Editorial: In Jerry Kill's battle, life lessons emerge

  • Article by: EDITORIAL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2012 - 9:30 PM

Gophers football coach is helping demystify epilepsy.

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Gophers football coach Jerry Kill missed the second half against Michigan State because of a seizure.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Vicki Kopplin had been trying to meet with Gophers football coach Jerry Kill for several months.

Given Kill's public profile and his struggles with seizures, Kopplin, the executive director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota, thought he might be able to help the organization with its outreach programs. The call finally came in late 2011. She could have 10 minutes at 7 a.m. -- in February.

The get-to-know-you conversation in the coach's office lasted 45 minutes. When it ended, Kill could have shown Kopplin the door and moved on with his 24/7 job rebuilding the Gophers football program. But instead of a brush-off, Kill asked Kopplin one last question: What can I do to help?

Within minutes, Kill had agreed to speak at the foundation's May gala, where he talked publicly about his struggles for the first time, and he accepted Kopplin's invite to appear at a summer camp for kids who suffer from seizures.

Kill and his wife, Rebecca, have worked closely with Kopplin and the foundation ever since that early morning meeting, most recently in planning the Go-Pher Epilepsy Awareness Day held during the Minnesota-Michigan game Nov. 3.

Kopplin is grateful that Kill was willing to tell his story.

"In the 12 years I've been here, Coach Kill's situation has given us more opportunity to have a conversation and to educate people about epilepsy than anything else," she told an editorial writer last week.

Keep that in mind as you read the first sentence of the mission statement of Kill's employer:

"The University of Minnesota, founded in the belief that all people are enriched by understanding, is dedicated to the advancement of learning and the search for truth; to the sharing of this knowledge through education for a diverse community; and to the application of this knowledge to benefit the people of the state, the nation, and the world."

Admittedly, Jerry Kill isn't paid for community service, and his work with the foundation likely won't matter the next time he discusses his contract with Athletic Director Norwood Teague. It does, however, tell us a lot about the veteran coach's character. With strength and resilience, Kill exemplifies how to live life fully and bravely in the face of adversity.

Kill has a difficult job, and his health issues have only made it more challenging. At some point he and his family may decide that the stressful work of Division I coaching is compromising his long-term health, or that his condition has become too great a burden for the football program. No one should rush to that judgment, however, and it's encouraging to hear that Teague and U President Eric Kaler are focused on the larger picture.

As a former University of Minnesota athletic director, Mark Dienhart knows firsthand how difficult it is to build a winning football program in the Big Ten. He's also encouraged by the progress made to date by Kill and his staff.

Dienhart, now the executive vice president and chief administrative officer at the University of St. Thomas, doesn't minimize the seriousness of Kill's struggles with epilepsy. But he hopes that the U -- and its fans -- will continue to focus on the results, which this year include a 6-6 regular-season record and the program's first bowl game since 2009.

As for Kill's health, Dienhart said Minnesotans tend to be thoughtful about such issues. "I think there are people in the state who admire what he has overcome," he said.

Kill is among more than 2 million Americans who have epilepsy, a chronic condition that can be managed but not cured. The effects of the neurological condition, and the seriousness of the seizures, vary among sufferers.

Teague told the Star Tribune that Kill will spend time in the offseason "drilling down deeper" into his condition "to try to make this more manageable and put this in the rear-view mirror."

Kopplin is hoping for that outcome, too. In the meantime, she's fielding questions about whether people with epilepsy should have high-pressure, high-profile jobs. The answer, she emphasized, is yes, and examples include CEOs, professional athletes, physicians and the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We have a vision that people with seizures will realize their full potential, whatever that potential is," she said.

In the larger search for meaning and understanding in our lives, that's not too much to ask -- for Jerry Kill or anyone else.

  • THE U'S POSITION


    "Coach has been living with this medical condition for years. I believe it can be managed, and with his team of coaches he is able to deliver upon his coaching obligations. As we are now, I continue to believe that that's true and [that] he will be our coach for the foreseeable future and [that] he has a medical condition that's manageable."


    University of Minnesota President ERIC KALER

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