As parents, we can only hope our sons and daughters will one day find happiness in doing meaningful work and living life to the fullest. Jerry Kill found his calling on a football field, and the game gave him the kind of opportunities and financial security he probably never imagined as a boy growing up in Kansas.
Football could not, however, provide Kill with a lifetime of good health. His resignation Wednesday as football coach at the University of Minnesota broke the hearts of thousands of Gophers fans not because of what it will mean for the program, but because the coach did nothing to deserve having to give up the work he loved. And once again, we are left to ponder how quickly even dreams come true can slip away in this life.
“Last night, when I walked off the practice field … I feel like a part of me died,” a tearful Kill said during a remarkable news conference in which he announced his resignation on the advice of his doctors.
Kill, 54, overcame kidney cancer in 2005, but his struggles with epilepsy continue. His courage and honesty dealing with the condition made him a popular figure in Minnesota and an inspirational one for the more than 2 million epilepsy patients and their families across the country.
Kill had not yet won a Big Ten championship at Minnesota. He lost his three bowl games as Gophers coach, and his rebuilding effort was ongoing. But he leaves a much stronger football program than the one he took over in 2010, and one that better reflects Minnesota values.
After 32 years in football, Kill was understandably shaken and unsure about the future Wednesday. “I know somebody will ask, ‘Coach, what are you going to do?’ ” he said. “I don’t know. I ain’t done anything else. That’s the scary part.”
With time, we trust Kill will realize that he’s done a lot more for Minnesota than coach football — and that he still has much to give. At the end of his first meeting with Vicki Kopplin, executive director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota, in late 2011, Kill asked one question: “What can I do to help?”
Since then, he’s become an important spokesman for those who suffer from epilepsy, a condition that can be managed but not cured. And in 2014, Kill and his wife, Rebecca, started the “Chasing Dreams Fund” with an initial $100,000 contribution. The fund supports seizure awareness programs in schools and provides financial backing for Camp Oz, a retreat for young epilepsy patients.
In a 2012 interview with a Star Tribune editorial writer, Kopplin said Kill’s public struggle with epilepsy had prompted questions about whether people with the condition should have stressful, high-profile jobs. The answer, she said at the time, is yes, and she pointed to CEOs, pro athletes, physicians and U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
The fact that Kill could no longer jeopardize his long-term health by working the brutal schedule of a Big Ten football coach shouldn’t change that answer or make the future any less bright for those kids who come to Camp Oz with big challenges but even bigger dreams.
We’re guessing the next group of campers will hear from Coach Kill, and they’ll be inspired by a man who has accomplished so much despite adversity that forced him to step aside from one part of his life’s work, but not to lose his passion for life-changing community service.