Jerry Kill's Courageous Fight Inspired Far Beyond the Football Field

Greg CouchNational ColumnistOctober 30, 2015

Sep 26, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach Jerry Kill kneels down after the game against the Ohio Bobcats at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers won 27-24. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Jerry Kill's fight has been tougher than football and bigger than his personal battle with epilepsy, a fight we learned so much more about on Wednesday. His story has been about overcoming prejudice and ignorance, teaching about empathy. Maybe nothing is more important.      

His success as the football coach at the University of Minnesota was a symbol to people with epilepsy and also an example to the rest of us who—admit it—really don't know much about it. Two years ago, people were calling for him to resign because of their fear of the unknown and the image of Kill on the ground during a game, head and arms jerking around during one of his seizures.

He brought it into our living rooms, and then stood tall for the fight, proving that he could. But on Wednesday, Kill resigned, saying his health issues were not under the control anymore that he thought they were.

"This is not the way I wanted to go out," Kill said at a press conference. "But you all know about the struggles, and I did my best to change. But some of those struggles have returned, and I don't want to cheat the game…I went through a bad situation two years ago, and I'm headed right back there."

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In the end, the epilepsy won. This isn't a Disney story where Kill overcomes health issues and prejudice about them and then leads Minnesota to a national championship, teaching the world. It's cold reality. And if Kill was a symbol in his success, then what is he now?

"The news struck me right away with the same question," said Brett Boyum, a marketing executive who volunteers as president of the board of the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota and works closely with Kill. Boyum and his son Travis, who turned 18 Wednesday, both have epilepsy. "How are people going to sense this?

"The way I would explain it is that this is the realism of epilepsy coming through and the frustration we all have. We can all say we're going to fight, that we're not going to let it get in the way of our dreams. In certain cases, epilepsy is not able to be controlled by medication and it does force you to alter [things]."

Will people view Kill's retirement as defeat, or see it as evidence of what some people can't do? Because that's not what this is. Not every victory has to have a happy ending. Kill overcame the prejudice two years ago, when he was having seizures during games and people wanted him out. There are such unknowns about epilepsy, other than the seizures, and people push away from unknowns.

Kill went on in 2014 to be the Big Ten Coach of the Year, after his team reached the Citrus Bowl.

Paul Beaty/Associated Press

On Wednesday, he sat in front of cameras and microphones and gave a deeper look into the fight. It was not about feeling sorry for him or even asking for understanding about why it was time to deal solely with his health.

It was just about teaching, giving an understanding. Kill, who's 54, said he has sensed his health deteriorating as the season has worn on. The medications he took affected his ability to focus long-term, but the team needed his full attention. He had two seizures on Tuesday, he said, but he went back to practice that afternoon anyway. When he left the field, he said, he knew it was time.

He was out of energy. He said he felt "like a part of me died."

"I knew our team needed some help," he said. "I tried some stuff I had to do. I took my own self off [medication] because I couldn't think the way I wanted to think. As my doctor says, 'You're crazy for not taking stuff before a game.' I said, 'I love this game, and I don't want to let our university down.'

"Two nights ago, my wife (Rebecca) was up with me all night, and I slept one hour and came back to work. The most sleep I've gotten over the last three weeks is probably three hours or less. She stays there and sits in a chair and watches me. That's what she did last night. Hell, that ain't no way to live."

In 2013, Kill suffered a seizure during a game for the fourth time in two years. He was rushed to the hospital at halftime while his assistants took over. The team won. From there, there was talk about whether Kill should retire. He told ESPN's Rick Reilly that he'd suffered 20 seizures in the past two years. There were columns in local papers and national websites calling for Kill to leave.

But it was clear that a reasonable accommodation was all that was necessary: Kill's team was fully aware that he might have seizures, and everyone was prepared for it and knew exactly what to do when it happened.

At the time, Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague announced that he supported Kill, but first he waited a day to gauge public opinion.

By then, it seemed like an attack on Kill. And the local epilepsy foundation, in a matter of three days, organized a Jerry Kill Day at the next Minnesota game, which Kill coached. About 2,000 people showed up before the game, many wearing shirts that said "JERRYSOTA," and walked onto the field. The university provided tickets.

Nati Harnik/Associated Press

Vicki Kopplin, executive director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota, said Kill's fight drew more attention to epilepsy than anything else in her years with the organization. His retirement, she said, doesn't conflict with the message his success sent. It shows that someone with epilepsy can succeed at the highest level—but always will have a very real fight.

Nearly 3 million Americans suffer from epilepsy, she said. Doctors don't fully know the cause for the seizures and aren't fully able to control them. Kopplin and Boyum said there is even debate over whether it's technically a disease.

Kill is very much hands-on with the organization, going to camps for kids, getting them tickets to Minnesota games, introducing them to his team. Those were teaching moments for the players, too. When the Minnesota Twins asked Kill to throw out an opening pitch, he agreed, then had Boyum's son do it while he stood nearby.

"It's amazing his ability to connect with people and understand each individual situation," Boyum said. "He never put himself on a pedestal. It was always about, 'We're all in this together.' "

It didn't end the way Kill wanted, but no one made him go. He chose when it was time. It's not happily ever after, but he sent the message. He proved the point.


Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report.