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Kill's critics ignorant about epilepsy

Jerry Kill
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill suffered another epileptic seizure last week.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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Prejudice is about ignorance and usually fear of the unknown. Discomfort. And the image of University of Minnesota coach Jerry Kill on the ground, limbs and head jerking around while he suffers another epileptic seizure, makes us feel so uncomfortable.

Just admit it. It’s actually a starting point to understanding.

So Kill will return to coach his team Saturday at home against San Jose State a week after suffering his fourth seizure during a game since 2011. In the past week, he was rushed to the hospital at halftime, and then came back to work the next day. He has declined to talk about his health amid critics saying he needs to resign. His athletic director, Norwood Teague, had to announce that he supported Kill, but it took him a day to get around to it, too.

For thousands of Minnesotans with epilepsy, the talk was outrageous. And with the help of the university, which has provided free tickets, they will show up at 8:30 a.m. Saturday and walk onto the field in T-shirts — 2,000 of them made in the past three days — that read “JERRYSOTA.’’ It’s a victory march, part in anger over the prejudice that has risen again and part in celebration that Kill is there, standing tall on the sideline.

“You’re going to pass judgment on a coach on a sideline because he could have a seizure in a game when, at any moment, players could be paralyzed with a hit?’’ Vicki Kopplin, executive director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota, told me when talking about the critics.

“People used to think people with epilepsy were possessed by the devil. There is such negative connotation with that word, ignorance over that word."

She said that many with epilepsy took the questioning of Kill’s fitness to retain his job as a referendum that “they should hide out, that coach Kill is bringing pity and ridicule on the university. One column (by Jim Souhan, Minneapolis Star-Tribune) said that people who pay good money shouldn't 'be rewarded with the sight of a middle-aged man writhing on the ground.’ You can’t make statements like that."

The editor of the paper apologized later. Too late.

Kill just wants to coach football. But he’s bigger than that now. Kopplin said a man wrote a letter to the foundation saying his daughter, who has epilepsy, was afraid to go to school this week because she didn’t want to be ridiculed, the way Kill was, if she had a seizure.

Look, this is about more than Kill or football or sport. More than epilepsy, too. It’s about how we look at people, how we treat people who aren’t like us. Nearly 3 million Americans with epilepsy know.

We are all a community here. And it is only reasonable accommodation to accept that Kill might have a seizure, develop a plan and be prepared. Kill should stay under the same demands of success of any other coach. It is just human.

Doctors tended to Kill last Saturday; his assistant coaches knew to take over. And the players, fully aware in advance of what might happen, went on to win. The Gophers are now 3-0.

The rally isn’t based just on one column. When Kill had a seizure during a game before, someone called him a freak. And the response to his seizure was so negative that he took part of a radio show to stand up for people with epilepsy.

It is amazing that anyone feels the need to stand behind Kill at all on this. He is not endangering anyone. The success his team is having is evidence he is doing a good job. If he’s endangering his own life or health, bringing on seizures from the stresses of coaching — and that’s a possibility but unknown — then that’s a decision for his family and him.

What is the issue? What is the debate? It has to be more than rich ticket-buyers not wanting to see a seizure.

And it can’t be concern that he could die on the sideline. He’s a grown man, knowing the risks. What about the stress on a coach who is, say, overweight? Should he be fired so ticket-buyers don’t have to see a heart attack?

At this point, Kill stands as a teachable moment. But being honest: I’m going to be scared that he’ll have another seizure Saturday. Ignorance. Mine, I guess. It’s important to admit it and try to learn. But there is so much unknown about epilepsy.

The first thing I asked Kopplin the other day was whether epilepsy is classified as a disease. It’s referred to as a disorder, she said. But then, even she said that some people call it a disease.

Doctors don’t know the cause of most seizures and aren’t able to fully control them. Before this season, Kill’s doctors had had him going on regular walks, changing his diet, altering his medication.

It could be the stress of the coaching job bringing on the seizures, could even be concussions from his days as a player. It could be his diet. It could be, Kopplin said, that he’s doing everything right but still having them.

But in the summer, Kill, who’s 52, told the Minneapolis paper, “You can’t be the head football coach and miss half of a game. I mean, I’m not stupid. I realize that. If I was doing those things, the university wouldn’t have to fire me. I’d walk away if I didn’t think I could do it."

And Kill’s wife, Rebecca, said, “I think this is how his body reacts to certain things, when it hits a wall, so to speak. Some people have migraines. I’m not a doctor, but I’ve been around it."

So even the Kill family sees danger in this job, and limits. This summer, he told ESPN.com that he might have suffered 20 seizures over the past two years, counting ones off the field.

As for Saturday, Kopplin said she doesn’t know how many people will join the victory march. She is preparing for 2,000 but said it might be less. The whole thing has been planned for a only couple of days. She has been hearing from people without tickets, though, saying they want to be there, anyway.

The truth is, Kill will have more seizures in his life. Just cross your fingers, let him do his job and don’t stare.

Tagged: Minnesota

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