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.

“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.”

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.

Athletic Director Norwood Teague said he tried getting Kill to cut back this summer, but the coach stayed busier than ever, speaking all over the state. Kill can’t drive because of the seizures, so he leaves that to his wife or Dan O’Brien, the associate athletic director for football.

“Jerry’s relentless, and that’s what makes him great,” Teague said. “But it’s our job to try to take things off his plate.”

Kill figures any coach who rests is signing up for defeat. Besides, he says, he feels better than he has for the past eight years.

***

Rebecca Kill admits she’s a worrier. Her main concern is making sure someone familiar with seizures is there for her husband when he has them. She and her daughters know the drill — keep calm, make sure the seizure lasts less than five minutes, make sure he’s breathing, and let it run its course.

“Every time he has [a seizure], I learn something more about it,” she said. “I know what to help him with, and I don’t get as scared about it.”

Epilepsy affects everyone differently. Some patients gain control over their seizures, and others have several each day.

An estimated 50,000 Americans die each year from seizures, with most the result of falls or suffocation. Olympic track star Florence Griffith Joyner died in her sleep from an epileptic seizure at age 38.

But other famous people with epilepsy have sustained long, successful careers: Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, rock musician Neil Young, former major league manager Buddy Bell and nine-time NFL Pro Bowl offensive lineman Alan Faneca.

Some seizures result in slurred speech or a blank stares; others involve convulsions.

The ones Kill suffered against New Mexico State and Michigan State — with the stiffening and then jerking of his limbs and head — were once known as grand mal seizures, but are now called tonic-clonic seizures.

Kill has no recollection of his seizures when he wakes up and says it feels as if he’s been hit by a truck. He’s groggy, and his muscles are severely taxed from the convulsions.

Some people need days to recover, but Kill is proud of how little work he’s missed in his career.

Yes, there’s a slight risk of brain damage when a tonic-clonic seizure lasts up to 20 minutes, but those instances are rare and well beyond anything Kill has experienced.

“There are a lot of people who have epilepsy, and they do their jobs just fine,” said Leppik, a University of Minnesota professor of pharmacy and neurology and a former president of the American Epilepsy Society. “Once you recover, seizures generally do not cause any real long-term changes in your ability to do whatever.”

Leppik, who spoke generally, not specifically of Kill, did say periods of stress and sleep deprivation can reduce a body’s resistance to seizures.

Those factors are practically built into Kill’s job.

***

Last fall was an extreme test.

Besides the swaying emotions from a 6-7 season, Kill dealt with two public-relations fallouts.

First, the Gophers announced they were paying $800,000 to remove two games against North Carolina from future schedules. Then receiver A.J. Barker quit the team, criticizing Kill sharply in a 4,100-word blog post.

That wasn’t the worst of it for Kill. His brother-in-law, Don Smith, flew in for the Michigan game and suffered a severe allergic reaction at the stadium. Smith lost oxygen to his brain and fell into a coma. Rebecca Kill spent much of November at her brother’s hospital bedside before he was pronounced dead. He was 53.

“Jerry would go do what he had to do at the office, and then come check on me and my brother in the hospital,” she said. “I kept thinking, ‘Jerry, you’re going to wear yourself out.’ ”

She was in a stadium suite for the Michigan State game when she learned of Kill’s seizure. She spent the second half with her husband in the training room, then drove to their home in Minneapolis.

“I think this is how his body reacts to certain things, when it hits a wall, so to speak,” she said. “Some people have migraines. I’m not a doctor, but I’ve been around it.”

***

At the football complex, Kill is surrounded by others who understand his epilepsy well. Most of his assistant coaches have been with him for more than a decade. They know their roles if Kill has to leave a game, and the players are prepared, too.

“Coach Kill’s done a great job of keeping us up to date on his situation,” Gophers senior Brock Vereen said. “So now we know when it happens, everything’s going to be fine. There’s no need to panic. It’s not the end of the world.”

Teague repeatedly has praised Kill’s coaching efforts.

Asked via e-mail how the Gophers would handle fan perception if there’s another in-game seizure, Teague responded: “Obviously, we would hope we don’t have another situation. However, we are prepared to manage it both internally and externally.”

Kill said one mistake after taking the Minnesota job was not switching to a local epileptologist. At Northern Illinois, he worked closely with a doctor from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. After his 2011 seizure struggles, he went to the Mayo Clinic.

“I jumped into the job going 110 miles per hour, and we had so much work to do, I didn’t pay enough attention,” Kill said. “I thought we could go long distance [with the Northwestern doctor], so I got a wake-up call.”

Now, Kill is under closer medical surveillance, with his wife serving as the doctor’s second set of eyes.

To help relax and get his exercise, he goes for a long walk almost every day. Often, he waits until after work and walks with her from their downtown Minneapolis townhouse along the Mississippi River.

“There are no guarantees in life,” Kill said. “But right now, kind of like our football program, I think I’m heading in the right direction.”

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