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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

As a coach who’d climbed the ladder, winning at every level, Kill didn’t want to give people a reason to be skeptical. He’d been upfront with his employers and recruits, but he wasn’t sure the general population was ready to hear it.

“Anybody that has epilepsy, your job comes up pretty quick,” said Kill, who is 136-89 in 19 seasons. “I’m the head football coach at the University of Minnesota, a Big Ten school. I don’t want a whole lot more publicity that I’ve got seizures.”

***

It’s not just high-profile coaches. As executive director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota, Vicki Kopplin works with a CEO of a Twin Cities corporation with 300-plus employees. He helps the foundation — with the understanding that his own epilepsy won’t become public.

“We’ve never been able to have someone who’s willing to stand up and own it,” Kopplin said. “And even though it was unfortunate for Coach Kill when his epilepsy became public, it really was the start of people saying, ‘I’ve never been so inspired in my whole life.’ ”

Kopplin persuaded Kill to speak about his epilepsy at the foundation’s gala in May 2012. He spoke at Camp Oz, a specially designed camp for epilepsy patients near Hudson, Wis., and invited the kids to a Gophers practice this spring.

That day, Kill had his players take a knee, then waved the kids over, saying, “These are my people!” He said others will try taking away their dreams and urged them never to let anyone stand in their way.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” said Kristin Anderson, who was there with her two sons — ages 9 and 11 — who both have epilepsy. “If they’re having a frustrating day, it’s nice to be able to think about what Coach Kill had to say.”

Kopplin said Kill’s involvement has opened whole new doors for the foundation. A local advertising agency donated time and resources for a new campaign, and Kill will be featured in public-service announcements.

The Gophers held an epilepsy awareness game last year against Michigan and will do the same this year, on Oct. 26 against Nebraska.

“I hate that he’s having to go through all of this [medical treatment],” Rebecca Kill said. “But I think it’s God’s plan for us; I really believe that. We’re coaching football, but we’re also branching out. And because of the cancer and epilepsy, we’re able to help that many more people.”

***

After the Michigan State game, while people openly questioned whether Kill should continue coaching, his wife put him in touch with a new specialist: Dr. Ilo Leppik, the director of research at MINCEP Epilepsy Care, a level-four treatment center in Minneapolis. Kill said he’s one of the top epileptologists in the nation, if not the world.

“A lot of it is getting your medication balanced,” Kill said. “Rebecca watches me, and if there’s something going on, she’s got a direct line to the doctor on his cellphone. I don’t even deal with it. I just do what I’m told.”

To help control his seizures, Kill takes a medication called Keppra, with a lower dosage in the morning and more at night. Before last year’s bowl game against Texas Tech, his wife was in daily contact with the doctor, helping chart his progress.

Kill called that “the most important game I ever coached.” He said a prayer when he stepped onto the field in Houston, going, “God-dang, God, get me through this one now.”

He survived just fine. In fact, he looked feistier than ever, railing on the referees and firing up his players. He watched them play some of their best football all season, only to blow a seven-point lead in the final 70 seconds and lose 34-31.

Even in defeat, Kill considered it a step forward — for the program, and for him.

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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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