Saturday, January 20, 2018
Colleges

Seizures drove Jerry Kill out of coaching. He's back, and so are they

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Jerry Kill knew he was headed down a familiar path. Kill, the Rutgers offensive coordinator, acknowledged as much on a lunchtime walk around the Scarlet Knights' football stadium two weeks ago.

"I know I'm sliding a little bit," said Kill, as the path dipped near the south gate. "I'll just be honest with you. I've got to get back in a routine or I'm going to be in trouble again."

Two years ago, Kill left his job as Minnesota's coach midway through the season, debilitated by epileptic seizures. Away from the game, without the 18-hour workdays and the daily stress of rebuilding a program, his health improved. On a low-carb diet, he lost 25 pounds, walked daily and slept more. He meditated. More than a year and a half passed without another seizure.

Until two games into Rutgers' season.

Kill had a seizure in the Rutgers football office Sept. 10, the morning after a home loss to Eastern Michigan. He played down the severity of the episode, which sent him to the hospital overnight, and said he wished it had not been made public.

"It lasted two minutes, which is good," he said. "It's not like I've had before, where it lasted 15 to 20 minutes."

Kill's boss, Rutgers coach Chris Ash, was sitting next to him when the episode occurred. "It's something I've seen my whole life," said Ash, whose mother and brother also have epilepsy. "I'm well aware of what it looks like, what causes them, and what you need to do to help during one. So there was no panic."

That understanding is a comfort for Kill and his family. Still, given that his job itself is an occupational hazard — Kill's seizures are triggered by a lack of sleep and a high level of stress — it was worth asking: Should Kill be coaching at all?

Absolutely, Kill says. So does his wife. And perhaps most important, so does Ash.

"My mother worked her whole life," Ash said. "My brother works every day; he drives a truck. I don't know why coaching is any different. There's a lot of people in America who suffer from that disease. It doesn't mean they can't work."

Kill has no intention to step away from the sideline. He was back there calling plays this past Saturday, a decision supported by his wife, Rebecca.

"This is what he loves to do and is good at," she said. "I just felt this is what he needed to do.

"He's happy," she added, "and when he's happy, I'm happy. That's all that matters."

The seizure at Rutgers came in a staff meeting, he noted, and was nothing new. Kill has had several on the field in front of packed stadiums, and he once endured 16 in three days before a game against Michigan in 2013. He fights mood swings from the medications he takes (six pills when he arrives at the office at 6:30 a.m. and six more at night), and last week doctors increased the dosage of one of them, hoping to ward off more episodes. But coaching is what he does — what he is, really — and walking away from it, he said, was no way to live.

"I didn't get to go out on my own terms," Kill said of leaving Minnesota. "It's haunted me. The whole thing has. Are you going to let something take what you love away?"

Still, with 128 programs in major college football, there might have been 127 offensive-coordinator jobs more desirable than the one Kill chose when he decided to return to coaching. He is the eighth man to hold the post at Rutgers in the past eight years, and he took over a unit ranked near the bottom of the nation in all offensive categories.

Why, at age 56, choose the path of most resistance?

"This is who I am," Kill said on that lunchtime loop around the stadium. "I can make the biggest impact here."

From Saginaw Valley State to Emporia State to Southern Illinois to Northern Illinois and finally to Minnesota, Kill has specialized in reclamation projects. Throughout his career, he built practice facilities, raised money for new stadiums and gave downtrodden programs hope.

Kill never wanted to walk away from the game, either, but he said he felt that he had to in Minnesota, for the sake of his wife, his family and his players. "People didn't realize that three days before that I had been having seizures every night and my wife had to sit in a chair and watch me," he said. "Does she deserve that? Does the team deserve when I'm coming to practice after a seizure and I'm half there and half not there?"

But the work ethic that made him successful is also what has put his health at risk. Years before the seizures forced him off the sideline, Kill had part of a kidney removed in 2005 because of stage four kidney cancer. Six days later, he was back on the road recruiting.

The portrait of the bleary-eyed coach who sleeps in the office is lionized by many in the profession. There is always one more play to chart, one more video clip to analyze, one more set of tendencies to decipher.

Despite his health issues, Kill still lives by that standard; for 12 years before leaving Minnesota, he said, he estimated that he slept an average of 21/2 hours a night. The problem is the price that Kill's body pays for that regimen.

Millions of people with epilepsy, a neurological disorder characterized by recurrent seizures, live healthy, normal lives, but coaching major college football is not a healthy, normal profession. Stress and fatigue, both of them factors in causing seizures, are common. The right balance of medication and lifestyle can keep them at bay, but, as Kill has learned, they cannot prevent them.

"We all want to watch one more rep, spend 15 more minutes watching film on an opponent, but you have to trust the process," Ash said. "When it's time to shut it down, shut it down. Jerry is learning to do that."

In fact, Ash demands it. He wants his coaches out of the office by 10 p.m. on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday; on Wednesday and Thursday he wants them out the door after practice.

Clearly, Kill did not get the memo.

The slide began during training camp. Too many nights leaving the office at 1:30 a.m. Too many nights unable to flip off the switch. "I don't want to lie — it's been a struggle," he said. "When I have time to go to sleep, I need to get it."

When he left Minnesota, Kill had tried to step away. He wrote an autobiography, focused on the epilepsy fund he created, and worked in athletic administration at Kansas State. But he missed the game too much.

He ruled out returning as a head coach, given all the off-the-field demands of the position, but figured working as an assistant would let him concentrate on the parts of the profession he loved.

"My deal here and anywhere else is I want to see the kids rewarded for all their hard work," he said. "I enjoy the process, the preparation probably more than anything. Trying to figure out how to get your kids in the best situation possible."

That happened on Saturday when Rutgers rolled over Morgan State, 65-0, ending an 11-game losing streak.

"Just seeing him going through what he goes through, being able to bounce back really puts a different outlook on football," quarterback Kyle Bolin said. "He says it all the time: football is what keeps him alive. Just hearing that come from him is very, very powerful."

If football keeps him alive, though, it is also what puts his life at risk — if he does not manage his condition. After his most recent seizure, calls of concern poured in from all over the country. Members of the Rutgers football staff also increased their efforts to look out for Kill, insisting that he step away for his daily walk around the stadium. Others became after-hours hall monitors.

"I have enough marching orders here for an army," Kill said with a laugh. The key, as any good coach knows, is following through on the plan.

Kill swears he will. "Hell," he said, "I got no choice."

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