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

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

“I thought I was going to die,” Kill said, knowing the lessons it taught him.

Kill, a native of Cheney, Kan., always wanted to live by a lake. After the cancer diagnosis, he found a spot outside Carbondale, Ill., on Lake of Egypt, along a little road called Faith Drive. The family had the house refurbished, then put it on the market when Kill got hired at Northern Illinois in 2008.

“Thank goodness for the economy not being good, because we probably would have sold it,” Rebecca Kill said. “It’s the one place that I can honestly say he hardly has his cellphone on. It’s very relaxing and quiet, back in a cove.”

The Kills and their two grown daughters — Krystal and Tasha — retreated to Faith Drive on a rare vacation over the July 4 holiday.

The parents, who celebrated their 30th anniversary in May, have come a long way since Kill was the defensive coordinator at Pittsburg (Kan.) State, making $250 per month. “I think we always said, if we made it, we’d give back as much as we could,” Kill said.

After the kidney scare, they launched the Coach Kill Cancer Fund to assist patients from lower-income families with their expenses. Eventually, they threw themselves into helping the Epilepsy Foundation, too, but that process was more gradual.

***

Until last fall, Kill was careful not to use the word epilepsy in interviews, calling his condition a seizure disorder, for fear the stigma could cost him his job.

Then one day in October, a fan ridiculed him over e-mail for staying in the public eye, despite his seizures. The e-mail said, in part, “We’ve got a freak coaching the Minnesota Gophers.”

Kill was furious.

As much as those words stung him, he kept thinking about the children with epilepsy he’d met the previous summer.

“If you’re calling me a freak, what about these kids that go to school and have a seizure? What do kids say about them?” Kill said. “I decided maybe I need to quit hiding. Maybe I need to step up to the plate.”

Kill knew he should say more to educate people about a disorder that affects about 2.8 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So he lashed out at the unnamed e-mailer during a radio show that week, referencing the estimated 54,000 other Minnesotans who have epilepsy.

“I’m not a freak, and neither are they!” he said.

Kill’s first seizure with the Gophers came Sept. 10, 2011, when the team was trying to mount a last-minute comeback against New Mexico State. He dropped to a knee and started having convulsions, bringing TCF Bank Stadium to a hush.

It was a good time for a crash course on epilepsy, but the Gophers called it a seizure disorder, sticking to Kill’s preference.

“He was kind of in denial all through the years, that he really didn’t have [epilepsy], that it only happened certain times of the year,” Rebecca Kill said. “It’s taken him a long time.”

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  • University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill and his wife Rebecca walked the trail along the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis Saturday, July 27, 2013.](DAVID JOLES/STARTRIBUNE) djoles@startribune.com University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill talks about handling his seizures and his expectations for the coming football season.

  • After his seizure late in the 2011 New Mexico game, Kill was carted out of a hushed TCF Bank Stadium.

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