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Head Case 

Experts say ex-football players with head injuries often end up in the criminal justice system. Former USC lineman Chris Brymer is exhibit A.

Wednesday, Sep 29 2010
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Brymer played his last college season in 1997. The storied Trojans weren't at their best during his time at USC, but he played alongside some who went on to enjoy success and fame, including wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson. After college, Brymer drifted among the practice squads on a few NFL teams, getting only a single active-roster game, with the Dallas Cowboys.

In 1999 he began playing with the Rhein Fire, an NFL Europe team based in Dusseldorf, Germany. The team gave up the fewest sacks in the league during his second season. Former Rhein Fire offensive guard Craig Heimburger attributes that success to Brymer, who was now playing center, where he snapped the ball to the quarterback and directed adjustments to his fellow linemen's blocking formations. "A lot of [the offensive line's success] had to do with Chris," Heimburger says. "The center's really the one with the brains."

Heimburger and his wife were incredulous after reading accounts of Brymer's recent arrest in online newspaper articles, such as a San Francisco Examiner story that tagged him a "race-baiting drifter." The allegation didn't fit the Brymer he and others knew. While Brymer came from an inland California town that was mostly white, his roommates in college were black, and he liked to spend time off the field with black Rhein Fire players.

"He was usually the only white guy sitting and playing cards with our teammates," Heimburger says. Leonard Green, a former USC tailback, was likewise shocked at the allegations against his former teammate. "I can tell you right now that the guy has no racist bone in his body," he says. "I'm an African-American. We were the best of friends."

After NFL Europe, Brymer played for a year in the XFL, a short-lived pro-football sideshow with rules tweaked to enhance the sport's violent appeal. He then moved to San Juan Capistrano with Melissa and got into Orange County's then-booming mortgage business, founding a company called CMG Capital.

George Felactu, a former USC fullback who obtained his mortgage through Brymer, remembers his having a knack for home finance. "He wasn't the best student, but when I asked him about rates, it was like a Harvard MBA," he says.

According to Melissa, the Brymers owned two homes and an office condominium. Chris drove a Range Rover.

All of it was about to fall apart.

Most of Brymer's friends and teammates didn't know it, but something strange had been happening to him. It started when he was still playing pro ball, Melissa says. He began having trouble sleeping, often accompanied by irrational bouts of anger and paranoia that would fade as quickly as they arrived.

"He was accusing me of sleeping with [former Cowboys quarterback] Troy Aikman and random people," she remembers. "He would wake up in the middle of the night, tear the blankets off me, turn all the lights on, and say he knew I was lying there awake. And then the next day it would be fine." She pauses. "For me, it was like I was being mentally tortured for a long time."

In Orange County, Brymer began acting erratically — partying a lot, staying out all night. Then things got weirder. He would sit around the house instead of going to work, writing on notepads about delusions that he could control the weather, talk to birds, and teleport himself. Faced with questions from his wife, Brymer, thinking he could communicate telepathically, would respond, "You already know the answer to that," accusing Melissa of playing dumb. "He started saying he was God and stopped working," she says. "He would write down all his demands — 'God is going to deliver me $5 billion by 10 p.m. Eastern time.' He would just sit there in his office, watching the birds."

CMG Capital collapsed as Brymer lost the desire or ability to oversee the business. The Brymers lost both their homes. He took to walking the streets, setting out from San Juan Capistrano and wandering as far as downtown L.A., 60 miles across freeways and through suburbs. "I have witnessed him walking down the 5 freeway at one in the morning trying to part the cars," former neighbor and family friend Gina Milia says.

Brymer himself, in halting fashion, acknowledges that something about his mind has changed. "I had a really strange thing happen to my head," he says during one of several interviews with SF Weekly from the county jail on the sixth floor of 850 Bryant. "I felt like I sustained an injury, and nothing had happened. The best way to describe it is I had a problem in communicating and comprehending things."

He has no illusions about how far he has fallen. "Obviously, there's a tag that goes along with having a shopping cart and pushing it down the street with recycling. I had a hundred thousand dollars three years ago," he says. "I never thought it would happen. A lot of time I just walk around thinking to myself, 'This blows.'"

Early this year, Brymer traveled to San Francisco. He was hoping for a new start, but found himself living and sleeping on the streets again. It didn't take long for things to go from bad to worse.


Late in the afternoon on July 19, Brymer, who had begun spending his nights along the empty shores of San Francisco Bay east of the Dogpatch neighborhood, made his way to a soup kitchen at Mission Rock and Third Street for an early dinner. Here's how he recalls what happened that day: While waiting in line for food, he was accosted by another of the facility's patrons, who began cursing at him.

The two left the kitchen at roughly the same time. Once outside, the man began talking to a friend, who was 6-foot-11 and 310 pounds — even bigger than Brymer. The friend approached Brymer as he stood on the Muni T-line platform at Mission Rock and pulled out a 6-inch blade.

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Peter Jamison

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