There's a white Ford F-150 pickup truck parked behind the Bierman Field Athletic Building at the University of Minnesota. It belongs to fourth-year head football coach Jerry Kill, who's probably the only head coach in the Big Ten driving a vehicle with over 70,000 miles on it.
The truck says a lot about Kill.
It represents his roots in rural Kansas, his no-frills approach, and his ability to navigate life's potholes without ending up in a ditch. But it's something of a miracle that Kill is driving at all. So when he climbs behind the wheel, cues up George Strait or Zac Brown Band, and heads to work each morning, he knows the truck represents the fulfillment of a promise he made to himself in the middle of the 2013 football season, when football took a backseat in his life. (Don't think getting a physical is worth it? It's just one of the 7 Nagging Health Problems You Shouldn't Ignore.)
That season was a spectacular one for a Golden Gophers program that hasn't won a Big Ten title since 1967. The team finished 8-4 and went to a bowl game for the second consecutive year. It's no surprise to college football insiders that the program turned around after Kill, 53, arrived in Minnesota from Northern Illinois University for the 2011 season. Working with a staff that's been with him from the start, Kill has turned losers into winners at schools like Saginaw Valley State, Emporia State, and Southern Illinois. Right now he's starting his 21st year as a head coach with 144 wins, putting him ahead of all his Big Ten peers.
Still, last season, some questioned Kill's fitness for the job, saying he should quit or be fired. It's not that Kill is a bad coach. It's that he's one of at least 2.2 million Americans with epilepsy.
"Epilepsy is a bad word to people," Kill says. "They don't understand it. In fact, a lot of people don't want others to know they have it."
Kill used to be one of them.
The ancients thought people with epilepsy were possessed by demons. The seizures can be shocking to witness, and that adds to the fear for -- and fear of -- people who have them. During a tonic-clonic seizure (formerly called a "grand mal"), one of the types that Kill gets, the victim usually drops to the ground and convulses; his eyes may roll back, and he may foam at the mouth and bleed from biting his tongue. Such an episode typically lasts one to three minutes. (Epileptics suffering from sudden, uncontrollable seizures may receive help through high-tech innovation. Check out one of the 10 Medical Breakthroughs That Sound Like Science Fiction.)
We now know that epilepsy is a neurological disorder; if you've had two or more unprovoked seizures separated by at least 24 hours, you're in the club. Seizures can result from a head injury, stroke, or brain tumor. In 60 percent of cases, though, the cause is unknown. Epilepsy can't be cured, but in many cases the seizures can be controlled through medication. A good diet, exercise, adequate sleep, and avoiding triggers such as stress and caffeine can help. Good luck with that plan if you're a Big Ten football coach.
"Some people are able to control their seizures with medication while others aren't," says Vicki Kopplin, executive director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota. "Even among those who have them under control, it's possible to fall out of balance and have a setback."
It's easy to understand why so many people are reluctant to admit that they have epilepsy. In fact, until two years ago, Kill described his condition only as a "seizure disorder." He had beaten the kidney cancer he was diagnosed with back in 2005 and went on to build a successful career; epilepsy was not going to be his legacy.
But ignoring it became increasingly difficult. In fact, one of the character traits that helped him become successful may have also triggered his seizures: his capacity for hard work.
Kill's father, Jim,had a simple approach to work: "If someone pays you for eight hours, you give 'em 10," he'd say. Back in Kansas, Jim worked full-time on the flight line at Cessna Aircraft Company in Wichita; at home in Cheney, he grew crops and raised livestock -- and hardworking children -- on the family's modest 3 acres. Starting at age 14 or so, the Kill boys, Jerry and Frank, were the key farmhands. They baled hay, pulled rye, stacked wood. "My dad was a hard guy to please," Kill says today.
Like many of the young men in the area, Frank stayed in Cheney to start a business. But Jerry wanted to be the first in his family to get a college degree. He played outside linebacker at nearby Southwestern College, got married at age 21 to his college girlfriend, Rebecca, and began a slow rise through the coaching ranks. "We lived in a trailer for four or five years," he says with a wistful smile. "But we appreciated what we had."
When Kill landed his first head coaching job at Saginaw, he hired young coaches who were like him, men from small towns and small-time programs who were willing to put in long hours. Together they replicated their success blueprint on every step up the coaching ladder.
"We go to work. We play defense. We run the ball. We build it brick by brick," Kill says. "We've had to do it the hard way because of the programs we've taken over. Minnesota is not an easy job, but it's a good job."
But as the years passed, Kill's work ethic--the habits he learned that allowed him to compete against the best--began to work against him. (Be strong, energetic, and healthy like you were at 25!) Since arriving at Minnesota, he's had several seizures that caused him to miss game time, including two that occurred on the field. Current quarterback Mitch Leidner was sitting at the 50-yard line on a recruiting visit in September 2011 when Kill collapsed on the turf during a game against New Mexico State University.
"The whole stadium fell silent," he says.
Last season, Kill's seizures became more frequent. "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."
Finally, during the Gophers' game against Western Illinois in September 2013, Kill collapsed coming off the field at halftime. Local talk radio lit up with criticism, and one fan called him a "freak" in an e-mail.
"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," wrote Jim Souhan, a veteran sports columnist with the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "No one who buys a ticket to 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."
Then, beginning on Friday, October 4, the day before the Gophers were to play an important game against the University of Michigan, Kill began to have what are known as cluster seizures--the kind that occur in quick succession. The seizures continued through Sunday. "I was pretty messed up," Kill admits.
That Saturday morning, with Kill in the hospital, Minnesota lost to Michigan, 42-13. "Bottom line is that I can't miss games. I know that. As a coach, missing a game just kills you."
"That was his wake-up call," his wife says. "He wasn't 20 years old anymore. He had to get his rest and take better care of himself." (Whether in your 20s, 30s, 40s, or 50+, you can still Live Great at Any Age.)
As word spread of Kill's condition and of columnist Souhan's call for his dismissal, a groundswell of support began steadily growing. Defenders were quick to point out that when Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio suffered a heart attack and missed two games in 2010, no one called for his firing. And even though Urban Meyer had left the University of Florida -- twice -- with at least one of the departures for unspecified health reasons, no one questioned whether Ohio State should have hired him.
"People thought Jim Souhan's column was disrespectful," says Kopplin, the epilepsy foundation director. "He was not educated about what people with epilepsy can and can't do. But in many ways, he's done more for epilepsy awareness than anyone. He brought the issue to light and started a conversation. It's unfortunate that his comments were negative, but they gave us an opportunity to educate people."
With top-level support at his university and a coaching staff that had been together for decades, Kill was able to step away for 10 days to recover. His players knew the drill, and they rallied to support their head coach by focusing on their responsibilities on the field.
"Stepping away allowed him to look at [his epilepsy] in the eye of the storm during a stressful season, not afterward, when there is less stress to deal with," says Gophers assistant head coach Matt Limegrover. "He got help from experts during the season when he had all the same triggers. He said, 'Let's get this under control.'"
Kill regained his balance. The doctor straightened out his meds and got him back on a regular meal and sleep schedule. He was able to coach from the press box for the rest of the season and was on the sidelines for the Texas Bowl with no issues. (Aside from the loss to Syracuse, that is.)
Through it all, Kill eventually came to realize that his worst public moments turned out to be helpful: The ignorant eruptions from fans and the media in the wake of his seizures gave full airing to the kinds of prejudices that can arise from a lack of education and understanding of conditions like his.
And personally, Kill found peace in realizing that he was now leading a team of other people with epilepsy who were tired of being shut in, who finally had someone to champion their cause. "Coach Kill's involvement in the Epilepsy Foundation has meant everything," Kopplin says. "I have to be careful about asking him to do things, because he does everything we ask. He's very generous with his time."
Now Kill is as excited as ever to be coaching his guys. When he climbs into his truck each morning to drive to work, he sees that simple everyday act as a triumph. In Minnesota, people with epilepsy aren't allowed to drive until they've been seizure-free for three months, so for two years Kill had to be driven everywhere he went.
"It's easy to take things for granted," he says. "The freedom of being able to drive, even just a few miles to work, means a lot. But there are no guarantees. I take one day at a time because you don't know what tomorrow may bring. My platform enables me to make a difference in so many people's lives. When my coaching career comes to an end, I don't want to be remembered just as a football coach."
Or just as a guy with epilepsy, either.