Monday, November 5, 2018

Epilepsy and stress

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,” Kill said 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 work days 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 even meditated. More than a year and a half passed without another seizure.

Until two games into Rutgers’s season.

Kill had a seizure in the Rutgers football office on Sept. 10, the morning after the Scarlet Knights’ 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…

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.”…

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?”…

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?”

Years before the seizures forced him off the sideline, Kill had part of a kidney removed in 2005 because of Stage IV 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 problems, Kill still lives by that standard; for 12 years before leaving Minnesota, he said, he estimated that he slept an average of two and a half 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 occupation. Stress and fatigue, both of them factors in 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.”…

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.”

Courtesy of a colleague

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