The state of Minnesota came to a pause. So did everyone within the epilepsy community.
"Last night, when I walked off the practice field," said University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill
, "I feel like a part of me died."
It was, perhaps, the most gut-wrenching retirement announcement
in sports. Kill has suffered from a seizure disorder for the last decade. He'd managed to keep the seizures in check the last two years, but his seizures recently returned. His retirement was immediate and unexpected.
"This is not the way I wanted to go out," he said. "This is the toughest thing I've ever done in my life."
I clung to his words, felt his agony and fought back tears right along with him.
Because the coach helped save my son.
I profiled Kill last year for CNN.com in a piece called "Grit Beyond the Game."
The story delved into Kill's courage off the field and how he has inspired people with epilepsy everywhere, including my son, Billy, then 11.
Kill's generosity with children suffering from seizures was well known within the tight-knit epilepsy community. Got a kid with epilepsy? He'd hand out his personal cell phone number. "Call any time," he'd say in his Midwestern twang.
When the Minnesota Twins asked him to throw the first pitch at a ball game, Kill declined. Instead, he gave the honor to a teenager with epilepsy. He hosted annual games dedicated to epilepsy awareness the past three seasons, allowing children with seizures and their families to attend. Medics were on hand to help anyone in case they seized.
Kill formed the Chasing Dreams
fund to help with seizure-smart school initiatives across the state, and he hosted a summer camp for children with epilepsy.
My son had never met anyone who had seizures; he started referring to Coach Kill as a part of our family.
Billy and I flew up to attend the Gophers' epilepsy awareness game against Ohio State last year. When he and Kill met, it was like they'd always been friends. Coach hugged him and joked about Billy's thick head of hair: "You got hair, I don't."
Billy reached up and rubbed Kill's golden dome. Coach handed him a signed football helmet. "You're my idol," Kill wrote.
At the following week's news conference, Kill joked with reporters about how Billy put him in a better mood. "The youngster, full of energy," he said, "I mean funny." The coach added, "He did a lot for me."
What Division I coach takes the time to say something like that while being quizzed about a loss?
Coach Kill did a lot for my son -- beyond just giving him hope and a helmet.
The doctor said he thought he could help my son. In late December, Billy underwent surgery to have the brain equivalent