Student Voice


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University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill wins award while spreading epilepsy awareness

December 12, 2014

Jerry Kill, the head football coach of the University of Minnesota, won the Big Ten Coach of the Year from both the vote of the Big Ten coaches and the national media.

Kill, as I do, suffers from epilepsy, which has created a very public atmosphere for the issue to be discussed. It has been 15 months since Star Tribune sports reporter Jim Souhan published an article ridiculing Minnesota Athletic Director Norwood Teague for supporting Kill’s coaching position during his public bout with epilepsy. In regards to Big Ten football, epilepsy in Minnesota, and the perception of Kill, much has changed in the past 15 months.

The Gophers stunned many Big Ten fans with an exceptional season, taking second in the Big Ten West and coming close to playing for a Big Ten title.

The Minnesota state legislature, in attempt to help patients who have severe cases of epilepsy, passed a bill to legalize the growth of a strain of medical marijuana that has a low concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and a high concentration of cannabidiol (CBD), the molecule known to significantly decrease seizure activity.

Most visibly, Kill is no longer known as the Big Ten coach who rewards Gopher fans with “the sight of a middle-aged man writhing on the ground,” as Souhan depicted in his piece.

In late May of this year, I had two invasive brain surgeries at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, in an attempt to control my epilepsy. After a life changing seven days with half my skull in a freezer, my recovery went well.

The product of the surgery, although not optimal, made a positive difference to my seizure activity and view of my condition. The surgeries brought me to my most vulnerable point, establishing a situation where my only option was to move forward in a positive and confident manner, and hope my family, friends and employers would support me.

The restrictions that come with epilepsy are not so different from my peers on campus at the UW-River Falls: the feeling your freedom is being restricted such as the inability to drive; or lingering college debt; or the paranoia of possible negative outcomes, like having a seizure in public; or failing a class; and a loss of hope that stems from the unknowns of a condition or a broken relationship. All are examples of situations we all face. So it goes, one has to make the best of what they have, as us Midwesterners do.

The difference for Kill between now and late 2013 is not only that the Gophers have been winning, but also that an episode in the spotlight of TCF Bank Stadium has not occurred. Kill still has epilepsy, whether in the public spotlight or not. In my experience as an epileptic, I realized early on that it makes your condition easier to deal with if you can carry it in full stride. Kill walks with epilepsy as if it were as natural as the fingerprints he was born with.

Kill is the Big Ten Coach of the Year who has fought through uncontrollable obstacles. A Big Ten Coach of the Year who has been seen at his most vulnerable point, and come back showing character traits a fan would be grateful for if their team’s leader exemplified them. A figure for epileptics to look up to and say, “why can’t I do that?”

As a person who struggles with epilepsy, the frustration with the condition often does not come from my epilepsy. Much of the frustration comes from the thought that between the moments your brain creates energy causing epileptic seizures, the condition bleeds into your mental capacity to be a fully functioning member of society.

Because of Kill and Teague, many people across the state and country have realized this is not true. I wish to congratulate Kill on being the Big Ten Coach of the Year, and thank him for openly confronting epilepsy.

Daniel Saunders is a student at UW-River Falls.