Jerry Kill finally had made it to the top, big-time college football. Years of tireless work at smaller outposts led him to the Big Ten, a professional pinnacle for a man with small-town roots.

He could’ve basked in the moment before his first home game as Gophers football coach in 2011. It was his time, his program, his chance to enjoy the fruits of his labor that got him to this point.

Instead, Kill asked someone else to lead his team onto the field that day.

He invited 10-year-old Mia Gerold, a courageous young girl diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer, to hold his hand and run with him as they led the Gophers into TCF Bank Stadium that day.

That is Jerry Kill to his core.

Selfless, compassionate, loving — the exact opposite of the ornery coach we often viewed storming the sideline.

Kill has a heart bigger than Texas and today that heart is broken.

Jerry Kill is no longer a football coach.

Feels strange to say that because coaching wasn’t Kill’s job, it was his identity. That’s all he’s ever known, ever done, for three-plus decades.

How many people find an occupation that they love so dearly that they can’t possibly conceive a world in which they do anything else? That was Jerry Kill and coaching football.

That explains why Kill looked so distraught and vulnerable sitting alone on a podium, announcing his immediate retirement because his epilepsy made it impossible for him to continue.

It was heartbreaking to see his raw, unvarnished sadness in describing his decision to walk away.

“I feel like a part of me died,” he said.

His seizures have returned, and he’s tired. He’s looked tired all season. He hasn’t acted like his normal feisty self.

Kill hasn’t slept much in recent weeks in part because he went about fixing his struggling offense the only way he knows how — by working harder. He stayed in his office at all hours of the night searching for answers.

He only operates one way as a coach, 100 miles per hour, even if people close to him worried that he was pushing himself too hard. Kill seems incapable of relaxing or taking things slow.

He’s stubborn that way. He inherited a program in disrepair and nothing was going to stand in his way in rebuilding it. Not even epilepsy, until he finally couldn’t go any further.

Kill’s program is almost unrecognizable compared to the mess he inherited five years ago — if you look closely, beyond the wins and losses and his quarterback situation.

Gophers football is on solid footing by numerous measures. In substance, in structure, in academics, in overall talent, in respect. Brick and mortar stuff.

From Day 1, Kill viewed fixing his program as a state investment. This wasn’t his program; it was Minnesota’s. And he gave every ounce of himself to both entities because to him, a football coach’s duties extended beyond the field.

He connected with fans in a way that felt authentic, even if we occasionally disagreed with his in-game strategies. His Kansas drawl and country-boy phrases made him an endearing character. Chants of “Jer-ry! Jer-ry! Jer-ry!” echoing throughout the stadium reflected a genuine admiration.

Kill never stopped selling his vision for his program. One day this summer he pulled out his daily planner and added up his personal appearances. He attended 22 events in June alone. He was booked through next August.

“That’s a good thing,” he said.

You see, Kill loved the interaction, loved sharing himself and his program with the masses. The man rarely said no.

If you asked for 10 minutes of his time, he gave you 30. He would rearrange his schedule to visit with someone who was sick or needed a pep talk.

He was the school’s best fundraiser, and he worked tirelessly at it because he knew the Athletes Village that he pushed and argued for was vital to the success of his program.

I’m convinced Kill worked himself to total exhaustion trying to make people of this state care and be proud of his program once again.

“I don’t have any more energy. None,” he said.

Hopefully he can rest now and find something that fulfills him and makes him happy. He can focus on himself, his family and his health.

Three days before he coached his first game at TCF Bank Stadium, Kill shared a quiet moment talking about why he asked that 10-year-old girl to lead his team onto the field.

“If I can help somebody here on this Earth, that’s what I’m here for,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you my won-loss record right now if you ask me. I don’t care. God doesn’t care how many games we win. He doesn’t care who wins on Saturday. But he does care how we treat people.”

Job well done, Jerry.

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com