Epilepsy won’t daunt Minnesota coach Jerry Kill
Rebecca Kill got a haircut and new glasses the other day. Her husband noticed right away.
“What are you trying to do?” Jerry Kill asked. “Get a new man?”
His wife, quick as a halfback, quipped: “I’ve already got one. He’s standing right here.”
Jerry Kill is on a new blend of medications to control his epilepsy, and his wife thinks the University of Minnesota football coach is a man reborn. He stepped away from his 4-1 team after a game-day seizure — his fifth as Minnesota coach and second this season — kept him from coaching at Michigan on Oct. 5. He has been easing his way back since, coaching from a box on Saturdays while his longtime deputy, Tracy Claeys, works the sideline as acting coach.
Kill’s private agonies are public property. A seizure on the sidelines in 2011 at his first Minnesota home game happened in front of roughly 50,000 in the stadium, including his wife and two daughters, and many more on regional TV. A YouTube clip is approaching 100,000 views. Sometimes it seems like everyone has seen it except him.
“Don’t want to,” he tells USA TODAY Sports. “Just being honest. Can’t do it.”
Kill, 52, figures all of that misses the point anyway, which he figures is simply this. “All along the way,” he says, “we keep winning.”
The Golden Gophers are on a four-game Big Ten win streak, their longest since 1973, including a win against Nebraska for the first time since 1960. If Kill’s wife believes that she has a new man, fans of the Golden Gophers might be forgiven for thinking they have a new team.
No. 23 Minnesota is 8-2 and ranked for the first time since 2008. Saturday the Gophers hope to beat No. 17 Wisconsin (8-2) for the first time since 2003. Their season has seen a lot of for-the-first-time-since moments. They’ve even got a chance to play for their first Big Ten title since 1960, when they were co-champions with Iowa and eventual national champions. They can do it if they beat Wisconsin and No. 13 Michigan State (9-1) on Nov. 30 — if Michigan State loses Saturday to Northwestern.
The four-game win streak coincides with Kill’s absence — to “better manage his epilepsy,” according to a school statement — since the loss at Michigan.
There is no timetable for Kill’s return to the sideline. “Jerry is our coach,” athletics director Norwood Teague says by email. “I’m immensely proud of the way he’s building this program.”
Kill had never missed a complete game.
“We all love coach Kill and him being away could have been a big negative for us,” senior cornerback Brock Vereen says. “We turned it into inspiration and motivation.”
Much of the motivation is about trying not to let down Kill, who has taken the Gophers from 3-9 in 2011 and 6-6 before a bowl loss in 2012.
“I told the team if we don’t coach well and play well he’ll blame himself, and there’s no need for that,” Claeys says.
“He doesn’t want candlelight vigils and Kumbaya,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover says. “He doesn’t want us in the waiting room. He wants us working.”
Most of them have been working for Kill for a very long time. His coaching staff is the nation’s most tenured: Kill’s nine assistants plus his strength and conditioning coach have been with him for a combined 124 years. Kill thinks continuity is the secret to this season’s success.
“They don’t have to think about how I would do it,” he says. “They know.”
Claeys, the defensive coordinator, has served on Kill’s staffs since 1995 and Limegrover since 1999. Kill and his coaches are known as turnaround artists for taking failing programs and turning them into winners. That’s why Minnesota hired him.
His teams at Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and Minnesota were a combined 27-47 in his first two seasons at each — and 28-7 combined in his third seasons.
“I just tell my kids, do your best today,” Kill says. “Tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone, let alone someone in my situation. We’ll approach tomorrow when it gets here, and then we’ll do our best again.”
‘We’re not freaks’
The Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry dates to 1890 and is the oldest in major college football. Since 1948, they’ve played for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, a tall tale of a trophy. But Wisconsin is in no way enemy territory to Kill.
The summer before last he and his wife visited Camp Oz near Hudson, Wis., 30 miles east of Minneapolis, for children who suffer seizures. It is run by the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota.
“I told them, ‘I’m just like you and look where I’m at,’ ” Kill says. ” ‘You have worth and you can do things in life.’ ”
When Kill opened it up to questions, “This one boy, maybe 10 or so, said, ‘Coach, will I ever get a girlfriend?’ And I told him, ‘See that beautiful woman over there? She’s been my wife for 29 years. I didn’t do too bad.’ And that room just erupted and that kid smiled.
“It’s kind of a funny story but it’s also kind of sad because that was a serious question for him. Those are things that break your heart.”
Epilepsy, a neurological disorder where the brain’s circuitry can overload, is typically diagnosed after a second unexplained seizure. Kill had his first in 2000, while coaching Emporia State, and his second in 2005, while coaching Southern Illinois. That’s the one he figures saved his life. Doctors found stage-4 kidney cancer and removed part of one kidney.
Most fans are supportive, although one day last fall a fan mocked him by email and called him a freak. Another called him a flopper. Kill decided they were mocking other epileptics, too, like those kids at camp, so he says he decided to go public and own it. The Gophers beat Nebraska on his team’s second epilepsy awareness day.
“We’re not freaks,” he says. “We’re people like everybody else.”
Medication can control epilepsy but every patient is different. The right drug in the right dose can’t be drawn up on a chalkboard like an off-tackle play. His wife believes doctors have found the right blend for him this time. That’s why she calls him a new man.
“The last eight years I’ve been on a lot of different medications and certain ones can make you moody, so you got to find the right medication that controls it yet doesn’t change you,” Kill says. “I think maybe we found it now. When she said I was a new man I thought, ‘Man, I must have been messed up for the last eight years.’ ”
Kill concedes he didn’t always eat right and sleep enough over the years, although he always told his players to do that. Now he says he understands he has to do both to stay healthy and says he approaches his affliction in the same do-your-best-today fashion that he preaches.
“I told our kids, ‘I’m a living example of getting better every day,’ ” he says. “Like old Willie Nelson said in his song, one day at a time.”
Strength of the man
Kill says he has a goal of driving his Ford F-150 truck again in three months. He wouldn’t think of driving until cleared by doctors. “I couldn’t live with myself if I hurt somebody,” he says.
His wife, 50, is often his driver these days. She drove him to Northwestern for the game after the one he missed at Michigan, with a bye in between. Kill watched from a box and surprised his team by coming in at halftime. They were tied 7-7 and won 20-17.
“That was a special moment, the top moment I’ll leave the university with,” Vereen says. “To see him in high spirits still willing to support us two states over. It’s the reason we came out strong in the second half.”
Kill even coached a bit from the box that day. “Each game it gets to where he’s coaching more and more,” Claeys says.
Long drives with his wife have drawn them closer, Kill says, but he longs to get back behind the wheel for the freedom it represents. “Always appreciate the simple things,” he says, “like driving around and turning up the music.”
His wife’s brother Doug was Kill’s roommate at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan., near the Oklahoma border. One weekend when she was in high school Kill visited their house and announced at the dinner table, right in front of her boyfriend, that he’d marry her some day. Two years later, when Kill was 21 and she was 19, they did.
When Kill talks about his wife’s new specs he calls them rose-colored glasses. She thinks that’s a misnomer.
“Look,” she says, holding them up to a theater-style seat in his team’s meeting room, and sure enough they match Minnesota maroon. But on second thought she decides the notion of rose-colored is apt, in the sense that she prefers to see her husband’s affliction in the most optimistic light.
“I feel bad that he has these seizures,” she says. “They take so much out of him, like a train wreck on their bodies. It hurts for me that he has one on the sideline so publicly and people are saying so much and attacking him and I have to shut it out and believe in God. I believe that because of who he is … ”
And here she chokes up. “Hold on,” she says, removing her glasses, this time to dab at her tears. After a long moment she picks up where she left off.
“I believe because of who he is, and what he has to go through, we are helping so many people. It’s amazing how strong that man is. That gets me through it. We learned more about his epilepsy in the last month than we have in 10 years. We can control it. I hope someday that he is seizure-free. My faith has tripled in the last month. There are angels watching over us.”
She thinks one of them is her brother Don, who died a year ago this month after collapsing at a Minnesota game. When the Gophers beat Penn State 24-10 on Nov. 9, many of her family came to town for the first time since. “It was almost like he was with us,” she says.
Kill’s players call his wife Momma Kill. She bakes 250 cookies or brownies to distribute two-to-a-baggie before games for players and coaches. She signs a note on each bag, “I believe in you.”
Belief, she says, is what keeps her going.
“It has gotten a little easier for me,” she says. “There is a reason all of this is happening. This is God’s plan and if that’s helping other people then we will do what we have to do.”