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Thursday, August 22, 2013
Just killing it

By Rick Reilly
ESPN.com

Jerry Kill
Jerry Kill estimates he's had 20 seizures over the past two years.

It should take you about three minutes to read this.

That's how long the worst of Jerry Kill's epileptic seizures last -- arms and legs spasming, eyes rolling up, jaw clenching.

Imagine that for these three minutes. Imagine every muscle of your body firing out of control and there's nothing you can do about it.

"You feel like you were in a car wreck afterwards," says Kill, the University of Minnesota football coach. "I've never seen a seizure. And I don't want to see one."

Jerry Kill
The crowd was alarmed when Jerry Kill suffered a seizure on the sidelines during an NCAA college football game against New Mexico State in 2011.

But 50,000-plus fans, and a regional television audience, did see one on Sept. 10, 2011, when Kill went down with seconds to go in a home loss to New Mexico State, Kill's home debut for the Golden Gophers.

As he lay there, the only sound you could hear were his two daughters -- and some of his players -- crying.

"I don't feel bad for me," says Kill, soon to be 52. "I feel bad for my wife, my kids and the people who have to watch it. ... You wake up and find out 50,000 people watched you. It's kind of embarrassing."

Nobody knows why this started happening to Kill at 43. Maybe genetics. Maybe football concussions. Maybe the bad car accident he had once. But it did. He was on the sideline as the Southern Illinois coach in 2005 when he suddenly hit the turf and began shaking uncontrollably.

"I freaked out," says his wife, Rebecca. "I didn't know what to do. Now I know. You don't do anything except make the area around them safe. You don't reach in their mouth and pull out their tongue. And you don't panic. If I panic, everybody in the stadium panics."

And yet that seizure might have saved Kill's life. During tests afterward, doctors found cancer in his kidney and took it out -- but not until after the season.

"I didn't have time for cancer," Kill says. "I was coaching."

Kill hates to take time off work.

"The only time he misses work is when he's laid out in the hospital and doesn't know he's missed work," Rebecca says. "Even with cancer. He did his surgery when they were on a break, and yet, he recruited a kid that night!"

Kill loves a good comeback. He has turned around programs at Saginaw Valley State, Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois. Now he's trying it in Minneapolis, where he had six wins and a bowl game last year, his second season.

"It's impossible not to give your very best for him," says Gophers safety Brock Vereen, brother of New England Patriots RB Shane Vereen. "This guy has battled through cancer, epilepsy. He could have a seizure at any moment. Who am I to complain about being tired?"

"He's got to be one of the toughest guys in America," says punter and holder Peter Mortell, who sees Kill every day during special-teams practice. "I'd guess he's had upwards of 50 seizures that no one's ever heard about in the past year. And yet he still comes to work before everyone else in the morning and is the last one to leave at night."

Grand mal seizures, tiny frozen-moment seizures, Kill has every kind. He is ashamed of none of them. Ask him any question about epilepsy and he'll answer it.

How many seizures this year alone?

"Hard to know. I'd say 20 over the last two years."

Kill never even used to utter the word "epilepsy" until he got hate emails after a seizure in the postgame after the Northwestern game last season. One writer called him a "freak." One tweet encouraged Minnesota to "fire the flopper."

He decided to fight back, in the name of the 2.8 million American epileptics who couldn't. He went on the radio and shook again, this time with anger.

"Jerry Kill has epileptic seizures. ..." he began. "I've been battling the same thing for 10 years. ... But at the same time, during that 10-year period, as a staff and as a head coach, we've won a helluva lot of football games. ... [I've had people email me that] 'We got a freak coaching the Minnesota Gophers.' ... I'm not a freak, and neither are [others with the same disease]. ... I'm gonna work my tail end off for the people who have the same situation I have."

Jerry Kill
Jerry Kill knows that his public seizures give him the chance to be a spokesman for others with epilepsy.

And then he did. He began speaking out for the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota. One practice, he brought a group of young kids with epilepsy to meet with the team.

"Guys, I want you to look," he said. "These are my people. These kids are just like me. This is who I am." Then he asked what the kids wanted to be when they grew up, going up to each kid. One little girl wanted to be a Minnesota cheerleader. One wanted to be an NFL player. To each of them, he said, "Well, you can. Epilepsy won't stop you from doing it."

Some of the kids were smiling. Some of their parents were crying. Some of the players were grinning.

Says Vereen: "That's a moment I'll walk away from the university with. It was humbling."

Kill used to refuse to talk about his epilepsy, but now he can kid about it. This year, coming back from a long recruiting trip, he was riding shotgun with this strength coach, Eric Klein. "Kleiner," he said. "I'm gonna fall asleep now. But if I start to have a seizure, you just push me out on the road and let it happen, OK?"

He's not allowed to drive, of course. He has to depend on Rebecca to get to work in the morning and his coaches to take him home at night. Sometimes, he feels so bad about asking that he'll just walk the five miles home instead.

"I got two goals in life," he says. "Just two. One is to see all the people in the state of Minnesota proud of their Minnesota Gophers football program again. And two is to drive again. I just want to drive my truck, my elbow out the window, listening to country music."

Thanks to the nearby Mayo Clinic, it might happen. An epilepsy specialist there heard about Kill's condition and left him a message: "I can help you." He has. Kill has been eating right, taking long walks in the late afternoon and taking the right medicines. If he can get to six months without a single seizure, the doctors say he can have his truck keys back.

"Man, I'd really love that," he says.

You don't meet many men like Kill, a simple and good man who has more right than any of us to complain, feel sorry for himself and ditch work, yet he never does.

So here's to Jerry Kill and long drives on the road, long drives on the football field and a long career standing on the sideline at Minnesota. And, someday, may a certain little girl be standing in a cheerleader uniform with him.