Jerry Kill: Working Hard and Winning On and Off the Field
University of Minnesota's head coach leads his team victory even while battling epilepsy.
By Danielle Cronquist February 2 405
To manage epilepsy, most doctors suggest that in addition to medication you eat well, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and most importantly, avoid stress. So maybe working as a head football coach for a Big Ten team doesn’t seem like the ideal career choice for someone with epilepsy, but this is exactly what Coach Jerry Kill, head coach of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers and epileptic, does.
Kill grew up in a small town in Kansas where his father instilled in him a strong work ethic and drive to succeed. Kill used this work-hard attitude to get him through college, land assistant coaching jobs, and to eventually rise through the ranks and become a head coach known for turning around teams at Saginaw Valley State University, Emporia State, Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois, and now University of Minnesota.
Kill’s first seizure was in 2000, but it seemed as though he mostly had what he then referred to as a “seizure disorder” under control. That is until 2005 when he seized during a game. Even though tests done following his seizure revealed kidney cancer, he kept coaching, kept winning, and kept fighting. Kill was able to beat his cancer, but that didn’t stop his seizures. Despite still having epilepsy, Kill was able to go six months and sometimes even a year without having a seizure with the help of medication, but that wasn’t enough once the stress of coaching the Golden Gophers’ Big Ten team was put on his plate.
During a game against Western Illinois in September 2013, Kill had another on-field seizure while exiting for halftime. This was a wakeup call for Kill. The give-it-everything-you-got attitude that had brought him so far as a head coach was now starting to hurt his health. “I wasn’t eating regularly; I was getting maybe two and a half hours of sleep a night,” Kill says. “I needed to take better care of myself.” So that’s what he did. Kill recognized that it was time to step back for a moment, and left his team in the hands of his assistant coaches for ten days while he got his health in check.
Even though his team and coaches gave him their full support, that wasn’t true of everyone. Sports columnist Jim Souhan at the Star Tribune wrote a scornful article saying, “The face of your program can’t belong to someone who may be rushed to the hospital at any moment of any game, or practice, or news conference. No one who buys a ticket to the TCF Bank Stadium should be rewarded with the sight of a middle-aged man writhing on the ground. This is not how you compete for sought-after players and entertainment dollars.”
The community refused to let such a talented coach receive such harsh words and rallied behind Jerry Kill with messages of support, “Jerrysota” t-shirts, and a hashtag #RiseAboveSeizures. Kill himself went on a morning talk show to defend himself and people with epilepsy saying, “Jerry Kill has epileptic seizures … 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 e-mail me that] ‘We got a freak coaching the Minnesota Gophers.’ … I’m not a freak and neither are [others with epilepsy] … I’m gonna work my tail off for the people who have the same situation I have.” In May of 2014, Kill donated over $100,000 to start the Chasing Dreams Fund to help support seizure-smart school initiatives and to start Camp OZ, a specially designed camp for epilepsy patients.
Kill still believes in working hard, but now that he is being more conscious of his health, he tells his team, “Let’s go out and have fun. You’ve got to live for the moment. Let’s enjoy the moments. Let’s play relaxed and let ‘er rip.”