It’s always easy to declare that so-and-so should retire. In sports, we do this often as the athletes we’ve admired for so long begin to show their wear, becoming a shadow of their former selves. It’s a ritual that is all too familiar, driven by the most powerful opponent to any exceptional talent, time.
In the instance of Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill, however, the bubbling talk of his retirement isn’t due to the passage of time, and it’s certainly not due to performance. The 52-year-old head coach suffers from epilepsy, and on Saturday he suffered his fourth seizure while on the job as Minnesota head coach.
It’s a horrendous situation for a man who is regarded as one of the nicest human beings on the sideline. And as the talk again surfaces around Kill’s future in the sport, there’s one important question worth asking: is this concern truly about what’s best for Jerry Kill, or does this boil down to our inability to come to terms with (and understand) his disorder?
More specifically, if Kill, his family, his coaches, his school and his doctors are comfortable with the situation—or as comfortable as one can be given the difficult circumstances—why aren’t we?
Kill’s latest seizure came at halftime during Saturday’s game against Western Illinois, according to the Associated Press, and the coach was taken away on a stretcher to a nearby hospital.
Senior associate athletic director Chris Werle provided a statement on the team’s website following the game, announcing that Kill was doing well.
"Coach Kill suffered a seizure at the end of the first half of today’s game against Western Illinois. He was attended to by medical personnel on the field and was then driven to a local hospital as a precaution to ensure proper medication levels. He is resting comfortably. Coach Kill’s staff, which is the most tenured in the nation, and his team are well acquainted with his condition and are prepared if a situation like this arises. Coach Kill’s epilepsy has been documented by both local and national media and our fans are aware that situations like this can happen."
On Monday, Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague met with the media, and he reiterated his support for the coach. “I have full faith that we can move forward with the program,” Teague said, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Kill has been has been dealing with epileptic seizures since 2000, and the incidents precede his days as the Gopher head coach. At Southern Illinois, he suffered a seizure on the sideline in 2005.
As it turns out, the seizure prompted the discovery that Kill had stage 4 kidney cancer. Perhaps, it might have even saved his life. Kill had surgery to remove the cancer, and it has not been an issue since.
The seizures, however, have become an issue. And the dreaded “Jerry Kill is down” updates that are first relayed through social media are both terrifying and gut-wrenching. Perhaps more discouraging is the fact that they seem to be happening more frequently, or at the very least, not subsiding.
As Kill has adjusted his medication and treatments in hopes to decrease the likelihoods of a seizure, however, his assistants have come to his defense.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover have worked alongside Kill for more than a decade, and each expressed their displeasure of this talk of retirement to the Minneapolis Star Tribune following Saturday.
Limegrover, in particular, was angry that such conversations were taking place.
“He has epilepsy, and he’s made that very clear, and he hasn’t run from it or hid from it. I think when people say that and write that, they’re basically saying, ‘Hey, it’s too bad. You people with epilepsy, don’t shoot for your dreams, don’t push and try and have goals because it makes me uncomfortable to see when something happens.’
“I mean, I’m shaking over here because I think it’s so ignorant.”
There is inherent risk in football, a risk that is often assumed (or forgotten) until a moment reminds us just how dangerous this all is. This, of course, falls on the players, who risk injury—or something much worse—on each snap.
It’s a risk we’ve grown numb to as fans. We accept it because we have no choice, and also because the players have made the decision for us. We love the game so much, that the dangers are often masked by our excitement.
The situation surrounding Jerry Kill, of course, is dramatically different. Like the players he coaches, however, he too has accepted this risk, the risk that he will collapse with no warning on the sideline in front of millions of onlookers, a terrifying burden that he has decided to bear.
In the process, he has brought knowledge and awareness to a disorder that impacts millions, something he is not given ample credit for. Instead, many are hoping he just fades away, out of sight and out of mind.
What does this solve?
If and when the burden becomes too much for Jerry Kill, and Jerry Kill alone, he should retire. If he believes it starts to impact his job (and performance) in a negative way—Minnesota is 3-0 for the second consecutive season, something that is worth noting—then he can decide to call it quits. If his doctors (or the university) believe the stress of coaching in a major football conference is simply too much, then he can talk with his family about the appropriate next steps.
Anyone assuming to believe they know what’s best for Kill is operating on their own personal intentions, one way or another. A complex situation warrants a complex response, and if Jerry Kill is willing and able to continue doing what he loves, then who are we to say otherwise?