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Driven to Heal

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill on his road to recovery from a severe seizure

The Golden Gophers won four consecutive games after Kill’s halftime address at Northwestern, and posted their winningest season since 2003. Photo credit: Craig Lassig / AP images

By Jerry Kill
As told to Brian Burnsed

 

In nearly 30 years of coaching football, Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill had never missed a game. Then, last fall, debilitating seizures sidelined him for a conference matchup, and doctors forbade him from driving or flying to the next one, too. He found his way there anyway.

I was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, but I didn’t miss any practices, much less a game, through my treatment and surgery to remove a tumor in my kidney. And I’ve had a long battle with epilepsy but never let it keep me away from my team until the middle of last season. It was an awful feeling for me to have several seizures and wake up and not know if it’s one day later or a few days later. Then I saw my coaching clothes hanging on the door and realized I’d missed the game against Michigan. 

Besides losing a family member, that’s the lowest point in my life. I knew, and my wife, Rebecca, knew. I was in trouble. I had to get it taken care of.  

I went to see Dr. Brien Smith, a leading neurologist, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He spent a lot of time with me discussing what he thought, all of the unknowns and the different avenues I could take to address my epilepsy. I changed medications and he said I had to find a way to get more sleep and eat right. I wasn’t sleeping very well – maybe three hours a night – and that’s not enough. As a football coach, you’re busy all of the time, but I knew I had to make changes. I’d try to manage my time better, so I would not be working 14 or 15 hours a day.

After I missed the Michigan game, I was adamant I would never miss another game. Emotionally, I was drained by the thought of not being there for my team, and Rebecca knew it. We had an off week the week following the Michigan game, so I could continue to recover. The next week, Rebecca drove me all the way to Northwestern for our next game because doctors advised me not to fly or drive myself. We drove up halfway, stopped to rest, and then we drove the rest of the way, and I coached from the box.  

Going down at halftime to see the kids, and seeing the excitement in their eyes, was a big win for our program. From there on, it snowballed into a good year. I give credit to the kids and the coaching staff – they did a great job of handling adversity. That was certainly the highlight of my road to getting back on my feet again. 

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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