Minnesota's Jerry Kill refuses to let epilepsy remove him from the sideline

Eric Adelson

HOUSTON – The coach opened it up for questions, and a little boy raised his hand. The child could have asked Jerry Kill anything, anything at all, and he would have gotten a straight answer. The Kill way is to tell the truth, even if the truth isn't too optimistic. The Minnesota head coach learned that as a boy growing up in a tiny Kansas town with a dad who spit truth like sunflower seeds. So this little boy was going to get the truth, even in front of a group of fans in neighboring Wisconsin, even if he asked why the Gophers never beat Michigan, and never beat Ohio State.

"I have epilepsy," the boy said. "Do you think I'll ever have a girlfriend?"

Kill paused for a moment, and looked around the room.

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It was one of many epilepsy questions Kill would face in 2012. It was perhaps the most poignant question, but not the toughest. The toughest would come months after the child raised his hand, well into the Gophers' season, after Kill had seizures during games and missed a half of football against Michigan State. Some of those questions would be asked to his face, and some behind his back.

What does it feel like when you have a seizure?

Is it the stress from coaching?

Won't recruits be scared off?

Isn't this too much of a distraction for the program?

Might you die on the field?

Are you fit to coach this team?

Kill is still surprised by all of this. He had his first seizure 12 years ago. He's had many since. They are a part of his life. In fact, they are a reason for his life. One of his seizures brought him to the hospital, where doctors did tests and found out he had kidney cancer. If he didn't have the epilepsy, maybe he doesn't have the surprise diagnosis, the successful treatment, the rocket ship that is his coaching career and, in five months, the 30th wedding anniversary with wife Rebecca. So in a roundabout way, Jerry Kill is grateful for epilepsy.

The hard part is learning how to be grateful for all the questions.

There are two Jerry Kill stories you need to know. The first is the story of how he met Rebecca. Back in college at Southwestern in Winfield, Kan., Kill was roommates with one of Rebecca's brothers, and he went to her house for dinner one night. Everyone got along very well, and at the end of the evening, Jerry pointed to Rebecca from across the room and declared, "That's the girl I'm gonna marry." It was a sweet story … except for one thing.

Rebecca was with her boyfriend at the time.

Three years later, Jerry and Rebecca were married. He was 21; she was 19.

The second Jerry Kill story happened in 2005. After he suffered a seizure on the sideline as coach of Southern Illinois, a doctor did an exam and found something he didn't expect – kidney cancer. And not just a trace of it, either. It was Stage 4. Kill had to get part of his kidney removed. The Kills had two girls, Tasha and Krystal, and the whole family wondered if Dad would survive, let alone coach football again. Even if he did, recovery would take some serious patience.

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Sadly for the doctors, Jerry Kill does not have serious patience. Surgery was in the morning, and Kill was told he needed to use the bathroom before he could be discharged. He instructed a nurse to remove his catheter so he could try to go.

"Get this sonofabitch off me!" he recalls saying. "I stood there an hour and a half trying to take a piss so I could get out of there."

Then Kill left the hospital, rode home in the family car – he doesn't drive because of the possibility of a seizure – and he told Rebecca to stop at Chili's so he could eat. Finally, he returned home, still in his pajamas, and hosted a recruit in his living room. Jerry Kill is probably the first and only college football coach to sign a high school player on the same day as cancer surgery.

So Kill, as you can tell, doesn't wait to go after what he wants. He doesn't pause for obstacles or unfortunate circumstances. You could say that about a lot of coaches, but Kill's got some extreme examples.

He got his first coaching job as a defensive coordinator at Pittsburg State (Kan.), working for $250 a month. He and Rebecca lived in a trailer home. From there, Kill hopscotched from job to job. He dropped down to the high school level, where he won a Missouri state championship, went back to Pittsburg State as an offensive coordinator, then on to Saginaw Valley State (Mich.), Emporia State (Kan.), Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, where he reached a MAC title game and recruited most of the Huskies who will play in next week's Orange Bowl.

Now he's at Minnesota, which hasn't won a Big Ten title in decades. Kill has been a head coach for nearly 20 years, and if you take away his first season at each stop, he's had only one losing record in his life.

So it's a little difficult for him to handle the recent criticism about his health. Yes, he's had seizures on game days – two this season. "I understand that's serious," he says. He feels badly for his wife and his two daughters, who are constantly worried about him. He feels badly for his players, who had to play a half of Big Ten football without their head coach. He feels badly for the fan base and for his new athletic director, who said recently he wants to work with Kill to manage his coaching duties better. Yet this is a guy who has missed about five days of work in two decades.

"If I feel like I'm stealin', I'll walk away," he says, sitting in a Houston hotel where the Gophers have come to face Texas Tech in Friday's Meineke Car Care Bowl. "I worked harder in the past year than any other time in my life. They ask, 'Can the guy still coach?' which I think is an unfair shot."

It may be unfair. Not many ask that about Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, who had a minor heart attack after a game. Not many ask that about Ohio State's Urban Meyer, who had to leave his job at Florida twice because of health issues. But those guys didn't have their scares during games, much less on repeated occasions.

Kill is going to play down the concern. "I beat cancer," he says. "I'm not gonna let anyone tell me I can't coach football."

That's not completely true. Because there is someone who can tell him he can't coach football. Rebecca.

It's Rebecca who has suffered the most. Kill has no recollection of what happens to him when he has a seizure. He has no memory of it whatsoever. When he's asked, "What's it like?" he always says, "You'll have to ask my wife about that."

So we did. Sunday morning, at the team hotel, Yahoo! Sports sat down with Rebecca Kill and asked what it's like to live with a man who has had multiple seizures and has beaten cancer in the process. The real epilepsy expert in the Kill family is not Jerry; it's Rebecca.

The first seizure was in 2000, when Jerry was the head coach at Emporia State. Rebecca and the girls were out of town for a soccer game, and a student was staying with the family. She heard strange noises coming from the master bedroom after a game and found Kill lying on the floor. She called an ambulance and the doctors said everything checked out OK. That was the end of it, for years, until the seizure in 2005 (also at the end of a game) that led to the cancer diagnosis. Even then, Kill asked the doctor if he could put surgery off until after the season. The county commissioner drove him to the next game. Only recently has Kill started calling his condition "epilepsy," which is a disease with no known cause. In fact, epilepsy is only diagnosed after multiple unexplained seizures.

In layman's terms, a seizure occurs when the neurons in the brain don't fire in sync. "In the brain, the brain cells communicate through electrical signals," explains Prakash Kotagal, an epilepsy specialist at the Cleveland Clinic. "It's well-regulated. But if too much of this activity is discharged, it produces a seizure."

The seizures don't all look the same, because some are more severe than others. In some cases, there are convulsions. In others, there's just a general slumping of the body. Sometimes there's prolonged staring or slurred speech. All these symptoms are normal for someone with epilepsy. Although there is a risk of brain damage and death from epilepsy, that risk is "very low" according to the National Institute of Health's website.

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But it took a while for Rebecca to figure all that out. While untreated epilepsy can be very dangerous, because of possible internal and external damage, medication and preparation make a huge difference. Rebecca and her daughters now know exactly what to do in the event of an intense seizure: time it to make sure it doesn't last more than five minutes (otherwise dial 911); make sure Jerry is on his side; make sure he's breathing; make sure there's nothing in his way or in his mouth; and then just let the seizure run its course.

It doesn't sound normal, but after 12 years it's approaching normal for them.

Still, it's not normal to a nation of people who aren't used to seizures being a part of day-to-day life. But for three million Americans, including Neil Young and Chief Justice John Roberts, they are.

"It's gotten to where I'm used to it," Rebecca says. "You have to be calm."

This isn't to say Rebecca doesn't worry. Roughly 50,000 people die each year from seizures, although a great many of those deaths occur because of falls, or because an epileptic has rolled over onto his or her stomach in his or her sleep and suffocated.

Rebecca says she has had many sleepless nights, her heart skipping a beat whenever her husband shifts or twitches. She worries before every game. But she's much more worried about short-term effects than long-term trouble. After a seizure is over, Kill says he feels "like I've been in a car wreck." This is why he couldn't return to the sideline after his halftime seizure in the Michigan State game. He can function, but he's often exhausted, dazed and achy. He compares it to the feeling after playing a game, which he knows from his linebacker days in Kansas. It's hard for Rebecca to see her husband like that, no matter how routine her reaction has become.

And it's hard for Tasha and especially Krystal, who has been on the sideline with her dad since she was six years old. Krystal's favorite thing in the world was holding the cord for her father, and she sobbed when headsets went wireless and her one duty would no longer be needed. She's still on the sideline though, and her duty is far more important: She's one of the people ready in case a seizure happens. So is Rebecca, watching carefully from the stands.

"If I were a fan of the team, I would want to make sure he's getting the best possible care that he can so his seizures can be better controlled," says Arthur Grant, director of the epilepsy center at the Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. "Would I worry that he's going to damage his brain? No I wouldn't."

The biggest challenge might be altering Kill's personality. Lack of sleep can be a factor in seizures, according to Kotagal of the Cleveland Clinic. "If you're getting less than six hours of sleep," he says, "the brain becomes more likely to have seizures."

Coaches, as we know, don't sleep much. That's especially so of Kill, who saw his dad work three jobs, all the way up to his death from pancreatic cancer at 66, and never complain. Kill says he walks onto the field every week, even now, and wants to make sure he doesn't let his dad down. "He was working cattle and got kicked," Kill remembers. "He broke a bone in his leg. Never went to the doctor. Said it would heal by itself."

Epilepsy, as Kill now knows, does not heal by itself. Kill responds to the criticism of his health by pointing to his record of doggedness. But too much doggedness could make things worse.

"If we get to a point where there's a seizure every day or week," Rebecca says, "then we have to talk."

But it's more likely the seizures will become less frequent now that he has a new doctor and he is on regular medication. The only time the Kills have ever discussed retirement was after the cancer diagnosis. It was Jerry who volunteered to do something else. Rebecca encouraged him to keep going. And now she's encouraging the entire family to get the word out about epilepsy, which has been steeped in stigma and shame for centuries.

"I love what he does," she says. "I love what it stands for." Tasha, sitting next to her mom, chimes in: "She and my dad are the toughest people in the world."

There has been plenty to endure even in the last six weeks. There was the missed half, the Minnesota athletic director's publicly stated desire to help Kill manage his situation, and the tragic death of Rebecca's brother, who felt ill during the Michigan game and collapsed as he tried to get in a car outside the stadium. He lapsed into a coma and never regained consciousness.

And at around that same time, there was the decision by wide receiver A.J. Barker to leave the team because he felt Kill was being abusive.

"… in honor of my family and myself," Barker wrote in an open letter to Kill on November 18, "I'm done with you for good. In light of that pathetic, manipulative display of rage and love you put on this past Thursday, I have come to the decision, with the guidance of my parents and my closest friends, that my time on this team has come to an end."

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The "display of rage" happened when Kill overheard a dispute between Barker and a team trainer about a high ankle sprain that wasn't healing well. Barker felt the medical staff was withholding information and diminishing the severity of the injury; Kill didn't like how Barker was speaking to the head trainer and made that very clear.

"I feel bad for A.J.," Kill said Sunday. "I haven't talked to him since. I wanted to make sure we have a disciplined program. I let him know this is not how we're going to handle things. A.J. was unhappy and he chose to leave."

Kill then offered a wistful smile.

"Five or 10 years from now," he said, "he'll come back and see me. They all do."

As for the allegations of abuse, Kill points to his oldest daughter across the room: "I've chewed her out a lot worse than I ever got after A.J Barker," he said.

(Efforts to reach Barker through his new school, Houston, were not successful.)

Despite all of this, Kill has Minnesota in a bowl game after winning twice as many games (six) in his second season than his first. He's working with his doctor to find the right protocol to get his epilepsy under control. (Kill said the doctor did not want to comment because of HIPAA laws.) In 40 percent of cases, seizures cannot be prevented altogether. But Kill's medical care could not be better, and he says he expects to be seizure-free by next season.

"It's been a long month," Kill says. "My new challenge is two things. At Southern Illinois it was win and beat cancer. Now it's building a program and beating epilepsy. Those are the only goals I got."

Those goals are intertwined. As crass as it is to say, Kill can give the Gopher community something else to focus on beside his health. (How often have we read about Meyer's medical situation during Ohio State's 12-0 season?) Minnesota players say the coach's epilepsy is no distraction, and recruiting is going well. Kill even says preps react surprisingly well to the truth about his condition. Facing up to his health situation shows Kill is honest, determined and true. Kids and their parents respond to that. If Minnesota keeps improving, Kill has a chance to make a huge statement not only for himself, but for all those with epilepsy. What would it say if epilepsy forced him out of his dream job? And what would it say if he managed it and won? Kill has always wanted to stand for winning, but he also wants to stand for epilepsy education.

"I know Coach Kill is going to take a lot of time and attention this off-season to try to improve his condition," senior linebacker Mike Rallis said. "Even so, this year, we know what Coach Kill is made of. We know he’s gonna fight back. It’s a really smooth operation."

That brings us all the way back to June, when Kill took questions at a camp for kids with epilepsy.

"Can I still have a girlfriend?" he was asked.

Kill pointed to Rebecca. "See that lady over there? She's pretty and we've been married for almost 30 years."

The child beamed. Kill beamed too. It's a rare and precious moment when a head coach is able to get a certain message across to young people:

Try not to worry; we got this.

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