Jerry Kill and Epilepsy: A Teaching Moment

It can be a teaching moment. Or it can be a cruel moment, just another reason, albeit unique, to replace a major college football coach who isn’t winning enough in a heartless, money-grab industry. For now, the University of Minnesota is standing by a fighter named Jerry Kill — though he has suffered five epileptic seizures on game days in his 2 1/2 seasons there, though he hasn’t finished four of those games, though he has had an estimated 20 other seizures during that period and dozens since his first in 2000, though the Golden Gophers are 13-18 in his tenure and coming off a 42-13 loss at Michigan that marked the first time he missed an entire game.

“Jerry is our coach, and we are 100 percent behind him,” the school’s athletic director, Norwood Teague, said in his most recent public comments about Kill. “I am 100 percent behind him.”

All of which warms the soul and has you and me and everyone else with a heart rooting hard for the Gophers. Yet at what point does the university decide to stop teaching — about epilepsy, about human compassion, about loyalty — and start looking at the bottom line like America’s other power football programs? At what point do Kill’s bosses stop supporting him and start hearing the muted grumblings from alumni and boosters, the occasional e-mail that refers to him as “a freak,” the local columnist who snidely writes that Kill suffers as many seizures as he wins conference games?

Does Minnesota, as an institution of higher learning, exist to teach rich lessons about what’s truly important? Or is Minnesota, as caretaker of a valuable pie slice in a multi-billion-dollar industry, not allowing itself the best chance to compete in the Big Ten, one of five monster conferences with direct bee-lines to the national playoff tournament when college football’s version of the Final Four debuts next season?

I’m a romantic. I’m also a realist.

And there is no way Jerry Kill, unless he quickly turns around a sagging program, remains in the job for long just because a lot of us are rallying around him. I’d like to think a university in Minneapolis is the one hermetically sealed cocoon willing to make the grander statement, the one traditional sports factory that would thumb its nose at pressures to feed revenue streams via football. I’d love to believe Teague, too, when he tells the New York Times that Kill’s condition is not a distraction but “a rallying point.” But sympathy erodes when a 23-7 home loss to Iowa in the Big Ten opener is followed by a blowout in Ann Arbor, a loss that cried for a head coach who could make halftime adjustments and critical second-half decisions. The Gophers were blown out after intermission, in part because the acting coaches failed to pursue touchdown opportunities in fourth-and-5 situations — opting at the Michigan 10 to kick a field goal when down in the fourth quarter by 18 points. Kill, who didn’t accompany the team on its Friday flight because he wasn’t feeling well, was supposed to fly to Ann Arbor on Saturday morning.

That’s when he had his latest seizure, when he can’t control his body as it shakes rapidly and contorts frighteningly, an experience Kill compared to a car wreck in an ESPN interview last month. His staff of assistants, who’ve been with their boss for years as they’ve resurrected programs from Emporia State to Northern Illinois, know the post-seizure drill. Saturday, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys assumed interim head-coaching duties from the press box.

“We have been through a lot of battles together,” Claeys said after the game in his news conference. “We are all very well trained on our jobs and our responsibilities. We miss him here as a friend. We are all pretty much used to this, and so are the kids.”

The players love him. “We know coach’s situation,” tight end Maxx Williams said, per the Associated Press. “We have to be prepared. We have to be ready for anything.”

At some point, that may be too much to ask. Jerry Kill has said he’ll resign if he’s ever convinced his epilepsy battle is interfering with the program’s progress. If life was fair, a university would let him make the decision if and when that moment arrives.

Life, I’m afraid, isn’t fair.

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