Gophers coach Jerry Kill tackles epilepsy at pivotal point in his career

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 10, 2013 - 4:30 PM

At the dawn of a new season, Jerry Kill has come to a pivotal juncture in his eight-year quest to gain control of his seizures.

 As darkness fell over TCF Bank Stadium, the Gophers trooped onto the field for the second half against Michigan State. Fans hunched under blankets and sipped hot chocolate, braving 25-degree temperatures during Thanksgiving weekend.

But Minnesota’s coach remained inside. Jerry Kill had suffered another epileptic seizure in the locker room after players headed to the field, and he couldn’t make it back to the sideline.

So the final regular-season game went on without him. The Gophers stayed close until the fourth quarter, but their offense sputtered in a 26-10 loss.

Hours later, Kill and his wife, Rebecca, walked out of the empty stadium and headed home. It was, he said later, “about the lowest point of my life.”

•••

Not again. That’s all Kill could think — not again. This had been his fifth documented seizure in two years at Minnesota, the second to strike during a game. He knew people doubted him. He never wanted concerns about his health overshadowing his team’s performance.

Now, at the dawn of a new season, Kill has come to a pivotal juncture in his eight-year quest to gain control of his seizures. The Gophers need to keep improving, and he needs to prove he can stay healthy.

Knowing the stakes, he found a new doctor, changed medication plans, honed his diet, exercised and adopted a whole new outlook — embracing the word epilepsy instead of shunning it.

“Believe me, there’s nobody who’s trying to do the right thing more than I am because I love coaching the game of football,” Kill said. “And I want to make sure I never have a situation, ever, during a game again.”

Experts say about 70 percent of the people with epilepsy can become seizure-free with the right medication. Kill insists he’s making progress.

Asked how many seizures he’s had since November, Kill declined to say, adding, “I’ve certainly had some pluses, and I’ve had some setbacks. But the setbacks have been in the evening time, and I haven’t had to miss work or anything like that.”

Kill, who turns 52 this month, gained confidence after making it through a Dec. 28 bowl game in Houston without incident.

“It’s not something I’m going to solve in a month,” he said. “The worst thing that’s ever happened to me is the Michigan State situation. You can’t be the head football coach and miss half of a game. I mean, I’m not stupid, I realize that.

“If I was doing those things, the university wouldn’t have to fire me. I’d walk away if I didn’t think I could do it. But that won’t happen because you’re talking to a guy that wasn’t supposed to be here anyway.”

***

As difficult as epilepsy has been for Kill, eight years ago, it probably saved his life. Epilepsy — when the electrical circuitry in the brain overloads — is typically diagnosed when a patient has two unexplained seizures. His first came in 2000, in the bedroom, when he was coaching at Emporia State in Kansas.

The next one struck in 2005, on the sidelines, in his fifth season at Southern Illinois. Most epilepsy patients are diagnosed when they’re much older or younger, but Kill was 44 at the time.

He also had complained of back pain that season, so his wife told doctors to check into that, too. What they found was kidney cancer — stage 4. Doctors went in and removed part of his kidney, and he’s been in remission since.

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