffen managed to endure, overcome, and was seen last week after the Lions’ victory over the Packers, bouncing on Daddy’s lap, looking as happy as the hulking players who surrounded him.

Perseverance is obviously an inherited trait in the Kramer family.

It is serving both father and son well.

There is no story quite like Erik Kramer in this playoff weekend. He has followed the bluebird of his childhood dream, seen it beaten, smacked, sent north, sent south, but never fall out of the sky. You ask how you can rightly appreciate him Saturday in this, the Year of the Quarterback.

Just watch, I guess.

Maybe do a flip over the couch a few times.

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