Jan. 6, 2012, was the day Kirby Wilson almost died.
At 3 a.m., two days before his Pittsburgh Steelers were to visit the Denver Broncos for an AFC wild-card game, a grease fire broke out in the kitchen of Wilson’s suburban Pittsburgh condo as Wilson slept on a nearby couch. Awakened and disoriented because of the smoke, Wilson fought for his life, stumbling at first into the fire before finally making his way down a flight of stairs and out of the building as burnt flesh fell from his body.
Wilson, Steelers running backs coach at the time, was airlifted to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center with severe lung damage and second- and third-degree burns to nearly 50 percent of his body. Still awake as he was admitted, Wilson was immediately placed in a coma for several days.
After 45 days in intensive care, Wilson had to learn how to walk again.
Eight months later, he was back coaching in training camp. He would coach for the Steelers through the 2012 and ’13 seasons before deciding to take the same position with the Vikings in February.
Wilson, who joins the Vikings after coaching NFL running backs for five teams over 16 seasons, took some time last month for a Q&A session with the Star Tribune. Here are the highlights:
Q Did surviving the fire change you or give you, for lack of a better description, a new lease on life?
A No. I’ve always enjoyed life. I’ve always enjoyed what I do. I’ve always appreciated my life off the field and outside of football. So it just kind of reminded me that accidents happen. You fight through it and come back stronger than ever, mentally and physically, and then you move on with life. One day at a time. Enjoy them one day at a time. That’s what life is all about.
Q As it was happening, do you remember at any point thinking, ‘My life is going to end right here’?
A No. By the time I woke up, I didn’t know what had happened. So it was all, ‘Hey, let’s start over.’ Once you understand what happened, you just move on. ‘How can I fix this? How can I get better? How can I move on and get out of this predicament that I’m in? How can I get out of this hospital bed? How can I walk again, etc., etc.?’ I got through that process and you just overcome it. I’m no different than anybody else.
People like to make that story about me, but it wasn’t. It was all those wonderful, great doctors and nurses and staff members in that hospital and that community that helped me and my family. My sisters and brothers helped me fight and get back. My children helped me fight to get to where I am, too. So it’s about them, not about me. It’s about all those people and the sacrifices they made to help me.
Q You were a receiver and kick returner at Illinois in 1981-82 and a running back at Pasadena City College before that. Why did you play defensive back and punt returner during your two-year pro career in the CFL?
A I had never played DB before. Didn’t play it in high school, didn’t play it in college. Bill Polian — the Bill Polian — was the general manager of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. I was so bad as a receiver when I was trying out that he told me to switch over to defense and guard the other receivers. And I did a fair enough job that they liked what they saw and signed me. I ended up starting a bunch of games my rookie season.
Q What’s your career highlight as a coach?
A Being a part of championships. No question. Winning two Super Bowls in the two conferences. One in Tampa Bay [Super Bowl XXXVII] in the NFC and one in Pittsburgh [XLIII] in the AFC. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Q Finish this sentence: "In high school, I wanted to be …"
A "I wanted to be an NFL star."
Q And when that didn’t happen?
A It was no problem for me. I got older and adjusted my dreams and goals. I realized I wasn’t going to be an NFL star because I wasn’t good enough. I wanted to play professionally and get paid to prove I could do it. And I did that. But I was a realist.
Q Best player you ever coached and why?
A Wow. You can’t answer that in one player, but if you just go by record, you’d have to say Emmitt Smith [with the Cardinals in 2004, Smith’s last season] because he’s the all-time NFL leader in rushing.
Q Knowing that you weren’t good enough to be an NFL star, is it harder to coach an Emmitt Smith or an Adrian Peterson, guys who were or are superstars in the league?
A No. It isn’t. What you try to get them to see is you’re never going to ask one to do something that you didn’t ask the other. I’ve coached 95 different running backs in the National Football League. It’s all the same. It’s about the fundamentals, attention to details and the preparation.
Q Why leave Pittsburgh, one of the league’s elite franchises, for the same position in Minnesota?
A At some point, you’re always looking to explore and see what else is out there. It was just time for something different.
Q Describe your relationship with Norv Turner.
A I was his running backs coach with the Washington Redskins . It was an awesome experience. He’s a great people person. He’s obviously got a great background working with high-level offenses, so I think it’s going to be exciting.
Q It would seem that the only coaching a guy like Adrian would need is someone to hand him the ball and step aside. How do you coach an Adrian Peterson?
A I think you coach him the say way you coach Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees. The coaches and men who work with those players recognize that, No. 1, their talents, their greatness, their attention to details. You as a coach, you are their eyes. It’s about preparation. It’s about planning. It’s about relationships. … You try not to overcoach them. You prepare [Peterson], you teach and then you step back. You just kind of point him in the right direction.