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?