SPORTS COMMENTARY

Decision still Coach Kill’s to make on epilepsy

University of Minnesota head football coach wrestles with illness, acceptance

9/17/2013
BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

University of Minnesota football doesn’t often make headlines. With the exception of a few years in the early 2000s under former coach Glen Mason, the Gophers have been mostly irrelevant for the past half-century.

Coach Jerry Kill
Coach Jerry Kill

Now another coach is trying to change that. But it isn’t why he and his program are making headlines.

Jerry Kill is epileptic. He has had six documented seizures in his two-plus seasons at Minnesota, three of them during games and another just after, the most recent coming last Saturday as his team was leaving the field at halftime.

In the aftermath, a Minneapolis newspaper columnist took the stand that Kill should not hold such a high-pressure, high-profile job in light of his illness. It was his opinion, and expressing opinion is part of his job, but as opinions go it was perhaps as politically incorrect as they come.

The writer, Jim Souhan, said he received thousands of emails and phone calls, and as a result he wrote a follow-up piece in which he said it was not his intent to be insensitive or to demean Kill’s condition or others who suffer from it.

“My opinion on the matter remains the same,” Souhan wrote. “Coaching big-time football is a highly visible, competitive, and stressful job. I don’t believe the head coach, who is the face of such an enterprise, can handle the duties while frequently suffering public seizures.”

A national writer, Gregg Doyel of CBSSports.com, chimed in with a piece on what he called “a heartbreaking problem.” He went so far as to suggest Kill could die on the sideline, although the odds are very long, and wondered if the coach’s future should be his decision.

By most any definition, Kill is a fine football coach. He built Southern Illinois into a FCS power and went 6-7, 7-6, and 10-3 in three seasons at Northern Illinois, planting the seeds of success that saw the Huskies of the Mid-American Conference bust the BCS last season with a trip to the Orange Bowl.

His Gophers have gone 3-9, 6-7 (with a bowl appearance) and are currently 3-0. He is building again. His critics, if they exist, could point out that eight of Minnesota’s 12 wins under Kill have come against lukewarm nonleague competition, but that’s sort of the way of the world, isn’t it?

The line that Souhan should most regret from his original column: “Kill suffers a seizure on game day as the coach of the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium as often as he wins a Big Ten game. He’s 4 for 16 in both categories.”

In the aftermath of the written word, Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague assembled a press conference and said: “I support [Kill] 100 percent. He’s an epileptic. He has seizures. We deal with it and we move on. If I felt like it was affecting things it would be different.”

He called the 52-year-old Kill a “tremendous role model” and said the coach’s “job is not just about Saturdays.”

No, but that’s the day the world is watching. And it would seem that the seizures are increasing in their frequency.

The first he experienced during a game, which led to his diagnosis with epilepsy, came in 2005 while at Southern Illinois and was a blessing in disguise. While hospitalized, Kill told doctors he’d been suffering back pain, and they discovered stage 4 kidney cancer. Surgeons removed part of his kidney, and the cancer has been in remission since.

About 3 million Americans are epileptic, and if you think Kill is having problems, contrast it with those sufferers who experience dozens of seizures per day from abnormal electrical activity among nerve cells in the brain.

Kill continues working with doctors to find the proper medication plan and, if successful, could join a majority of epileptics who are able to live seizure-free.

In the meantime, he and his assistant coaches and his players and his university deal with the issue.

It was late last season, after a seizure caused him to miss the second half of a game against Michigan State, when Kill received an email in which the writer called him “a freak.”

To that point, Kill was fairly close-mouthed about his illness, maybe hiding from the word “epilepsy.” He has since embraced the opportunity to be vocal and active in support of the Epilepsy Foundation.

The message? Neither he nor 3 million other Americans are freaks, and none should have their hopes and dreams dashed by the disease.

Kill is living his dream — earned it, in fact — and if and when the time comes to evaluate whether health truly hampers his ability to function as head coach at Minnesota, he should be trusted to make the decision.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.